From a strictly cinematographic point of view, Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island is a fairly conventional documentary. It boasts no whizbang special effects or interactive experiences, just the tried-and-true formula of archival footage woven with original, cinema-verité camerawork.
Perhaps all this is not surprising, given the fact that Heidi Hutner is not a career filmmaker. She’s a professor at SUNY/Stony Brook, focusing her academic lens on sustainability and environmental studies and the history of nuclear power. In Radioactive, she offers an ecofeminist critique of that history, vividly showing how the culture of the nuclear industry is impacted by gender biases, specifically in relation to the Three Mile Island debacle. Located in Middletown, Pennsylvania, the a reactor at TMI suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, ranking it with Chernobyl and Fukushima as among the worst nuclear disasters on record.
Though Dr Hutner is a relative neophyte to the film world, this does not stop Radioactive from being a compelling and significant documentary in the grand tradition of agitprop cinema as practiced by such trailblazing women filmmakers as Kimberlee Acquaro, Christine Choy, and Barbara Koppel. Even Jane Fonda makes a cameo appearance in this captivating film.
Kudos also to the two seasoned filmmakers on the Radioactive team–Martijn Hart and Simeon Hutner–for contributing their substantial talents to this production: Hart as co-director/director of photography and Hutner as editor/producer. Their combined credits include work for PBS, HBO as well as participation in the film industry’s leading festivals like Telluride and Sundance.
Radioactive is really two stories: one about a Big Lie perpetrated by a male-dominated nuclear industry, and the other about the love and fury of women and mothers bearing witness to their own truth-telling. Hutner indicts the owners of the Three Mile Island reactors for covering up the 1979 “accident,” arguing that the industry’s old-boy networks had been focused primarily on profit and on saving face—not on protecting human beings, animals, and the environment. Even the methodologies for calculating the impact of radiation on the human body are gender-biased, she points out, citing the fact that a 30-year-old male is typically used in the models. Her point is driven home by extensive archival footage of public statements by TMI executives and government officials–all male.
This first story can often be a tad overwhelming to digest, with too many “talking heads” trying to present complex statistical data. But the second story—of four intrepid women and the lawyers (also women) who advocated for their cause—forms the real, unmeltable core of this must-see documentary. Radioactive positively glows in the dark when it focuses its lens on an intrepid group of ordinary American housewives/mothers summoned to their finest hour in confronting the deception and indifference of the establishment, notably the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
(Full disclosure: Two of the Concerned Mothers of Middletown, Paula and Beth Anne, were old high-school classmates of mine years ago in the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania, offering a backstory that might help explain their transformation from good Catholic-school cheerleaders to anti-nuclear activists. They grew up, after all, in a culture that spawned outspoken women activists like Mother Jones and Min Matheson, and one that was infused by the social-justice ethos of Dorothy Day, so it’s no surprise to see them as the most endearing characters in this latter-day morality tale.)
In a world where grassroots activism seems to have been hijacked by darker and more sinister forces, Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island celebrates the love and fury of insurrectionists like these intrepid souls who speak truth to power without counting the cost except as it impacts the lives and health of their families.
Radioactive won both hearts and tears this weekend at New York’s Dances With Film Festival, where it captured the audience award for Best Film, a testimony to the deep emotional impact it left in its wake. This is a film that should be rated in supernovas, not stars.
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