Thursday, January 19, 2012

Deep Down Inside

Sausage making is not now, nor has it ever been, a pretty process. And yet, the thrill of a Louisiana hot link, some sweet, hot Italian sausage, a fiery bite of linguica, or a choice piece of chorizo is undeniable. But when high-end items start to come apart at the seams, get turned inside out -- or capsize -- questions quickly arise about intent, ethics, and responsibility.

Less than a year ago, when a tsunami caused a meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactor, anyone who was asked to describe what the physical plant looked like would not have talked about:

The sad truth is that (often for security reasons) the general public has not seen much footage of the inside workings of nuclear power plant. However, a new German documentary takes viewers inside many parts of a modern NPP while describing the fading dream of nuclear power.

Volker Sattel's new film, Under Control (which recently screened at the German Gems 2012 Film Festival), does not have any authoritative voiceovers. He simply lets his camera do all the talking.  Although viewers may hear employee conversations during quality assurance meetings at German and Austrian power stations -- or at power plants that have been decommissioned and taken offline -- scenes vary from the mundane act of employees showering for work to a surreal journey into a tunnel housing thousands of barrels containing radioactive waste.

Often, one catches the architectural beauty of the facility, whether looking up at the oddly-shaped towers or watching fuel rods being lowered into protective pools of water. Sometimes, a sense of 1950s science fiction becomes overwhelming. One early scientific projection describes a dry fog misting system designed to protect against aircraft collisions (in which the Emmental facility can completely disappear into a 300-meter high fog for a period of 10-15 minutes).

Because all of the nuclear power plants in Germany are at least 20 years old, it helps to take  a timeline of nuclear power's growth and fall from graceinto account.
Poster art for Under Control

Sattel's documentary veers between the enthusiasm of people attending a nuclear power trade show and the concern expressed by the head of the Institute for Risk Research at the University of Vienna that "although the IAEA will publish my results only with the approval of nuclear power plants, they give recommendations without binding effect. One gram of plutonium could theoretically give a million people lung cancer. A few kilograms could affect all of mankind."

Employees take a break during their shift at a nuclear facility

As the filmmaker explains:
"I grew up near the nuclear power plant at Philippsburg and started my research for the film in 2008, long before Fukushima. I noticed that there was no film on the inner world of a nuclear power plant. No documentary filmmaker had previously directed his attention to the 'caste' of nuclear personnel. We saw some downright surreal practices and rituals of everyday atomic work. We experienced teams of nuclear power plants as the sworn community of men and discovered that the world of nuclear power plants had been transformed into a world of 'Boys and Toys.' So many male staff spoke with conviction about their technique that it stood out as a little more boyish and impish."

Watching Under Control can be a bit unnerving. On one hand, the camera captures many beautiful shots of both the inner and outer architecture of nuclear power plants with a combination of clinical precision and a much more artistic perspective than one would normally see. On the other hand, Sattel's documentary reveals how closely the nuclear industry has approached the folly of nuclear disaster.  Watching and listening as alarms start ringing when no one is around to respond gives the viewer a chilling sense of irony and dread.  Here's the trailer:

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Many people remember April 14, 1994 as the day when seven tobacco industry CEOs lied to Congress under sworn testimony as they claimed to have no knowledge that nicotine is addictive. In the 15 years it took until President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act into law, the public learned some very unpleasant facts about the tobacco industry's lust for profits.

I frequently refer people to a brilliant 2003 Canadian documentary entitled The Corporation for its ability to demonstrate how corporations can act according to the clinical definition of a psychopath. Directed by Charles Evans, Jr., a new documentary entitled Addiction Incorporated blows the lid of corporate secrecy off the tobacco industry by making the research behind nicotine addiction easily understandable for audiences through a combination of excellent animation sequences by Mette Ilene Holminis and the simple truth of one scientist's story. As Victor DeNoble explains:
"My parents nurtured in me a desire to help people. Itʼs the reason I became a scientist and the reason I teach kids science. I have dyslexia and ADHD. When I was a kid, there was no understanding of what they were. School, learning, and just paying attention were always a struggle. I was told I was stupid and that I may not graduate high school, much less go to college. I believed it and I was wrong. What motivates me today is reaching out to kids who feel they canʼt go beyond high school and showing them that they have more opportunities open to them than they think.
Scientists do research with the hope that we will have a positive impact on peopleʼs lives. I thought I would have that opportunity when I went to work at the Philip Morris Research Center. I never dreamed that our research would be suppressed for over ten years and that it would take a major federal investigation, congressional hearings, and acts of Congress before my hope would be fulfilled. This documentary isnʼt the end of a story; itʼs just the first chapter of the events that led to the changes weʼve seen to the health policy within the United States. The next chapters have begun to unfold with continued changes, not only in our nation, but also with changes in public health policy in other nations around the world."

Poster art for Addiction Incorporated

When DeNoble was tasked by Philip Morris with finding a substitute for nicotine that would not cause heart attacks, his research helped the tobacco company engineer a cigarette that was safer for smokers from a cardiologic standpoint. DeNoble's research, however, offered scientific proof that nicotine was addictive

There are times when Addiction Incorporated feels like a cross between a high school science fair and a chapter out of The X-Files. It is the story of how DeNoble became one of the most controversial corporate whistleblowers, exposing Big Tobacco's concerted efforts to use the addictive powers of nicotine to capture long-term revenue streams.

As one watches archival footage of people smoking aboard airplanes contrasted with DeNoble's appearances as a guest lecturer speaking to high school students, the courage of his convictions and their effect on public health offer a shocking foil to the greed of tobacco executives. In many ways, Addiction Incorporated struck me as one of the best "preventive medicine" films in recent years. Here's the trailer:

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