For a quick review, I am highlighting and celebrating independent nonfiction directors in post-production / finishing / distribution phase that have, for the most part, micro-budgeted their way through making their films and are continuing to intrepidly DIY it as they move their newly-finished works out into the world.
So without further ado, I'd like to introduce you to filmmaker, M.T. Silvia, and her film, Atomic Mom. I met M.T. at the Sundance Producers Conference in the summer of 2007, both of us there, basically, to learn at the knee of the top producers and filmmakers in independent film and to just have the opportunity to bask in the Sundance glow. I remember her telling me about this very special project she was creating about her mother, scientist, Pauline Silvia, and her work as a Navy biologist in the 1950s when the government started nuclear experiments at the Nevada Test Site, where she witnessed, first-hand, five detonations of atomic bombs.
Through a series of serendipitous events, this also became a personal story of M.T.'s and that of a Japanese woman named Emiko Okada, a Hiroshima survivor who was eight years old when the US dropped an atomic bomb on her city in 1945. M.T. becomes the physical olive branch and peacemaking conduit between these two extraordinary women and starts to resolve her own issues about the decades-long silence between her and her mother, a profoundly haunted woman. Having always relied on her brains and scientific acumen to parse out the ways and means of her life, including that of being a single mom in the 50s raising two daughters, decades later, Pauline found herself in a crisis of conscience about the work she did during her military service, including animal testing where dogs were purposely exposed to radiation poisoning and severe skin burns so the scientists could study and log the effects in a laboratory of how quickly it took them to die.
I talked with M.T. on the phone from her home in Oakland, California a couple of weeks ago. She had just finished up the musical score, was in the midst of writing yet more grants and planning more fundraisers, working on the final touches of the film and brainstorming about her festival and outreach strategies with her production team and various advisers. As you'll hear, her company moniker, Smartgirl Productions, is quite apt. She certainly had lots of help along the way from various quarters. But, as was apparent to me as she told me the story of the creation of her film, her instincts and willingness to "just walk through the door" when extraordinary circumstances presented themselves to move things forward, was what made the difference between capturing some footage of her mother for the family archives (as was her initial intent), and making a feature-length film which took her five years to finish that tells a multi-layered and complex story.
The personal documentary is delicate territory to traverse. Somehow, the very personal and particular needs to transcend into something universal. Wanting to document her mother's incredible story was the launch point. Then, in 2002, M.T. went to the Nevada Test Site and took a tour there. Being in that place dredged up a lot of the moral complexities of what went on and her mother's involvement there; it was something they had never spoken about. (M.T. has been a life-long peace activist and war protester, and has even been arrested a time or two in the course of that activism.) At that point, she knew she wanted to return there with Pauline. The Atomic Testing Museum had opened in Las Vegas and M.T. asked Pauline if she'd be willing to go there and be interviewed by Mary Palevsky, author of Atomic Fragments: A Daughter's Questions. Both of Palevsky's parents worked on the Manhattan Project and she was conducting interviews for the Nevada Test Site Oral History Project. Palevsky was thrilled to meet M.T. and hear about Pauline since, after close to a hundred and fifty interviews, she had yet to talk to a female scientist.
Pauline agreed to talk to Palevsky in 2005 and M.T. filmed that interview. Pauline really started opening up, especially after meeting, and talking with, some of the other scientists who had worked there, too. On the way home from that shoot, M.T.'s director of photography, Rick Butler, and her sound engineer, Lauretta Molitor (both dear friends) convinced her that she had to be in the film. She vehemently refused over and over, but they persevered, going so far as to show up at her house one Sunday morning with equipment in tow. M.T. sat for a two-hour interview with them and that, ultimately, became the narrative spine of the film.
The confessional aspects of this kind of material can be rife with bathos. But, Pauline is an extremely stoic woman from a generation that showed absolutely no weakness or anything really personal to, or in front of, their children. She felt especially vulnerable since she was a single parent and a working mother at a time when that was unusual. In this film, she just as stoically opens up about her very private spiritual journey and all the things that have been bottled up for so long. She shares her deep and abiding faith that has stemmed from a practice of daily prayer, something she's been doing since the early 90s.
