Documentary “Off Country” Lets Survivors and Opponents of Nuclear Testing Do the Talking

Taylor Dunne and Eric Stewart’s forthcoming documentary “Off country” examines the devastating, still-lingering effects of atomic bomb testing on the communities around the White Sands missile range in New Mexico, the Nevada Test Site and the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, where plutonium triggers were manufactured until its 1992 shutdown (the latter facility was studied in the galling 1982 documentary “Dark Circle,” which probed into the various deadly illnesses and deformities plaguing nearby residents whose complaints had been shunned by authorities). Everyone knows about the horrors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in August 1945. Far less discussed are the 40,000 Hispanic and Native American peoples who lived within eight miles of the White Sands site, an area that officials believed no one lived in, and where those very bombs were tested, a month earlier.

Shooting in luminous black and white photography, exclusively on 16mm film, Dunne and Stewart profile several of these citizens’ descendants, who have lost relatives to radiation poisoning and, variedly, suffer from infertility, sterility and chronic pain. It is also devoted to the continuing efforts of activists like Tina Cordova, leader of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders, who have risked potential radiation exposure. Other activists interviewed also risked being arrested for trespassing when they entered test sites to thwart further development.

Launched three years ago, the production is expected to wrap up this spring, after further shooting at the Nevada Test Site and affected areas throughout Utah, as well as additional pick-up shots and audio interviews.

Like “Dark Circle,” “Off Country” will be angry and timely, given the current plutonium pit production at Los Alamos Labs and President Trump’s frequent talk of pending nuclear war. But “Off Country” deliberately lacks the tremulous narration, graphic imagery and bomb footage of that earlier film; it prefers to let the survivors and opponents of reckless nuclear testing do the talking, instead.



Screen Comment interviewed Dunne and Stewart, a couple who met while receiving their MFAs at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and who both currently teach at Adams State University in Southern Colorado. They discussed their own fears after visiting contaminated sites, their views on nuclear weapons modernization, and, on a lighter note, how they get around the slight hardships of being both romantically and professionally involved.

Screen Comment: The heart of your film belongs to the indigenous people near the Trinity site who were overlooked. Did you find any official government document or article that even mentioned these communities, albeit dismissively?

Eric Stewart: I haven’t been able to lock down the primary citation of this, but Tina [Cordova] mentioned something. There were two years of planning that went into the Trinity test. The government had schools of meteorologists planning for the weather conditions. They wanted, before they went into negotiations with Stalin, to have the atomic weapons in their pocket. They vastly underestimated the yield of this bomb, by about half, but they had mentioned there might be evacuations necessary in some of the surrounding areas. I heard Tina mention that [Lieutenant General] Leslie Groves, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project military personnel, said “We’re not gonna evacuate any Indians.” He was talking about the Mescalero reservation.

Taylor Dunne: They had relocated the Mescalero to this reservation twenty years before the test. It’s a terrible place. The U.S. government didn’t think they’d last very long, even before this happened.

ES: There was an amalgam of different tribes—Apache, and Geronimo’s wife settled there, Geronimo was sent somewhere else. If you look around there, it’s all volcanic rock, there’s very little water.

TD: It’s about eight miles away from the test. We filmed the maps from 1925, well before the Manhattan Project, and you can see the boundary of the Indian reservation and where White Sands is and it’s just ridiculous, it’s so close.

ES: The military said, “We’re gonna do this test in White Sands because no one lives there.” That was completely ignorant of 400 years of Hispanic settlement and lifestyle. They may not have intentionally been racist, but that’s almost beside the point.

Screen Comment: Why do you think they were so ignorant about those communities?

ES: Groves was in charge of building the Pentagon, which is why they chose him to run the [Manhattan] project. How can you expect somebody who has lived on the Eastern Seaboard to know anything about the cattle rearing, agricultural activities and rituals of people living in an arid environment? He didn’t have the tools.

TD: There’s a very well-documented story of this guy that morning driving down, and all these Army personnel told him to roll up his windows and not leave his car. And he had burns all over his body and he didn’t know what was happening. And none of the civilians knew [at the time] what radiation or an atomic bomb was. It wasn’t until many years later that that became part of their language.

