Uranium Drive-In: Documentary ‘Surprised’ Filmmaker Beraza
by Leslie Vreeland
May 23, 2013 | 3148 views | 0 0 comments | 26 26 recommendations | email to a friend | print

‘Bag It’ Director Premieres New Work at Mountainfilm

TELLURIDE – From dominant local news story to world premiere at Mountainfilm, the controversy around a proposed uranium mill 50 miles upwind of Telluride has now become a documentary film by Suzan Beraza, acclaimed director of Bag It.

Uranium Drive-In takes a look, from both sides, at the conundrums involved: jobs versus environment, hardscrabble West End versus resort-wealthy East End. The film, which takes its name from a legendary movie-theatre sign in the community of Naturita, where the film is set, revolves around the proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill in the Paradox Valley, and the opposition to the mill by a Telluride-based environmental group, versus the feelings of many in Naturita, and neighboring Nucla, who are desperate for jobs and the economic recovery they believe a mill would bring. At bottom, it is an emotional tug of war between two groups of people, two cultures – one fixated on the dangers a uranium mill would pose to the natural world, and the other equally focused on putting food on the table. (As one Naturita resident put it of her town’s economic decline, “It’s almost like we’re still surviving, but it’s kinda just like those last few breaths. We wanna keep breathing, but we’ve gotta get something in here to do it.”) 

The contrast between the two points of view was as simple as that. Or so it seemed to director Beraza before she picked up her camera and investigated, and was surprised to find nothing simple about this at all.

Beraza lives in Telluride, and had followed the controversy surrounding the mill for some time. “It was happening so close by,” she said. “Living in Telluride, the thought about the mill was, it’s a really bad idea. I was curious to know why.” When the director arrived in Naturita and began interviewing residents, she found, “like so many things,” answers “were not clear cut.” In that sense, she said, making Bag It was simpler. So was its message: “We use too many disposable plastic bags. We know that,” she said. Uranium, by contrast, turned out to be less about the science, and more about the emotions. Beraza hadn’t originally intended it that way, but that was what she found. “As a filmmaker, you want to come up with a solution,” she said. “But once you dive in and get involved, you realize the faces on the other side of this are human.” Beraza found the contrast between the story she thought she had and the one she got compelling and surprising, “definitely different from what we expected.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recently approved the radioactive materials license for Energy Fuels, Inc., the Canadian company that seeks to develop the Piñon Ridge Mill. All that remains is a CDPHE air quality permit before development can begin. The timing of Mountainfilm and her movie’s debut “is really an amazing coincidence” given Energy Fuels’ recent license approval, Beraza said. (She tried several times to interview the company’s CEO, but the firm declined.) 

Making Uranium was a learning experience, one the director is eager to repeat. “When you start, you have a sense of what you think you’re going to make, but no idea of where you may ultimately end up,” she said. “Obviously, you can’t be completely clueless” about how a film will progress, “but you also have to be open to the fact that the journey may take you where you didn’t expect, and that’s the place you need to go.” Thus the difference between an exposé, such as Bag It, and a classic documentary, which seeks not only to convey a message but to present several sides of a story. Documentary making “is a great lesson in improvisation,” Beraza summed up. Like being a good reporter. Uranium Drive-In screens at the Palm this Saturday, May 25 at 6:15 p.m., and again on Sunday, May 26 at 12:15 p.m. The director will be on hand following both showings to answer questions. 

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