What the story offers up so beautifully is a portrait of a mother and daughter, polar opposites in many ways, most notably politically and philosophically. M.T. always struggled with the fact that what happened to Pauline was wrong; her employer, the US military, knowingly put her in physical danger every day and M.T. is convinced that Pauline's many health problems stem from that period of (negligent) exposure. But, to this day, Pauline doesn't see it that way. She was a loyal officer, never questioning orders, never doubting her superiors in any way, doing as she was told. Most of her abounding guilt stems from the fact that she feels that she was the perpetrator of negligence and bad practices by putting young soldiers in danger. We see one piece of extraordinary archival footage (among many astounding pieces that will make your jaw drop) that shows squads of young men standing out in trenches in the middle of the desert in direct contact with the fallout from the exploding bombs; they have absolutely no protective clothing or protection for their eyes whatsoever, washing off the radioactive dust with soap and water in the latrines afterwards. Pauline's quiet, but still potent, devastation at those memories make for really compelling, and at times quite uncomfortable, viewing. But it is so deeply moving because we acknowledge that this woman is willing to share her pain, not only with her daughter privately, but as public testimony in front of a camera, not quite cognizant of the impact these interviews are likely to have on an audience. It's very brave.
M.T.'s day job is as an audio-video engineer for Pixar. Working for Pixar is what enabled her to get to Japan where yet another important piece of a larger story took hold. This is where M.T. takes on the role of a spiritual emissary, or conduit, between her mother and the Japanese family she finds, carrying written letters of love, forgiveness and healing back and forth between the US and Japan. There is no victimhood on either side; in fact, neither woman, American or Japanese, talks in terms of reparations or anything remotely like that, which in this day and age is rather rare. (M.T. standing at the Hiroshima memorial, Japan, pictured)
In discussing the structure of the film, M.T. told me that "it was a completely organic process. The whole film has had a life of its own. The fact that I ended up in Japan for work sent everything in a whole new direction." Pixar sent her to Japan for an art exhibit that was opening there. M.T. had been part of the team that had built a media piece for the exhibit. She decided to take a couple of extra vacation days while in Tokyo and took the train down to Hiroshima. In a sort of magical chain of events, three weeks before leaving on this trip, she had emailed the Hiroshima Peace Museum, asking for permission to shoot inside the museum with the idea of juxtaposing the footage between that memorial site and the museum in Nevada.
The museum put her in touch with Tomoko Nishizaki, a member of the Hiroshima Film Commission who gave M.T. carte blanche to film not only at the museum, but also in the city of Hiroshima itself, waiving any location fees, enabling her to shoot in Peace Park and the city's environs. Then Nishizaki asked M.T. if she'd like to interview a survivor and, if so, what kind of person did she want to speak with? This made M.T. feel "uncomfortable and kind of weird," and she'd honestly never considered that possibility before. Before she left California, she got some interview coaching from some journalist friends, one of whom suggested she find a mother and daughter to talk with and that's how M.T. met Mrs. Okada. She also met Dr. Hida, a 90-year-old physician, who as a young man, had treated patients directly after the blast. He took the train from Tokyo to Hiroshima, a three and half hour train ride, to meet this American woman who had come on a peace mission and shared stories and photos with her. (M.T. and Mrs. Okada walking in Peace Park, pictured)
And thus began her journeys back and forth carrying paper peace cranes and letters from Mrs. Okada to Pauline and returning with missives from Pauline to Mrs. Okada and Dr. Hida. Through a series of unfortunate events, the two women never met in person. After M.T. pushed hard for that for several months, she decided not to force the issue and let it go. That's ultimately when she decided to "get in the film more, knowing that this was my journey, too--being 'Harriet the Spy' and finding out about my mom and investigating her past, and connecting her with a place of healing."
I asked M.T. about when she might have realized that this was going to be "a film," and not an anecdotal episode of her mom's life for the family archives. "Actually, I realized it was a film that very first shoot in Nevada when my mom was being interviewed for the oral history archive. I saw the potential for the bigger story. I knew it was going to be a years-long endeavor, and since I'd never made a film of this magnitude before, I would have to rely on my instincts and also would have to self-fund it." (M.T. did make another very low budget film previous to this one in 2001 called Picardy Drive about a neighborhood in East Oakland which aired on KQED in San Francisco.) She quickly learned a lot about grant writing and received a couple of small grants from the Nevada Humanities and the Rhode Island Humanities (where the Silvias are from, and where Pauline still resides). The Pacific Pioneer Fund kicked in a bit of money and the rest was raised by holding fundraising house-parties, hosting a special evening with all her musician friends, individual contributors and soliciting donations off her website. To date, she's spent about $110,000, raising about fifty percent of that. (M.T. traveling through the city of Hiroshima, pictured)
In terms of the film's transformation into its unique and eloquent structure, M.T. lauds her editor, Jennifer Chinlund, who "really brought out the story in its current incarnation." In line with the mother/child relationship theme, Chinlund's experience brings an incredibly tragic stroke to this piece. Ready to head into final edit, M.T. had been wanting to work with Chinlund very badly, but Chinlund remained unavailable for a long time due to commitments on other projects. Then, three weeks after finally being able to join the project and begin the intense work of narrative story structure, Chinlund's adopted 24-year-old son died unexpectedly the day after returning home from the hospital after knee surgery. M.T. was certain she was to lose Chinlund again, this time to bottomless grief; instead, the editor dove in to all the footage (about 80 hours' worth) and, somehow, used her own tragedy and pain to tell this mother and child story of M.T. and Pauline.