ES: And there were a lot of cattle that turned white. They actually displayed them at the New Mexico State Fair. Like, “Oh, that’s neat!” And the cattle were bred and I believe their grey hair passed on [to offspring].

TD: A ton of animals that got exposed died. And this is in a cattle-ranching area.

Screen Comment: Did you find out why certain exposed communities in the Southwest got restitution for their suffering, while others were totally ignored?

ES: Most of the communities that got remuneration under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) are based in Nevada, Utah and parts of Arizona. The communities in New Mexico, it’s little bit of an anomaly since they only did that one test there, and there hasn’t been a political will to recognize it. Also, even though it’s in a desert, a lot of agriculture goes through there, the Rio Grande runs through there. So [opening that] can of worms could impact a lot of the industry in New Mexico.

And there’s been a generally-blasé attitude about what happened there. A lot of the nationalism and patriotism that fueled the perceived resolution of World War II through the atomic weapons set off in Japan has turned White Sands into a national monument, instead of a place of national mourning.

TD: The Nevada site had almost a thousand tests. So maybe that’s why, because they think, [in comparison] “Oh, it’s just one nuclear bomb, how much damage could it possibly do?” But the Trinity test was really crude. A very small fraction of plutonium in the bomb detonated fission. The rest of it just went up into the atmosphere and sprinkled everywhere.

ES: And it rained that day before and after the test, which brought a lot of plutonium back to the earth. The bomb was set off on a fire tower about a hundred feet above the ground, whereas the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were detonated high above the ground. So there are all these factors that differentiate it from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s never been very well-accounted for, what happened to that remaining plutonium. It’s kind of a big gray area.

TD: There are also these terrible dust storms in the Southwest. After the Trinity test, they just buried everything, and every time the wind blows it’s just kicking more stuff up. Rocky Flats is like that, too. They’re allowed to have an unlimited amount of plutonium a certain number of feet under the ground.

Screen Comment: I saw from your trailer that the Trinity site is actually open to the public twice a year.

TD: Yeah. That’s where we recorded our podcast. That’s where we did the most amount of research. We started in Rocky Flats and now we want to go out to the Nevada and Utah area.

Screen Comment: When you visited these sites, were there lots of warnings? Were you supposed to wear masks, or hazmat suits?

TD: They don’t tell you about the danger, really. There are guys with the radioactive symbols on them, but people aren’t really concerned about it. The first time we went, I wasn’t that concerned. And then I felt like an idiot. There is radiation there and you should be careful. The last time we went, we didn’t go to the site, we were just outside of it. When I visited the site a year before, I wore old shitty clothes and old shoes and took a really good shower.

ES: I don’t know enough about radiation spread. I know that if you ingest any particles of plutonium, that is incredibly dangerous. And there’s no way to predict how that kind of exposure is gonna occur.

Screen Comment: Did you try to get in touch with any relatives of the actual workers at the Los Alamos plant or Trinity site, just to get that side of the story?

ES: Our focus is very intentionally on the people that lived around these areas. We’re hoping to talk to people that worked at the lab or worked in the military, but those dominant voices are pretty well covered. We’d be very interested in talking to people involved with, say, Veterans of Peace, who turned to activism to counter that narrative. But we’ve spent a lot of time gaining trust with these communities, and we just haven’t been able to put the kind of legwork into gaining trust with [military or lab] people.

Screen Comment: I imagine a lot of them didn’t want to work there and/or regretted it. Or it was the only employment around.

Taylor Dunne: That is something we talked to Tina Cordova about. It’s true. Los Alamos is a huge source of income and jobs for people in New Mexico, which is one of the most economically depressed states. Los Alamos cuts corners and the people getting hurt the most are on the lower rung of the ladder, like janitors. And Tina tried to interview some of these people, but they don’t want to cause a stir, because it’s their only source of income. They don’t want it to go away. But it’s not gonna go away, look at the money sunk into it.

ScreenComment: When you shoot at these sites, has anyone ever tried to shut you down?

