Movie News & Reviews

Apolitical 'Arid Lands' focuses on government accountability

Growing up in the Tri-Cities, it's pretty easy to forget there's a fewmillion gallons of nuclear waste festering just a couple dozen milesupriver.

I mean, I lived here the first 18 years of my life, and not once did Idie a horrible irradiated death. I don't glow in the dark. Thethought of unfiltered tap water does not make my hackles raise. Yet,hey, there's 2/3 of the country's nuclear waste practically withinspitting distance of us, so long as you're doing the spitting on oneof our windier days.

That unconcern is one of the conflicting attitudes -- somewhere betweenpragmatism and obliviousness, despite plenty of reason forconcern -- explored in "Arid Lands," Grant Aaker and Josh Wallaert's newdocumentary about Hanford, the Columbia Basin, and the link betweenthe land and its residents.

Shot with a minimum of text-based narration, the film establishesitself with a series of wide landscape shots that'll remind you howweird this place must look to people who don't live in howlingwastelands. From that point on it mostly lets the locals talk forthemselves, getting into some blackly funny history about how thegovernment'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 andthe future of a post-Hanford Tri-Cities. Perhaps you're alreadyfamiliar 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 specificpolitics of Eastern Washington aren't just a matter of provincialideology, they're an inevitable conflict of the various groups ofpeople 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 factsbehind their opinions, but the wide stratum of experts, farmers,vintners, locals, federal employees, and those displaced by theManhattan Project in 1943 do find a common theme: when it comes toHanford, they want more government accountability.

Whoever we are and whatever we believe, we're frustrated by the wayNative Americans were yet again displaced. We're frustrated by theway pollutants were dumped into the Columbia and the soil for yearsand denied until the '80s, and by the way buried tanks were misplacedand are still leaking. For an apolitical documentary that spans 60+years of the history of a mostly-beneficial project, it's fascinatingand oddly depressing to find the one thing everyone agrees on is thegovernment needs to be more honest about the dangers they're exposingus to.

But for such a broad study and diverse set of perspectives, the film'sone 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 itis for the hot topics of dams, growth, and Hanford. Maybe it's stillhard to find highly educated or farm-owning Hispanics even in an areathey've lived in for generations, which would raise damning questionsabout the true nature of opportunity in America. Yet with such aground-level study of the area, it's surprising to see such anintegral part of the community ignored, especially when the movie ismaking so many other interesting connections about how land definesthe people who live there and the problems they'll have to grapplewith.

I'll let you in on a little secret here, though: I was leery ofreviewing this film. I was afraid it might be dry and boring, orcornponishly hokey, or off-puttingly biased, and that I'd have to slagon it like some sort of bone-chewing, Tri-Cities-hating ogre. I wascleared of those doubts within about two minutes. Well-shot,well-edited and refreshingly even-handed, "Arid Lands" finds widermeaning through a close look at a unique place.

Grade: B+

Screening: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15 at Richland's Battelle Auditorium. The directors and area partipants will participate in a Q&A session afterthe show.