The Last Resort.
Better Active Today than Radioactive Tomorrow

Filming the anti-nuke movement

by Judy Taylor

from Jump Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp. 4-5
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

The anti-nuclear movement is one of the few protest movements in the United States of an otherwise politically dreary late 1970s. It is not clear yet what the political potential of this movement is, especially in this country. Two recent films give us some insight into the state of the respective movements, in the United States and in West Germany. THE LAST RESORT (Green Mountain Post Films, 1978), a U.S. film, and BETTER ACTIVE TODAY THAN RADIOACTIVE TOMORROW (Nina Gladitz, 1978, U.S. release), a film from West Germany, both deal with specific anti-nuclear protests. Both films are distributed by Green Mountain Post Films (P.O. Box 229, Turners Falls, MA 01376).

THE LAST RESORT chronicles the struggle of anti-nuke groups, such as the Clamshell Alliance, against the building of a nuclear power plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire. BETTER ACTIVE TODAY shows the confrontation between the people of Whyl, West Germany, and political-industrial interests over the construction of a giant nuclear power complex in Whyl. A comparison of the films reveals the greater sophistication and militancy of the European movement and the relatively apolitical nature of its U.S. counterpart.

THE LAST RESORT begins with shots of the beautiful New Hampshire coast and wildlife. Next we see the governor of New Hampshire, Meldrin Thomson, who states how pleased he is that a nuclear plant is about to be built. The film attempts to build a collage of evidence against the nuclear plant, juxtaposing views of the citizenry, the protestors, and the apologists for the plant. As the film progresses we see several demonstrations at the proposed site of the plant. These protests grow, culminating in a large demonstration and sit-in of 2,000. If the film does nothing else, it shows the growth of the anti-nuclear movement in New Hampshire over a time period of about one year, from 1976 to 1977.

For all its good intentions and earnest tone, the film has several problems. First, the pace is rather sluggish, with a lot of material shown repeatedly. Second, in a film of one hour, there is not enough hard information presented about atomic power plants to really educate or inform viewers, especially if they do not already know something about the issue. Though the film does explain well why the plant at Seabrook could be so dangerous (nuclear waste, higher ocean temperatures), not enough hard, cold facts are presented. Third, and perhaps most important, there is too much footage of the demonstrations at Seabrook. This is the heart of the problem in the film. The gatherings look dangerously like pleasant outings in which well-meaning college kids come in conflict with silly authorities (who do say the most ridiculous things, it is true) and baffled yet decent police. They are all very polite to one another. It hardly seems like a confrontation — more of a mistake in communication. A key to the politics of THE LAST RESORT is the music: folk-cheerful and upbeat, innocent even, wending its way along the soundtrack. There are no hard edges in the film. (The demonstrations in fall 1979 which I saw on TV seemed militant and serious. I imagine a different film would be made today.)

On the plus side, the film contains some very interesting footage of militant and highly political demonstrations in other parts of the world, including the 1974 action at Matsu Bay in Japan, where 300 fishing boats successfully blockaded a nuclear ship while countless numbers of demonstrators on shore cheered them on. As a result of this action, nuclear production in Japan was set back. Another clip is from Whyl, West Germany, the scene of BETTER ACTIVE TODAY), where 28,000 people from three countries demonstrated against and occupied a proposed nuclear complex until the plans were dropped. But next to these remarkable shows of strength in Germany and Japan, the Seabrook demonstrations look like nutty children's crusades.

I am not denying the serious intent or the effectiveness of these demonstrations. The Clamshell Alliance has held back the building of the Seabrook plant to this day, no small achievement, as witness Jerry Brown's attempt to woo them before the New Hampshire primary. But in this film, these demonstrations look puny, casual, and haphazard.

BETTER ACTIVE TODAY THAN RADIOACTIVE TOMORROW chronicles a most amazing protest against nuclear power. Whyl, West Germany, is a small town near the Rhine River. Its people are mainly vintners and farmers. When it was chosen to be the site of one of the world's largest lightwater reactors, the local people were joined by thousands of other Germans, French, and Swiss, and they occupied the site. They organized a school in which they studied political topics together. They ate communally and set up housing for everyone. Shifts of local farmers and students continued to occupy the site and have managed to keep the construction of the plant from happening. The events of the film are from 1975 to 1977. The film shows that the local people of Whyl are highly politicized and articulate about the dangers of nuclear pollution. They also understand very wall why the capitalist state needs nuclear armaments.

Nina Gladitz has made a film which does justice to the activists of Whyl. It is the more sophisticated film, on a political and filmic level, of the two reviewed here. The filmmaker took part in these demonstrations as well as filmed them and knows the people intimately. She has used a variety of techniques, such as titles, montage, and a reconstructed soundtrack. But more than that, she has let the camera record the faces of the people who have taken part in this struggle, the individual within the mass. It is the demonstrators we finally remember — their strength, resourcefulness, intelligence, and humanity.

Gladitz gives us footage of marches with tens of thousands of people, occupations where the police swarm and attack demonstrators with sticks, and scenes of the daily life created by the people as they "squat" on the site. She also constructs fictional episodes, such as a nuclear disaster and its results. The film shows us particular people in the struggle. A husband and wife talk about her transformation from an apolitical housewife to a militant activist. They discuss how their relationship has been strengthened by their shared political work and commitment. A farmer talks about exploitation:

"We have worked for the big shots, and we have got the short end."

When an attempt is made by the nuclear people to co-opt the ministers by meeting with their wives, an old woman says,

"They're trying to talk to the wives so they'll influence their husbands not to support the common people."

The information in the film is organized chronologically to some extent — the  growth and development of the struggle at Whyl — but more importantly, it is organized politically. One of the strongest aspects of BETTER ACTIVE is its clearly political and didactic framework. Each part of the film is announced by statements, such as "How the authorities try out their new tactics" and "How to get knowledge." We are then shown events which illustrate these themes. This technique is Brechtian. It allows viewers to stand back and rationally take in the information to be learned while they can also experience the situation on a more visceral level. For Brechtian technique to really work, the artistic level of a film or play must be as powerful as the message. The imagery and language must be effective on their own terms so as to engage the spectators' feelings as well as intellect. Gladitz achieves this fusion of ideas and feeling, form and content. The viewers get an education in the dangers of nuclear energy and the power of collective struggle and also get very involved in the people of Whyl. Appropriately, at the end of the film, in an educational meeting a group of the protesters put on a performance of Brecht's The Mother. The words of the play become the political message of the film: No matter what power the authorities have, the people will struggle and prevail.

This emphasis on people's collective struggle may well be the feeling of the U.S. anti-nuclear protesters. But in the German film and apparently in the German movement, the sense of struggle is linked to a more sophisticated analysis of power, nuclear and other. There is also a profound seriousness in the German protesters, even in light moments. They know why they are there. On the other hand, if THE LAST RESORT genuinely reflects the spirit and content of the movement in the United States, it raises larger questions about whether this movement will develop a broad political perspective or will be in the final analysis merely a faint copy of the protests of the 1960s — and as short lived.