My selection of documentaries at yesterday’s Sheffield Doc Fest included two political films: the first, a feature-length environmental documentary about nuclear waste; the second, an examination of Thatcher’s political legacy.

Containment

Compared with the popular environmental issue of climate change, the problems of nuclear waste receive comparatively little screen time. It’s something Containment seeks to address. Introducing nuclear power and subsequent radiation as an ‘invisible energy’ this film from Peter Galison and Robb Moss probes our moral obligation to the future.

 

It begins with the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP), a state of the art underground facility for the containment of nuclear waste and one that is supported by its local community. Galison and Moss contrast WIPP with the Savannah River Site (SRS), an older facility which fuelled the Cold War (producing 9,500 warheads) and whose historic waste disposal was less rigorous. It’s local community, which exists just across the Savannah river – a distance of just fifty to seventy-five feet – is deeply concerned. The river, already containing radioactive fish and turtles is a major focus for these anxieties. The facility’s tanks of liquid waste could, potentially, leak into the water supply.

“Could establishing a secure location for storing nuclear waste only encourage us to produce more?”

Despite one of WIPP’s administrators broaching nuclear power as a possible solution to global warming, Galison and Robb don’t take the bait. Instead they sharply focus their documentary on the problem of nuclear waste disposal. Punctuating their debate with the aftermath of Fukushima – including interviews with survivors and images of abandoned villages – Galison and Robb emphasise the dangerous consequences of nuclear leaks and exposure, including the loss of hundreds of square miles of land.

With maps illustrating sixty to seventy US surface locations holding nuclear waste and experts speaking about the vulnerability of such sites, Containment highlights both the problems associated with the lack of a final destination for high level waste in the US and the problems associated with finding one: could establishing a secure location for storing nuclear waste only encourage us to produce more?

The issue of finding a safe location is wrapped up in another, even more elusive question: how do we protect future generations from any potential waste site which could remain radioactive for up to 240,000 years? Here, Containment finds the most frightening aspect of the nuclear waste problem: human fallibility and the limits of human knowledge. From communicating with the future by images and warning structures, to ideas about astronauts and mole miners, Containment highlights the dangers in creating problems for a future we can never fully know. Containment asks us to consider the long term effects of nuclear power and asks whether, in the light of human fallibility, it is really something we should be doing.

Generation Right

Margaret Thatcher was Europe’s first female Prime Minister. She also ushered in a new type of politics: one that valued personal responsibility and prioritised reigning back state dependency. This new documentary commissioned by Sheffield University provides an overview of Thatcher’s main policies and the sharp disconnect between her desire for ‘a climate of opportunity’ and its impact on communities.

Generation Right makes excellent use of archive footage depicting the transformation of the ‘short, optimistic period of the 1960s’ into a ‘shabby, dingy’ 1970s and vividly capturing the ‘maximum polarisation’ of the country during the miners’ strikes.

A great deal is crammed into Generation Right‘s forty minute run time. Perhaps too much. Before viewers can digest the grim reality of 10% unemployment, the film moves on to law and order, the far reaching unintended consequences of the Right To Buy scheme and Thatcher’s attitudes to immigration (a problem she labelled as ‘swamping’). It’s the quality of the interviewees that elevates Generation Right into a keen examination of unintended consequences, all the more spectacular for being so concise. Academic Alan Murie describes the impact of Thatcher’s housing policies as ‘the poorest people concentrated in the least attractive parts of the cities… a recipe for disordered estates’. Drugs researcher Alan Matthew explains further knock-on-effects describing how ‘heroin moved into the vacuum created by unemployment’.

 
Contrasting this research with extracts from Margaret Thatcher’s own political speeches, Generation Right stresses Thatcher’s determination in the face of growing unrest and unintended consequences. Interviews with communities then and now explore perceptions of Thatcher as ‘the most hated UK Prime Minister’, as ‘Hitler in skirts’ and as a woman who purposefully used unemployment to keep the people in check. Other than Boris Johnson’s unseemly comment that Thatcher showed us ‘there’s no shame in getting rich’, Generation Right has little positive to say about Britain’s first female PM. Those elements of Thatcher’s government that could be deemed a success are either omitted – such as how Thatcher won three terms – or turned on their heads. Even the financial sector’s Big Bang is linked to the growth of an unregulated sector that contributed to 2008’s financial crash. It’s a potent argument.

Generation Right’s imperfections result from the limited run time made available to discuss this vast subject. There’s little time to examine the development of Thatcher’s ideas, although the lower-middle class background and non-conformist Christianity that gave rise to her belief in the sacred nature of individual freedom is given brief mention. Neither is there time to examine the specifics of Thatcherism at work in party politics today. Generation Right provides a powerful and unsettling window into the legacy of Thatcherism but there is enough material here for a much longer documentary series: one that deserves to made.
 
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You can find all of my posts on Sheffield Doc Fest 2015 here.

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