Part cultural portrait, part reckoning with historical legacy, Irene Lusztig’s observational documentary “Richland” lays its visual markers out and lets the viewer develop their own path to accommodating the consequences of the nuclear age.
The title isn’t intended as a pun on the film’s setting. It’s the name of a South Central Washington state town located near the Columbia River. From what the viewer sees of the countryside surrounding Richland, it’s a rural area located on 600 square miles of steppe and dominated by mountains. Aside from the white inhabitants, the area’s also used by Native Americans from the Wanapum, Yakama, and the Nez Perce as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatella Indian Reservation.
But the area’s main claim to fame comes from the decades-long industry that used to be there. Between 1943 to 1983, this area was the home of the Hanford nuclear plant, which produced weapons-grade plutonium for the US military. Some of the plutonium produced by the plant was used in the Fat Man atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in World War II. The workers who helped create this plutonium and their families lived in Richland. Now that the plant’s decommissioned, it’s the site of America’s biggest environmental restoration project. The inhabitants of Richland, meanwhile, must live with the marks large and small left by Hanford’s presence.
Lusztig’s film can be likened to a cinematic wander around the titular town, noticing curiosities both visual and human around Richland. One moment, the director’s camera notices a street called Nuclear Lane or the existence of Alphabet Houses (houses built according to model plans going from “A” onward). The next moment, there are interviews with a group of friends playing cards in a diner or an old couple who take pride in having caught the town’s Atomic Frontier Parade for 30 years.
Richland’s majority white composition may not be presented as a problem by Lusztig. Yet the shadows of racism dog Hanford’s existence. For the Wanapum, the supposedly temporary use of the tribe’s land became a long-term occupation that removed from them both a home and a natural source for such tribal resources as food and medicine. For the Black population, there was the informal segregation that kept Black kids from mingling with white kids as well as the adults getting stuck with such dangerous jobs as decontaminating the glassware used to produce plutonium. For Japanese-American artist Yukiyo Kawano, it’s her discomfort at noticing she’s the only POC in a lecture room as well as her being a descendant of one of the victims of the atomic bomb that her audience’s ancestors helped construct.
One of “Richland”’s intriguing aspects is seeing just how much acceptance of the atomic bomb’s existence and use has been woven into the town’s cultural fabric. There are the usual pro-Nagasaki bombing comments regarding how using the bomb ended the Second World War. What’s more amazing is hearing the local phrase “proud of the cloud” to describe the speaker’s admiration for the result of the Hanford workers’ labors.
The debate over the local high school retaining its mushroom cloud mascot brings up the town’s generational divide. An adult interviewee talks about his aborted effort to alter the school mascot. The opponents of the change feel such an alteration somehow impugns their patriotism. A group of high school students who discuss the mascot change issue see it as a part with the name of their school football team (the Bombers) and the school motto (“Nuke them till they glow”). That is, the mascot’s a romanticizing of death. However, the students are also aware that their discomfort is not matched by their possessing the power to make such a change.
Part of the older generation’s resistance might come from its more innocent attitudes towards what modern audiences would call toxic exposure. A childhood pleasure for them was sniffing clothes which had absorbed the sweet scent of mosquito-killing insecticide. The men who made the reactor fuel rods did so without wearing protective equipment. This meant they inhaled the metal dust produced by shaving these rods into a proper shape.
In a way, it can be said the older generation of Richland residents made their peace with the consequences of radiation exposure. The aforementioned Atomic Frontier Parade viewers know better than to eat any fish caught in the local rivers. A local cemetery possesses a large forgotten corner section for babies who died in infancy from radiation exposure. One father who saw working at Hanford as providing for his family drew the line at cleaning the reactor’s radioactive hot spots despite the promise of higher pay.
Lusztig mixes into “Richland” some telling vintage footage and art inspired by the legacy of nuclear power. The late President John F. Kennedy is seen setting off the atomic powered dumping of dirt. There’s a performance of the folk song “Termination Winds” by Mary Hartman and Janet Humphrey. The Mid-Columbia Mastersingers perform several songs from “Nuclear Dreams: An Oral History of the Hanford Site” at the de-commissioned Hanford reactor.
Most importantly, there is artist Kawano’s “Fat Man (Folded).” It’s a sculpture created from a combination of the fabric of her grandmother’s kimono stitched together with her own hair. Assembled and framed against the Washington state desert backdrop, the piece resembles a sword of Damocles hovering over the land.
The sculpture embodies Kawano’s acceptance of not finding closure over the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb. Was the decision made out of revenge or racism or impatience? The only certainty is that any resolution she seeks will have to come out of her own thoughts.
“What’s the matter with Black people?” Roger Ross Williams’ “Stamped From The Beginning” answers that question in this eye-opening adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning history of American racist tropes’ roots. Its celebration of Black excellence replaces the authoritarians’ “America as perfect society lost” with the democratic “America as continual work in progress.” It also extols such trailblazers as Phyllis Wheatley and Ida B. Wells while rejecting fast food interpretations of Thomas Jefferson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s legacies.
The correct term for the incredible soccer match series recounted in Rachel Ramsay & James Erskine’s stirring documentary “Copa 71” is indeed expunged. “Forgotten” is an inaccurate term with its implications of an event lost to the cataracts of happenings that constitutes life in the modern world. “Expunged” captures the sense of embarrassment at the knowledge of an event’s occurrence. It also carries the feeling of malice of those in power trying to use time as a tool of revenge against those who participated in the event.
The event in question took place in Mexico in 1971. It was a series of soccer matches consisting of teams from six countries: Argentina, Denmark, England, France, Italy, and Mexico. What made this series unique was that the members of the participating teams were all women. Powerful sexist men in legislative bodies and the international soccer organization FIFA went all out to prevent the series from taking place. And when those efforts failed, what they did next was unfortunately so successful that FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion Brandi Chastain understandably thought she was the first such female World Cup Champion.
