Growing up in the Tri-Cities, it's pretty easy to forget there's a few million gallons of nuclear waste festering just a couple dozen miles upriver.
I mean, I lived here the first 18 years of my life, and not once did I die a horrible irradiated death. I don't glow in the dark. The thought of unfiltered tap water does not make my hackles raise. Yet, hey, there's 2/3 of the country's nuclear waste practically within spitting distance of us, so long as you're doing the spitting on one of our windier days.
That unconcern is one of the conflicting attitudes -- somewhere between pragmatism and obliviousness, despite plenty of reason for concern -- explored in "Arid Lands," Grant Aaker and Josh Wallaert's new documentary about Hanford, the Columbia Basin, and the link between the land and its residents.
Shot with a minimum of text-based narration, the film establishes itself with a series of wide landscape shots that'll remind you how weird this place must look to people who don't live in howling wastelands. From that point on it mostly lets the locals talk for themselves, getting into some blackly funny history about how the government's requirements for the Hanford site were 1) lots of cool, clean water, 2) isolation, and 3) expendable citizens.
The complex politics around Hanford and its cleanup are just a jumping-off point for other regional issues such as the role of dams and the future of a post-Hanford Tri-Cities. Perhaps you're already familiar with these issues if you've read the Tri-City Herald ever, listened to AM radio ever, or know a single person from Seattle with opinions on how we should do things on the other side of the Cascades, but through smart editing that brings a lot of different voices together without clearly favoring any of them, "Arid Lands" suggests the specific politics of Eastern Washington aren't just a matter of provincial ideology, they're an inevitable conflict of the various groups of people who've found a living here over the years.
In that sense, it's hard to know whether there are any clear answers, especially when the film's various ecologists and geologists (who are, incidentally, pretty funny people) rarely get into the hard facts behind their opinions, but the wide stratum of experts, farmers, vintners, locals, federal employees, and those displaced by the Manhattan Project in 1943 do find a common theme: when it comes to Hanford, they want more government accountability.
Whoever we are and whatever we believe, we're frustrated by the way Native Americans were yet again displaced. We're frustrated by the way pollutants were dumped into the Columbia and the soil for years and denied until the '80s, and by the way buried tanks were misplaced and are still leaking. For an apolitical documentary that spans 60+ years of the history of a mostly-beneficial project, it's fascinating and oddly depressing to find the one thing everyone agrees on is the government needs to be more honest about the dangers they're exposing us to.
But for such a broad study and diverse set of perspectives, the film's one blind spot is fairly glaring: there are no Hispanics in it.
Maybe it's harder to find clear a focus when it comes to race than it is for the hot topics of dams, growth, and Hanford. Maybe it's still hard to find highly educated or farm-owning Hispanics even in an area they've lived in for generations, which would raise damning questions about the true nature of opportunity in America. Yet with such a ground-level study of the area, it's surprising to see such an integral part of the community ignored, especially when the movie is making so many other interesting connections about how land defines the people who live there and the problems they'll have to grapple with.
I'll let you in on a little secret here, though: I was leery of reviewing this film. I was afraid it might be dry and boring, or cornponishly hokey, or off-puttingly biased, and that I'd have to slag on it like some sort of bone-chewing, Tri-Cities-hating ogre. I was cleared of those doubts within about two minutes. Well-shot, well-edited and refreshingly even-handed, "Arid Lands" finds wider meaning through a close look at a unique place.
Screening: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15 at Richland's Battelle Auditorium. The directors and area partipants will participate in a Q&A session after the show.