Taylor Dunne: No. People don’t really care. It’s funny, because when we went [to White Sands], once people learned we weren’t with the press they were really nice. The Trinity site is a really complicated place. Sure, there’s people getting their portrait taken with their kids in front of replicas of the bomb. But it’s a heavy place, an eerie place. And you could really kind of see that in people’s faces.

Eric Stewart: Everywhere we’ve filmed has been surprisingly laissez-faire. Even Rocky Flats. We’re always expecting the FBI to show up. But then, all these places are in the middle of nowhere.

TD: I think it would be really different if we went down to Carlsbad, New Mexico, to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. That’s a whole different scene. I wouldn’t even bring a camera because I’ve heard stories of people getting arrested, even for walking up to the fence. That’s where they store really scary radiological waste.

ES: It’s low-level waste. If any lab gear or top soil got contaminated, they keep it there. It’s only a couple of years old. It’s already caught on fire and exposed workers to radiation and they spent several billion dollars building it.

TD: Going to Los Alamos, that’s a really big area of land with big fences around it and warnings about explosives. You have to drive through it on certain roads to get to other towns. You pull over, you give [security] your I.D. and they say “No photos, no stopping.” It’s creepy. That’s where the new plutonium pit production plant will be.

Screen Comment: So you haven’t taken photos there?

ES: No, because it’s active.

TD: I wouldn’t do it. It’s like “X Files.”

Screen Comment: How do you get around that issue, where you can’t interview anybody or even photograph them, in such a key place?

TD: The documentary is really looking at landscapes where manufacturing has occurred. It’s to acknowledge this unaddressed history of twentieth-century production in anticipation of twenty-first century production kicking into gear.

Screen Comment: Why do you think the new plutonium program launched?

ES: They want to modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The Russians just did it. Obama began the initiative, with a promise for a ton of money over the next few years to make renewal happen. It’s routine in a lot of ways. It is needed, because there are still over 2,500 weapons that haven’t been touched since 1993, [and are] in various states of decay. So something does need to happen, so they don’t degrade in a way that is dangerous to the American public. But do those bombs need to be connected to iPhones and iCloud? I don’t know. They’re using kind of a loophole in this non-proliferation treaty with Russia, because they aren’t making new weapons, they’re modernizing them.

The Russians just finished their modernization, they made weapons that can evade our defenses so we’re making weapons that can evade theirs. It’s tit for tat.

Screen Comment: Taylor, in the Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine article, you said the film is an extension of your previous work, focusing on women and indigenous people. Can you tell me briefly about some of your past work?

TD: The last film I made, “Katah-Din,” was about a Penobscot woman, of Wabanaki descent, based in New England. She’s a silent film actress so it was a portrait of her, but also looking at the landscape, stories about Wabanaki people. It’s a thirty five-minute film. I’m really interested in telling stories about underrepresented histories, and about women. This is the first time Eric and I are really collaborating on something.

ES: My work in general looks at landscapes. I’m interested in human impact on the environment, on ecology. A lot of my work is very abstract, completely non-narrative.

Screen Comment: I admire that you guys are using 16mm film.

TD: All my past work has been on film and so has Eric’s. We’re shooting landscapes and we’re not in a real hurry.

ES: It’s part of my sensibility and aesthetic strategy. Some people see the use of film as being decadent and expensive, but I think all filmmaking is expensive. You can shoot on your cellphone, but this is actually cheaper in a lot of ways, because you don’t have to deal with the reoccurring obsolescence of technology.

TD: It’s not like we have to buy a digital camera every two or three years. My camera is from the Seventies. And we don’t have tons and tons of footage. And when you get the film back it looks really good. You don’t have to spend a ton of time color-correcting.

Screen Comment: What has been the biggest challenge about working together?

TD: Someone just asked us, “Are you guys, like, married?” And we said, “No, we’re domestically and creatively involved.” [laughs] I don’t think shooting together is a challenge. Sometimes he likes things centered and I like things off-center. Would you say that, Eric?

Eric Stewart: No. [laughs] Shooting can sometimes be hard because camera and sound have to work together. And if something spontaneous is happening it can be difficult to capture. But we have a pretty good working relationship. General travel has been the most challenging. We spend so much time in the car and it’s pretty exhausting.