“Copa 71,” like “Hoop Dreams” and “When We Were Kings,” belongs to that rare but important category of sports documentary that goes beyond chronicling on the field victory or defeat to offer trenchant commentary by example about society. Ramsay and Erskine, through their chronicling of the fortunes of the teams participating in the 1971 World Cup, shine a human light on such issues of everyday sexism as equal pay for equal work, gratuitous objectification, and deliberate demeaning of female accomplishments.
One of the joys of watching Ramsay and Erskine’s film is learning such bits of forgotten history as the widespread existence of women’s soccer clubs in England in the early 20th century. However, thanks to a combination of bogus “medical reasons” and active hostility from the male-run football associations, soccer soon became a male-only sport in England. “Copa 71” doesn’t discuss the situation regarding women’s soccer clubs in other countries pre-1971. But if Mexico’s Sylvia Zaragoza’s experience of being berated and/or beaten by her father for playing with a soccer ball is any indication, social and institutionalized sexism sufficed to hinder the development of any such clubs.
Zaragoza turns out to be just one of the athletes in that 1971 World Cup series that the viewer hears from. Ramsay and Erskine manage to present interviews with surviving members from each of the six teams participating in the series. Showing up on screen are such star players as Elba Selva (Argentina), Birte Kjems (Denmark), and Elena Schiavo (Italy). These players and others recount the elation and sense of freedom they felt while playing the game they loved in front of as many as 110,000 attendees.
Another thing that stands out about these players is the off the field respect and support they gave each other. When the Danish team’s bus broke down in the middle of nowhere, the Italian team took the time to have their bus turn around and give their potential opponents a lift to Guadalajara. The Mexican team’s lack of uniforms or equipment was remedied by the generosity of the other teams.
Of the athletes from that long-ago match who appear in “Copa 71,” England’s Carol Wilson turns out to be the film’s most heartbreaking figure. Since childhood, she had been fascinated by soccer and dreamed of having her own moments of glory on the soccer field. But the “boys only” orientation of soccer in English society meant it wasn’t until she joined the Royal Air Force that she finally had an opportunity to play soccer again. The combination of a woman-friendly club manager and Wilson’s selection as Captain of England’s team for the 1971 Women’s World Cup seemed to presage the beginning of sports glory. Instead, both on the field and afterward, events took a far from glorious turn.
For the male-run Mexican businesses and media companies which made the 1971 Women’s World Cup possible, on the other hand, the series was a glorious success. The stadium constructed for the 1970 World Cup held in Mexico got further use rather than sitting idle. Mexican media coverage provided both publicity and interest in the form of ticket sales.
Sexism still played a huge part in influencing the course of the tournament. More than a few male soccer fans liked the prospect of prolonged staring at a lot of bare-legged women publicly running around in shorts. News coverage of the female athletes in this World Cup emphasized their physical attractiveness over their athletic skill. FIFA attempted to sabotage the matches’ occurrence by forbidding their football association members from holding the games at their stadiums. However, the matches wound up being held at Jalisco and Azteca stadiums in Guadalajara and Mexico City, respectively. Not only were these stadiums under the control of the non-FIFA member Mexican media organizations sponsoring the event, but their larger capacity meant the female soccer players would have a far greater audience than they would have had at a football association-controlled stadium.
For Copa 71’s athletes, the media objectification was a small price to pay for the opportunity to play the game they loved. And once “Copa 71” gets to the matches themselves, the viewer will have few doubts about the seriousness of each team’s resolve to win. The film contains generous amounts of footage from the matches, with emphasis on the thrilling moments when a goal is scored. Audience members’ clapping and cheering at such moments is pretty much a given.
The accounts of the various players regarding their games and even their teammates bring frequent moments of sympathetic amusement. Reportage gets mixed in with what a viewer may suspect might be post-game face-saving. Air game vs. ground game, lack of proper sleep thanks to noisy fans for the opposing team, inability to adapt to Mexico City’s thinner air, and even a melodramatic faked foul get mentioned. Schiavo’s skill and physical beauty (several stills of which will probably set a few lesbian viewers’ hearts aflutter) get contrasted with her “wrath of God” behavior when problems erupt. But it doesn’t take an experienced soccer fan to see that one particular referee’s calls are clearly aimed at helping the Mexican team win.
FIFA winds up being a well-deserved recipient of viewers’ opprobrium for their sexist actions in turning the 1971 Women’s World Cup into an embarrassing aberration, best forgotten. Had the soccer organization given the women who participated in those games their proper due, Chastain would possibly have been inspired to take up the sport by the likes of Zaragoza, Schiavo, or Kjems. As is, it would be totally understandable for female viewers of this film to seriously consider subscribing to the concept of misandry.
After being enthralled and thrilled by watching “Copa 71,” conscientious viewers will wind up having three wishes:
- That Ramsay and Erskine do a “making of” mini-documentary explaining to audiences how
- this amazing story was discovered and put together,
- That FIFA’s corrupt and sexist leadership be replaced in whole by a leadership which
- will actively atone for its long history of suppressing women’s soccer, and
- That “Copa 71” be shown to as many young girls and teens as possible to inspire them,
- educate them about an important piece of women’s sports history, and give them an object lesson on the hazards of
- letting sexist men in positions of power control women’s futures.
(“Richland” screens as part of the online portion of “Doc Stories” November 6 & 7, 2023.
“Stamped From The Beginning” will be released for streaming on Netflix on November 20, 2023.
For further information about these films, go to www.sffilm.org/doc-stories/ .)Filed under: Arts & Entertainment