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Uranium Derby

Uranium Derby
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A filmmaker returns home to Iowa and discovers a secret about her town’s involvement in the Manhattan Project. Her investigation into this history triggers a chain reaction of encounters through which it becomes clear that the topic of nuclear waste has been more successfully buried than the waste itself.


Uranium Derby is a feature-length documentary that explores the history of the manufacture, transport, and disposal of uranium and its by-products in and around Ames, Iowa during World War II, as well as its multivalent impact upon the local community then and in the decades since. The film describes how a sports field and several other sites in Ames either adjacent to contaminated sites or contaminated by radioactive waste, resulted in what residents claim to be widespread illnesses, birth defects, and cancers. Official government investigations at the sports field site found thorium contamination, but concluded that it was below permissible federal radiation levels and no action was taken.


From my description of Prater’s film thus far, it sounds like one of a dozen other films about nuclear waste contamination, its impact on community health, and on government inaction.  But, there the similarities end. Prater’s film goes far beyond what I have just described: it breaks down all expectations and upends the norms and standards of the documentary type to which it seems to belong. It is more complexly conceived, multifaceted, and profound film than you’d expect from its brief description. I would expect that it will have an significant impact on viewers’, especially younger viewers, perception and understanding of the consequences of environmental despoliation.  This film could be used as an important and integral part of an educational program on nuclear technology because of the way that it generates a large number of open-ended questions and in so doing brings to the forefront critical issues about the role and responsibility of industry and the government for protecting the public health and preserving the environment. The major strength of this film, in my opinion, is that it is not an activist film in the traditional sense: it does not build a simple, single-themed “nuclear research was terrible” narrative that leaves the viewer with a biased, one-sided view and a sense of (easily generated) righteous anger.


Prater’s film is more densely conceived and more intelligently articulated. It presents a neatly interwoven history in both time and space that speaks simultaneously diachronically and synchronically as it moves across the Iowa landscape and into Ames’  historical, cultural, social, political, and economic past to explore the complex bundle of opportunities and constraints that the Uranium Derby project presented in the 1940s. The people of Ames made the rather bad decision (with the luxury of unclouded historical hindsight) to play a part in the development of nuclear weapons.  That decision reflected the national anxiety that the United States faced the prospect of an unwinnable war and the economic opportunities afforded them after the deprivations of the Great Depression as well as the opportunity to participated in what promised to be one of the most exciting and significant research projects of the twentieth century.


Prater’s film capitalizes on the equivocation that she meets among her community members in Ames throughout the film about the costs and benefits of being involved in early nuclear research. In doing so, she provides ample space for the viewer to move around within the film and to feel out the different perspectives as real feelings of real people with real lives. The different points of view don’t resolve themselves easily. We are invited to ask ourselves uneasy questions such as: must we feel guilty about making use of current nuclear technology, knowing the long-term impact of early nuclear experimentation both on people and communities in the United States and its devastating consequences for the citizens of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Do we even connect the past to the present? Do we even know what aspects of our lives have been impacted by nuclear technology? It is easy to feel momentary anger at past outrages; it is harder to face the realities of the range of historical, cultural and economic alternatives that confronted the people who lived through the events and who tell you about the decision they had to make.


The exceptional aspect of Prater’s film is the way in which she personalizes it. She makes the film about herself as a (relatively) small town girl going home to Ames and transacting with her larger community.  It thereby implicitly invites viewers to do the same with their own community. I can imagine educators using this strategy as the basis for student projects in response to this film. You first see Prater portrayed in the film as a stereotypical Iowan—clean faced, pony tailed, and with a smile that could break your heart. But almost immediately she breaks the hermetic seal by revealing that Ames is a university town and was the birthplace of both the first digital computer, which was never patented, and the evangelist Billy Sunday. That juxtaposition encapsulates the Ames that residents really know—part sophistication, part down-to-earth and part God-fearing. The film then discloses the information about the heavily contaminated nuclear waste sites around town and moves through a series of interviews with individuals who either worked for or with people at the Ames site for producing and transporting Uranium Derbies, or with researchers who have studied the project since. The interviews unfold with ease and with a naturalness that bespeaks the quality of both the narrative structure of the film, its actual filming, and its superb editing.


Uranium Derby is beautifully filmed, the interviews are undertaken with a grace, kindness, and sincerity that one rarely sees in the field. The interviewees open up to the interviewers in remarkable ways; watching the film we begin to feel so much at home with the interviewees that we feel comfortable in their homes or at the table with them in the diner, and we begin to feel that we are trusted friends and allies. Their words take on meaning, weight, and resonance that feels at times much more intimate and genuine than one expects in a documentary film. You get the feeling that Prater belongs here and that these are her people. The filming of the Iowa landscape and townscapes hold the same kind of familiarity and affection. And, these are intercut with the funky but beautifully appropriate animations and scientific explanations; together it creates a visually and narratively seamless gem of a film. The film is never sentimental: none of the interviews and none of the scenes of Iowa romanticize the time or place; this is not an outsider’s view of the heartland. But it is a kindly, personal vision of Iowa made by an Iowan.


What makes the overall film so powerful is this mutually strong mixture of quality historical, scientific, cultural, and human research, narrative structure, the visual sensuality of the filming, the narrative structure and clean tight editing, and the gracefulness and lightness of touch with which everything is put together. The visual and verbal resonances between past and present encourage the viewer to explore the nature and function of both collective and individual memory; of the unknowable nature of the future when one is making decisions in the present; and of the messy and dangerous nature of actual scientific research. The film reminds us that time and circumstance are powerful and complicated forces, but most of all it reveals in a quietly genuine manner that judging the behavior of others is usually a luxury of the under-informed.


This film has the potential to reach many audiences. It is extremely watchable and accessible to all audiences. It is superbly researched—the scholars whose expertize were sought out are of the highest level and are both a well-rounded and balanced group—and the film gives face and voice to a past that is fast disappearing and thus it contributes to the archival record of the area. It will be much appreciated by the people of Ames for whom the history of their town and state is presented in a strong, accurate, and sensitive portrait. But it will also find a much larger national or global audience for those who have any interest in the ramifications of the history and long-term historical, cultural, social, and economic impact of nuclear research on local economies, on communities, on individuals involved in the research, and on their descendants. I would recommend highly that Prater seek national distribution possibilities for this film. It is not only as a superb documentary but is also a very significant work of art.


-Joy Sperling

Professor, Art History and Visual Culture

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