Filming the Nevada Test Site
Area activists spread an anti-nuclear message through documentary film
The leader sings prayers in a haunting voice while pounding out the beat on his drum. Around him, a circle of dancers gathers. The sun silhouettes the figures—hands clasped together in friendship—against the desert landscape.
It’s a stunning film clip.
The annual spring gathering at the Nevada Test Site provides plenty of material for a documentary film. And for years, anti-nuclear activists have sought someone to capture the event held every year near the small town of Mercury, someone to convey the healing spirit of the gathering—and to educate the American public about the dangers of nuclear testing and radioactive waste.
Finally, two activists, Sandi Rizzo of Reno and John Brooner of Susanville, Calif., decided to take on the project. With borrowed equipment, a shoestring budget and a willingness to learn the craft as they went, Rizzo and Brooner began incalculable hours of raw filmmaking in arguably the rawest of landscapes, with special effects courtesy of the United States of America.
The work in progress, titled Alternative to Madness, is intended to spread the holistic message of “one water, one air, one mother earth.”
“We hope to get this out to people who have no clue that this is going on around them,” Rizzo says. “We want to start the process of … questioning authority, and I think that is a healthy thing.”
The pathos of protest
The Shundahai Network, the anti-nuclear arm of the Western Shoshone tribe, and its spiritual leader, Corbin Harney, sponsor the coming weekend of activism to “heal global wounds.” Twice a year, people from the world over converge on the test site, about 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Attendees are trained in non-violent civil disobedience. They listen to talks by anti-nuclear activists from across the globe and participate in traditional sweat lodges or sunrise ceremonies. Some offer their prayers for healing “Newe Sogobia,” the Shoshone name for their land. Some even choose to trespass within the test site boundaries. In doing so, they risk arrest and radiation exposure while erecting monuments to the land they say the U.S. government took illegally from Native Americans.
The Shoshone claim the majority of Nevada (including the test site), parts of southeastern California and Idaho as their tribal lands. The basis for their claim is the Ruby Valley Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which President Ulysses S Grant signed in 1863. Shoshone people argue that the treaty did not cede Newe Sogobia to the United States. As in other similar claims by American Indians, the government offered a monetary sum for the acreage as it was valued at the treaty signing—about 10 cents an acre. Unlike some claims by other tribes, the Western Shoshone has refused the money—so far.
Making a film
Since she began working on Alternative to Madness, Rizzo’s passion for documentary filmmaking has blossomed into an obsession. Videotapes are stacked in crates up to the ceiling of her tiny one-room living quarters in Reno.
Rizzo records congressional hearings and public meetings concerning Yucca Mountain and other Nevada environmental issues. She has begun producing films about Western medicine alternatives. And, recently, she’s become a devotee of somatics, what she describes as the study of the body and the wisdom of its language.
Though it may seem unlikely that this native New Yorker would end up chronicling an American Indian event, Rizzo’s interest was sparked early in life.
“My third-grade notebook was the only schoolbook I saved, and that’s because we learned about American Indians,” says Rizzo. “It must have been in me or my path to eventually travel west and seek out this wisdom.”
Rizzo came to the West in 1993 and attended her first gathering at the Nevada Test Site in 1996. During that time, some big-name celebrities rallied at the Test Site, like Martin Sheen, Bonnie Raitt, the Indigo Girls and Terry Garr. Still, the media was conspicuously absent. Leader Corbin Harney always pressed for someone involved in the gatherings to document them. Brooner and Rizzo heard his call.
Consumer advocate and politician Ralph Nader also inspired Rizzo to tackle the project. She listened when Nader urged citizens to become their own media source.
“Corporations like General Electric and Westinghouse own the media and also nuclear power plants, so they will not expose these serious nuclear issues,” Rizzo says. “Since our news is censored, we have to rely on the international participants at the gathering to share their knowledge about U.S. nuclear policy. The opinion of these folks from other countries is that the Nevada Test Site is the war machine of the world.”
Rizzo met Brooner at the test site. They soon formed a filming partnership, though neither of them had any experience in filmmaking.
“We’re not pros,” Rizzo says. “We’re just citizens who care and are learning as we go.”
Despite this lack of knowledge, the novice duo captures some powerful images on their fledgling film:
A female guard smirks as costumed activists daring to trespass into her work place confront her.
Oregon high school students vow to inform their classmates about the nuclear waste traveling American roadways. “What I’m confronted with is the death of our planet, basically,” says one participant, gesturing to the lands beyond the painted white boundary line.
“I want the bomb shooters to go away,” orders a wide-eyed activist, age 5.
A Jesuit priest begs for forgiveness: “They named the first bomb they detonated here Trinity. What blasphemy! Jesus, forgive us.”
But the film isn’t merely relying on emotional testimony to make its political plea. Many Americans are unaware that nuclear weapon testing has not stopped, worry anti-nuke activists. The federal government, through its hired private contractors, regularly engages in sub-critical (underground) nuclear bomb testing. Activists feel that American citizens need to know about the amount of nuclear waste that will travel U.S. highways should the Yucca Mountain waste repository become a reality. These are critical elements of the film.
“When we filmed, Sandi wanted to include as many facts as possible about the threat of nuclear testing and waste, and I wanted to capture the spirit of the gathering,” Brooner says. “That’s why we worked so well together as a team. She takes the logical angle, and I explore the feeling.”
From idea to obsession
Rizzo and Brooner shot 18 videotapes at the 1998 gathering. They’ve whittled their footage down to a three-hour film, and Alternative to Madness is now in its final edit. The two do most of the work in Rizzo’s small home.
They hope to distribute the film to public access stations across the United States. They are considering a Reno premiere when the final edit is completed. But money, or lack of it, is always the biggest impediment.
“If we can get funding, then we can do lots,” Rizzo says. “I would make thousands and thousands of copies of it to distribute.”
Last year, the duo applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant but didn’t receive the funding. Local coffeehouse and casino-circuit singer Genie Webster has agreed to do a benefit show for the project.
Even though Rizzo and Brooner have spent countless hours poring over shots to make a coherent film, the activist says she never tires of watching it.
“It’s so beautiful,” Rizzo says. “We can watch it a million times, and the passion people have for this cause coming through in the film always inspires me.
“The experience at the gathering is life-changing. We learn from the native people respect for the earth and each other, ways to connect to ourselves and the land and all of its creatures, how to pray in our own way and gather peacefully with a message."