Taylor Dunne: I think I’ve been talking a lot more lately. But when we first started, Eric was talking a lot and I wasn’t that much. So we try to find that balance, where we both have our own voice. Editing is my favorite part of the process. I love researching. Actual shooting is fine but I don’t like it that much, Eric does. We’ll see what happens when we cut the film together, if we’ll butt heads, at all.

ES: I hate editing!

TD: I love editing! Hopefully it will be fine.

Screen Comment: Why do you hate editing, Eric?

ES: I can’t stand being in front of the computer that long.

TD: I’m also a control freak. I’m a filer, I’m obsessed with keeping things really straight and Eric is not.

ES: I’m a piler.

TD: I’m a filer and he’s a piler.

ES: I like photography. I could spend all day setting up a shot.

TD: I could not. I’d go insane.

ES: I love thinking about angles and exposure, that’s just what I like to do. I just don’t get joy from editing.

Screen Comment: So you met at Boulder?

TD: Yeah, getting our MFA. I think this project brought us closer together. But before Eric, I was like, “Screw this! I don’t want to be with any artist or any of this shit! I just want to find a lawyer, someone that has a steady check!” And then this guy pops into my life. [laughs] He said the same thing about me, though. “I’ll never date another artist again!”

ES: Yeah. I wanted a lawyer.

Screen Comment: Though it can also be problematic if you don’t share any interests with your partner.

TD: We have that going for us. Financially, we’re fucked, but… [laughs]

Screen Comment: Speaking of finances, I know The Puffin Foundation funded some of your movie. How much financing did you receive?

ES: Puffin gave us $1,200.

TD: We’ve gotten $2,500 total. We’ve spent about $9,000 of our own money. And that doesn’t even account for the 10,000 miles we put on our car. We’re at a place where we have to crowd-fund. We applied for grants but we can’t wait [for the approvals].

Screen Comment: Is Basement Films providing any financing?

TD: They’re a non-profit, they’re our fiscal sponsor. They will reimburse us for expenses on the film, which are not considered taxable income. So we won’t get taxed on it.

Screen Comment: How much total funding do you think it will take to finish?

TD: I think it will cost about $40,000. Just for expenses. It’s a micro budget, especially since we’re shooting on film.

Screen Comment: Did any animals end up dead or deformed at the Rocky Flats site, where there is presumably still much radiation? And yet, it was turned into a wildlife refuge. 

ES: That was a really deceitful thing they did. By being a wildlife refuge cordoned off from humans, they don’t have to do as thorough a cleanup. They cleaned up the topsoil but below six feet there can be an unlimited amount of plutonium. The prairie roots go down like twenty feet and a lot of prairie dogs burrow there. They also shift the liability from the Department of Energy onto the Parks Department. And they want to open it up as a hiking park in 2018. There are so many people opposed to that.

TD: There haven’t been animal studies like that at Rocky Flats, that I know of. But sure, it’s gonna affect the gene pool.

Screen Comment: What was the most devastating interview or day of your shoot?

TD: [long pause] I don’t know. Just hearing stories about how people have lost many members of their family to cancer. Any one person, to keep hearing about it, is so sad.

ES: Tina Cordova’s interview is so powerful. It’s so unbelievably devastating, the government’s inability to respond to this. She’s spent decades negotiating with the Department of Health, the Department of Energy, the military, and they’re like, “Well, we monitor the local doctor’s office.” And she’s like, “The only person who works at the office in Tularosa is the nurse’s practitioner. No one goes there to get their oncology monitored. They go to El Paso and Albuquerque.” And they say, “Well, El Paso and Albuquerque voluntarily give us information,” which has never happened. Just hearing the absolute bureaucratic inefficiency around it.

And the Manhattan Project constituted an international assembly of essentially the smartest scientists and military strategists on the planet, and they can’t do a fucking survey? That’s outrageous. We’re going to address these issues in the movie. There won’t be narration that didactically says that but we’ll address it.

“Off country” is a film that is currently being made. We will update this space as the film is completed.