ABSTRACT: The DVD In My Lifetime: A Presentation of the Nuclear World Project is an impressive and rigorous documentary about the evolution of nuclear hazards from the 1940s to today. It exposes chronologically the background and the following steps of nuclear research which led to the use of the Atomic Bomb as a war weapon in 1945, and shows how the nuclear technology is still an issue today in terms of environmental protection, policy, international relations and security.
This almost two-hour long DVD is quite rich and instructive, with lots of archival footage from various sources and clear comments related to the dangers of nuclear energy. Despite its importance and undeniable rigor, this independent production directed and produced by Robert E. Frye has not been seen much and deserves special attention from a variety of audiences. Viewers should not be surprised or disappointed by the relatively slow rhythm of narration during the first minutes; this almost meditative pace is rather unusual on prime-time television, but we are here in a different media, distinct from mainstream culture: the world of educational documentaries addressing fundamental issues.
The narration of In My Lifetime uses a chronological presentation. First, we are reminded that even in 1939, the Nazis had an interest in nuclear bombs and wanted to use them as a dissuasive and destructive weapon; this is why the USA entered into this military research program. The impressive documentation gathered here comes from various sources and archives. We can see for instance some rare archival footage of the first nuclear tests made in July 1945 near Los Alamos, in New Mexico, plus some U.S. propaganda films about possible nuclear attacks produced later, during the 1950s, at the peak of the Cold War (for example a B&W cartoon titled “Duck and Cover”). We discover as well a short archived declaration made by Albert Einstein who in 1955 expressed his concerns with regards to nuclear security and the dangers of a world war based on nuclear weapons. The critical episode of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis is presented as well as an example of an almost-immanent nuclear conflict between two powerful nations. Further on, we also see images of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit on arms control which took place in Iceland in 1986. Other diplomatic negotiations followed and are evoked; they are the driving narrative of this whole document.
Among many rarely-seen dimensions, another scene from In My Lifetime shows a few survivors from the A-Bomb who lived near Hiroshima and Nagasaki epicenters in August 1945; they are labelled as “Hibakusha.” Incidentally, some of these Hibakushas are being interviewed after a commemorating ceremony held in 2008; they explain how they managed to survive physically and morally while so many Japanese died because of radioactivity in the days following the bombing. The observations made in this documentary go in many directions, and this is one of this film’s strength. In this sequence shot in Japan, we get the opposite point of view of Japanese guides explaining to tourists this history of Hiroshima from the Japanese perspective, using terms such as “the Americans” and not the U.S. Army, or referring to a very contemporary “We” (the Japanese victims) instead of using the most factual self-identifying expression of “the Japanese population of 1945,” who in reality are in most cases not alive anymore. We understand how this indescribable nuclear trauma is still very present today as even Japanese people who were born after 1945 still identify themselves with the victims and survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These elements invite a reflection about commemorations, the social construction of history and memory studies.
The film explains, step by step, how some countries obtained the nuclear bomb using subtle strategies: USSR, Great-Britain, France, China, India, and so on. All these countries conducted nuclear tests, usually far from their own populations. As explained in this film, the USA is the country with the highest number of nuclear tests, with more than 1000 experiences since 1945, mostly in Nevada or in the Pacific region.
The last portions of the documentary show nuclear hazards getting out of control and unsecured, with governments such as Iran and North Korea trying to get nuclear weapons even without the consent of UN Security Council. We understand that nuclear risks are always changing, moving and mutating as there are many dimensions linked to nuclear safety, even with peaceful nations and good will, not to mention countries which are not following this ideal. We conclude that nuclear power, even limited to civil purposes within controlled conditions, remains an excessively dangerous resource. Very often, as demonstrated in various studies related to nuclear power, the solution to nuclear risks cannot come from the top of nations; it rather lies in the symbolic or marginal actions emerging from civil society, grassroots movements, plus some selected NGOs who advocate safer practices, more transparent governance, and the promotion of non-nuclear energies. The nuclear hazards described in this film are so immense there is almost no discussion about nuclear waste, as there are so many other dangers to be addressed.
The DVD In My Lifetime illustrates as well multidisciplinarity in its approach since environmental issues are by essence multidisciplinary: they touch all of us and deploy vast domains of knowledge because the nuclear file itself is so dangerous, complex, multifaceted, and highly unpredictable. By watching this unique film, one can see the discussion becomes central at various levels, firstly as a matter of history, but then other angles are conveyed: the studying of technology, the philosophy of techniques, science education, ethics, international relations, governance, geopolitics, ideologies, and so forth. At some point, the DVD In My Lifetime seems almost as strong as Peter Watkins’ great documentary The Journey (1987), made on a similar topic almost three decades ago. Other parallels and comparisons could be made with another Australian documentary film, Half Life: A Parable for the Nuclear Age, directed in 1985 by Dennis O’Rourke.
With In My Lifetime, director Robert E. Frye proves his deep commiseration in his respectful observations of various witnesses and victims, without ever being indiscrete or sensationalist. Here we get no excessive dramatization, no unanswered questions only brought to create tension, no poignant music meant to bring excessive suspense, no artificial mystery created around the unpredictable idea of the future. Neither is there excessive use of talking heads of scientists commenting, rather a plentiful array of illustrations and archival images, always vivid and appropriate, plus comments based on facts and numbers. Technically, this impressive film has benefited from various co-producers and foundations that contributed financially in order to make this grand project possible; not many governmental funds were used. It is mainly centred on the U.S. standpoint and context as we see mostly U.S. authors, experts, and politicians (from Eisenhower to Barack Obama) but very few from other nations. As an unwanted consequence, we sometimes get the false impression that collective action against nuclear power and eco-citizenship issues exists only in Japan, Britain, and the USA. Eco-citizenship has become a global movement.
Undoubtedly, In My Lifetime is a strong document which should be part of public libraries’ collection; it could compensate for its absence on television. Despite its (almost) two-hour format, it should get airtime on television networks since it delivers a vital reflection on issues such as environmental education and international affairs. Because the DVD version includes optional subtitles in French, German, and Spanish, it can reach an international audience too. While it can be appreciated by undergraduates and non-scholars, In My Lifetime could perhaps be too disturbing for high school pupils and students at college levels because younger audiences might only catch these complex issues without understanding the solutions proposed by some of the experts interviewed or quoted, especially in the second half. In the classroom, this documentary could obviously be useful in many disciplines such as science, ethics, humanities, peace studies, political science, citizenship education and history, but as with many documentaries, pre-viewing lectures and chronological indications provided by informed teachers should be given prior to viewing in order to prepare 21st century students who might get here lots of unfamiliar elements exposed altogether into a short period of time.