Film Looks Between the Rock, Hard Place

A filmmaker covering a fight over a new uranium mill in Colorado expected a morality play with environmentalists on the side of justice. Instead she found complex stories of rural residents facing tough choices and struggling to keep their communities alive. The Yonder interviews filmmaker Suzan Beraza about her movie “Uranium Drive-In,” which was released to DVD this week.

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The trailer for "Uranium Drive-In," a documentary film that follows residents of Naturita and Nucla in western Colorado as they grapple with an environmental fight over a proposed uranium mill.

When the man from Energy Fuels comes to Montrose County, Colorado, promising to open a uranium mill that could employ people from Naturita and Nucla, many of the locals start looking forward to better jobs, health insurance and improved prospects.

But before the promises can be kept, Telluride-based environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliances challenges Energy Fuels and the proposed project in court. People who had been hoping for economic progress from the new uranium mill live in limbo for the next two years. Do they stay and hope for the mill to open, or do they move on with their lives? Are Naturita and Nucla ghost towns in the making?

This is the story behind "Uranium Drive-In," Suzan Beraza’s second feature film, which became available on DVD this week. The impartial and beautifully filmed, character-driven documentary offers an honest look at people facing matters of rural poverty, sustainable development and the long reach of environmental advocacy.

Along the way, Beraza touches on the fascinating history of uranium production in the American West. She shows us a mining town that was demolished and carted off. She shares the stories of survivors of the less regulated uranium industry of the past.

But at heart, the piece is not an environmental advocacy film, and its nods to concerns about the safety of nuclear energy add little.

Rather, "Uranium Drive-In" succeeds best when it sticks with people and depicts the stories of individual lives caught up in big ideas and policies.

I spoke with Suzan Beraza by phone.

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Courtesy of Suzan Beraza
Suzan Beraza said the stories in her documentary became more complex as she spent time with residents of the rural communities affected by the proposed uranium mill.
When you first heard about this story, did you see it as a rural issue?

No. I don't think I did. I saw it more as an environmental issue. And something that became pretty clear to me early on in the film-making process is that to be an environmentalist, you have to be able to afford to be an environmentalist, if that makes sense. It's usually not people who are struggling to survive who turn around and say “I'm an environmentalist.”

While we were there, the story just raised more and more questions. And even though today I'm not gung ho on the uranium industry by any means, the project made me realize that the people of Naturita/Nucla are between a rock and a hard place, and they are willing to make sacrifices in order to survive. They don't see the uranium industry as being that dangerous. It's something they are very used to; their families have been doing it for generations. It's not that the people there necessarily want the uranium industry. They just want something. And that's when it became more clear that it was a rural issue. That thousands of small towns across the United States are in a similar situation, whether it’s a resource extraction town or a town where the major industry has left. Heck, even a place like Detroit. That's not a small town. But it sticks to a theme that is echoing throughout the country.

How did your thinking change as you were creating the film and how did that affect the filmmaking?

It happened during the process. Early on I thought, “Oh there's no way that a uranium mill or the return to the uranium industry is a good idea. It’s a really bad idea.” And then it became much more complicated. I thought there would be a lot of opposition to the mill in that town, but that just wasn’t true. So it kind of became quite a hard concept to grasp. Who has the right to tell them that they can't do it? And how far away does it affect people as far as health and environmental hazards?

Courtesy of Suzan Beraza
Residents participate in a town meeting about the proposed uranium mill. Beraza said local support for the mill was greater than she expected it to be.
There was a filmmaker who had a saying that when they started on a film the topic was kind of confusing and difficult to understand, and by the time they finished the film it was even more confusing. That's how this felt. So then it became a question of what we could do to tell the most honest story as filmmakers and portray both points of view and let audience members grapple with these same questions. For five minutes of the film the audience is feeling very much pro-mill and then all of a sudden, they'll feel very anti-mill. So that they can understand what people in this region are also going through.

When you were attracted to the story and started to do the research and decided to make it a project, had the Telluride environmental organization already become involved?

Yes. And I think that is what initially drew the project to me. In every story you have to have conflict and obstacles. I live in Telluride, so I was also drawn to the story because it was something that was happening right in this region. And I could see that there was all this angst around it, people getting very upset on both sides of the issue. So we went to a few meetings and listened in and filmed a little bit just to see if we had a story and then started meeting and interviewing people.

At first we were a little worried about access because I'm a filmmaker from Telluride. I'm definitely not a wealthy person by any means. I'm a very broke documentary filmmaker. But people's perception [in Naturita/Nucla] is that in Telluride everybody's wealthy, everybody's a second homeowner. So it took a little bit of time to get to know people and let them know that I was interested in telling their story as opposed to doing an anti-mill propaganda piece.

Ayngel Overson is one of the central characters, if not the central character in the film. I read that you chose Ayngel in part because she was “alternative.” Can you tell me about that?

Ayngel had a blog about Naturita/Nucla and it was obvious she was smart and well-spoken and well-read. You interview so many people trying to find the right person. Ayngel could really weigh the issue as a subject in the film, and I felt that was important because we have some people who are very much for it or very much against it. They weren't going through the really difficult decision of it themselves, and that's where I felt Ayngel was. By “alternative” I mean we wanted a broad range of types of people as well. And her family represents someone who is in the community but they feel a little bit like they are outsiders. We had people who are very much locals like Tami the mayor [Tami Lowrance of Naturita, Colorado] who is very much the salt of the earth of this community and then Ayngel and her family who feel a little bit like they, well they are definitely loved by the community but they're looking at it from a different perspective.

There are so many big-picture issues in the film. Tell me if I'm reading too much into this: I was struck watching the film by the fact that all the principal characters – Ayngel Overson, Jennifer Thurston of Sheep Mountain Alliance, Tami Lowrance – are women.

Tami Lowrance served as mayor of Naturita, Colorado, and was one of several women characters who are at the heart of the documentary.
We were part way through filming and we thought, "Wait a minute, they're all women!" People have said that happened because I’m a woman filmmaker, but I don't think so. There are men in the film; what we found was that the women we talked to were much more willing and open and not as guarded. Although that could be a piece of it, the women were more open about the issue. Maybe it's because most of them hadn't personally worked in the industry that they were able to see it with a bit more of an open mind.

I do have to tell you that I will probably never be able to get out of my brain the scene with the calf castration. It was news to me that that was done in the field, no anesthesia. Was keeping that in the film a decision?

I know it’s disturbing, for some people rather than others. What I was trying to convey both with that and with the sheep slaughter scene is that it’s a part of what a lot of people in this area do to work and to survive. And they don’t think twice about it. That woman doing the castration, Heidi Redd, she's 75 years old. She did something like 50 castrations that day. She’d take a little break to talk to us, then hop back in. She's fricking 75 years old. I was exhausted just doing camera work.

For me that scene was a fascinating way to understand a little more about who these people are. They're pretty tough. If there was some kind of survival episode I'd put all my money on Heidi Redd, even though she's [in her] 70s, and very little on me trying to survive. They're very close to the land and their sense of place is very important to them.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the Energy Fuels proposed a uranium mine. The project is a uranium mill. 

 

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