First Steps for Neutron Trail Documentary

In our Neutron Trail documentary film shoot yesterday, John O'Brian and I shared nuclear postcards.

Last summer I was thrilled when two executive producers approached me to make a feature-length documentary about the Neutron Trail. Yesterday was our first day of shooting.

In between, the director and I met face to face and conversed via email. I shared the treasures I’d collected, the insights I’d earned and the access to key people who might agree to be in the film. Mostly he listened, took notes and reflected his understanding of my external experiences on the Neutron Trail. With the producers, we wrote proposals to funders and succeeded in procuring seed money for the demo shoot yesterday.

I am a Neutron Trail Walker. I visit people and places most impacted by our shared nuclear legacy. But in some ways, what motivates me is more important than who I talk with or where I go. As I walk the Neutron Trail, questions appear like leaves in spring. As answers appear, the questions, like autumn leaves fade and fall, dissolving into the ground.

New questions spring forth and orient me about where to step next on the Trail. Through staying true to my inner orientation, the Neutron Trail is becoming an interactive, expanding community-building event on the move.

As we collaborated, I found myself wondering if the director really understood what motivates me? Or for that matter, did I? The beauty and power of true inquiry starts with any burning question. Answer that question and perhaps a more fundamental, underlying question will appear.

The director was keen to hear all about my Enrico, but barely seemed to notice the role Enrico’s widow, my grandmother Laura Fermi played. This was really bothering me.

In my mind, the director was reflecting a larger cultural perception. It’s easy for all of us to notice technology while remaining unaware of the kinds of holistic endeavors my grandmother championed. Technology is great but not without common sense and human caring.

Without Enrico Fermi, the history of atomic energy would not be the same. Without Laura Fermi, there wouldn’t be a Neutron Trail. I felt impelled to bridge the communication gap between myself and the director.

She was the one who came at our nuclear legacy from a humanist/activist perspective. She carried on after Enrico died in 1954, attending the first International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy (1955) as recorded in her book Atoms for the World. Then in 1959, Laura Fermi became a pioneer in the environmental movement.

Professor John O’Brian, an art historian at UBC with a vast atomic archive, generously responded to the invitation from the director and myself to hold our first shoot with him at his home in Point Grey. After a seamless setup by the crew, we sat at a table in John’s dining room and showed each other nuclear postcards. We talked, on camera, about the Neutron Trail, my grandparents and the moral and ethical questions Laura raised.

Together with the director and the crew, we created a space where I found ample opportunities to talk about the challenges, the dangers and the rewards of being a Neutron Trail Walker. John and I went beyond interview. We created a generative dialogue — continually eliciting ideas and feelings and insights, one from the other.

During the filming, the director asked me to talk about Enrico’s personality. I answered as well as I could, despite some inner friction at the presumption, considering I’d never met my grandfather. Then I took a risk, deciding to tackle directly the question of Laura’s importance.

I segued to my grandmother’s pivotal role in my development and in the world.

Spontaneously my hands came together in horizontal prayer position. Wriggling the point forward where my fingers touched, I announced, with the camera as my witness, my grandmother Laura gave me a route forward out of the paralysis, out of the strange mixture of pride and guilt I felt growing up under my grandfather’s shining sun (not shadow). Lo and behold, under the gaze of director, camera and crew, a new articulation had emerged.

When I was five, I already knew radioactive fallout travelling through the atmosphere from above-ground nuclear tests was a bad thing for milk, bones and teeth. I knew my grandfather was a very great scientist and someone to be admired. His work was related to nuclear fallout. Out of these disconnected messages, I came to live with a strange mix of pride and guilt.

Also, when I was five, Laura and her girlfriends invited me to fold flyers with them. The flyers were part of an ultimately successful campaign to enact air pollution controls in Chicago.

When I was seven, my grandmother gave me a leather bound journal with gilt-edged pages and exhorted me to write. She told me the pen is mightier than the sword and my imagination, if I troubled to write about it, could effect the world in good and positive ways. She gave me a path out of the pride and guilt, a path, which has become the Neutron Trail.

What motivates me is more important than who I talk with or where I go. The Neutron Trail is foremost a humanistic inquiry into our shared nuclear legacy –  dedicated to all of us alive today who imagine possibilities for human evolution, who imagine we can grow up enough to properly handle the technologies we’ve birthed into our world.

I am grateful to the director. His questions represent the questions of the audience for a film about my travels on the Neutron Trail. The director’s questions are arriving early, from the future. They test me and prepare me for what is to come: a future hopefully filled with Neutron Trail Walkers who may look to our film for orientation before setting off in new directions.

The stated goals of yesterday’s shoot were to make a screen test of Olivia and to see how we would work together. As the make-up artist packed away her powders and the cameraman and soundman loaded their gear into their truck, our Executive Producer said the session exceeded his expectations. This was wonderful feedback indeed. Throughout, the director, said, “good,” in his gentle way, all the while orchestrating the shoot. Everyone liked the way I expressed myself and talked about Laura’s contribution to the Neutron Trail. We all liked how we worked together. My heart feels satisfied, purring like a happy, contented kitty. It was a dynamic and wonderful experience.

Apparently, in a few days we’ll see the director’s cut of the footage and maybe some of the outtakes. I want to learn from what worked as well as what didn’t. From 1.5 hours of footage (including a shot of me dancing to “Radioactive Mama” (1960)), the director will make a 5-minute piece to submit to funders. There are many possibilities for the documentary and it’s much too soon to say how or when we will move into production. Definitely, we are at the beginning of a potentially very exciting project…. stay tuned!

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Our shoot was bracketed by the news of the massive, 8.9 on the Richter scale, earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Northern Japan. Ways to send donations to Japanese survivors.

We on the Neutron Trail are especially following what happens with the four nuclear reactors in the earthquake zone. Earlier today there was an explosion at Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant and now an emergency at a second plant in the same facility has occurred. News reports are changing so fast it is impossible to say more, other than at least some workers have been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. (as at March 12, 3:30 pm PST).

* * *

UPDATE – May 2011. In a surprising turn, the documentary project was cancelled. Now it is July and I am over the jolt and happily looking ahead to new and even more fitting opportunities. The Neutron Trail is about active and empathic conversations: I’m networking and researching generative and collaborative media forms loosely under the umbrella of Transmedia. Transmedia is all about generating content and dialogue through various media including live urban, on the street games, film, music, apps,  and enhanced books.


Posted in Synchronicities.

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