M.T. has also hired expert strategist for social change initiatives, Lina Srivastava, to work on some goals for pushing it out into the world, and she's busily learning about the marketplace, the educational opportunities and overall festival and exhibition strategy. She's started her submissions process by hitting all the usual suspects--Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, Tribeca Film Festival, San Francisco International. Interestingly, she was invited to début the film at the Global Peace Film Festival in Hiroshima which, of course, would have been phenomenal. In fact, the festival took place on the evening of our phone conversation (November 20). "They wanted it even though it wasn't finished. But I had to decline the invitation and it was a really hard decision to make. But I knew it would negatively alter my chances on the festival circuit in the States where premieres are still vital for exhibition consideration. It would have also been hard for me to show it in its current form at such a prestigious festival, so I feel like I made the right decision. The festival, however, kindly gave me a raincheck."
Post-production and finishing stages are the most intense time for a film in terms of budget. M.T. is waiting for one more significant grant to come through. But whether that money comes in or not, she is determined to finish it this year. "I'm not willing to go into debt, but, fortunately, I am in a position where I can go into my 401K. I feel grateful that I have the option to do that." However, she's still fundraising away and raised $3,000 just from her latest newsletter release.
And how does Pauline feel about the film? "She's seen all the raw footage along the way and I showed her a fully assembled cut for the first time in September. It was really, really hard for her to watch. She got so upset at one part of it, that she really didn't see the ending. I ended up taking out some things in the versions she reviews that were too upsetting for her [including the photos of Pauline in the lab with the burned animals, something she still weeps over]." But M.T. feels those photos are important testimony and so she has kept some of them in the final cut.
Needless to say, audiences will experience an intense journey that both mother and daughter embark upon, individually and together. But, really, the most remarkable journey is that of Pauline, a woman who blindly contributed a life of service to her country for decades and then transformed into a woman with a deep abiding faith, a faith that has challenged her in her mighty struggle with her conscience, with the things she witnessed and participated in, and the reconciliation of the things she did in duty to that service. She is a much more emancipated woman today, yet as forgiving as she is to everyone and everything, she still struggles with forgiving herself. In one powerful scene, she says to M.T., "I never would have thought to say 'no' to anything I would be asked to do back then. 'No' would be the first thing out of my mouth if asked to do those things today."
Like the extraordinary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a film that has deeply impressed M.T., she feels her film, too, represents this theme of women's peacekeeping work. Pauline and Mrs. Okada are two women looking back at their respective pasts and making peace with what happened fifty years ago. Says M.T., "It's really about telling the truth and it's about forgiveness and acceptance of difference. It can only help to support women in the peace movement today. Peace is possible; forgiveness is possible. Resolution can happen between a mother and a daughter. It's also about secrecy--people during the time of the Cold War didn't talk to one another. It's about revealing the truth behind that secrecy. . . . The other important component, and the one that's most meaningful to me, and I think to my mom, too, is that there was healing. In terms of nuclear testing, we're all downwind of this story. Over 300,000 people have died from the testing of atomic weapons."
M.T. acknowledges that this story could go on forever. But she is very protective of her mother whose health is very fragile, and as much as she'd like to continue documenting her journey, she also knows this aspect of it is over. "I'm floored by what she's already given." (M.T. and Pauline, pictured)
M.T.'s ultimate exhibition goal, festival circuit aside, would be to do a multi-city one-night screening of Atomic Mom (à la The Age of Stupid and Pray the Devil Back to Hell) and play in 450 theaters across the US on Mother's Day. If the funding doesn't materialize for something along that scale, she is also thinking about streaming it online for free that day and has, in fact, started collecting what she calls "Momisodes," where mothers and daughters film themselves talking about peace. There is a space on the site for them to upload their stories.
Look for more updates on Atomic Mom in the coming months.