IDFA ’15: “Return of the Atom” charts nuclear paranoia

Realscreen caught up with Return of the Atom (pictured) directors Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola, who discuss the long road to completing their film on the construction of a nuclear reactor in the Finnish town of Eurajoki.
November 20, 2015

Realscreen caught up with the directors of Return of the Atom in September, when the film on the construction of a nuclear reactor in Finland bowed at the Toronto International Film Festival. The doc screens at IDFA on November 20, 22, 24 and 29. 

The sluggish pace of European bureaucracy became a springboard into paranoia for a Finnish directing duo who spent nearly a decade charting the progress of a nuclear power plant.

Return of the Atom looks at the construction of Finland’s OL3 plant in Eurajoki, the first nuclear power plant given a greenlight following the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. Built by French company Areva, the plant’s construction was supposed to take five years, ending in 2009, but suffered delays.

As such, the unpredictable timetable and bureaucratic wrangling extended filmmakers Mika Taanila and Jussi Eerola’s production schedule from 100 shoot days over five years into eight years, with editing taking place concurrently to shooting.

As with previous collaborations, Return of the Atom blends different styles to set a mood but it’s the Finnish duo’s most straight-forward film in terms of narrative. Taanila is a visual artist who has shown internationally and usually works in installations, experimental film and found footage.

“We always try to have a dynamic blend of different styles,” Eerola told realscreen while the pair was in Toronto for the doc’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “We’re not going for one particular style or trying to create a contrast between the elements.”

As bureaucratic machinations slowed construction of OL3, the pair was surprised by how little open resistance there was to the plant among local townspeople. The more time they spent in the area, the more people privately began to express doubts and conspiracy theories that ultimately informed Return of the Atom’s paranoid mood.

“The paranoia aspect wasn’t there when we did the research,” says Eerola. “But quite soon there was that layer of private people having doubts about nuclear power and speaking about it. What was interesting for us was the surface of the small town and the community – the people who live there and the pro-nuclear officials.

“What is that dynamic like and how does it feel to spend your entire life living in that town?” adds Taanila. “I would like to think this work is more about humans, human ideas, feelings and sensitivities and not really about technology. We are using technology as an excuse to explore specific areas of the human mind, consciousness and dreaming.”

Taanila and Eerola raised the doc’s US$1 million budget from broadcasters YLE, WDR, ZDF and Arte, as well as a few film and private foundations. Funders were mainly curious about the balance between hard information around the plant construction and the moody atmosphere the directors wanted to create.

To do that, they used a lot of time lapse and wide-angle lenses, and also shot at night to capture a subconscious sense of dread that is accentuated bluntly in the original soundtrack by Berlin-based Finnish electronic musicians Pan Sonic.

There is also a dry and wry Finnish sense of humor that comes through in the scenes featuring bumbling French bureaucrats.

Return of the Atom went through 40 to 50 cuts before the directors locked the picture. During post, they realized archival footage would be a good way to relay background on the nuclear industry as well as the ways the technology has been pitched to the public since the end of the Second World War.

“We didn’t use any narration or the ‘voice of God,’” explains Eerola. “We just show what we found and the audience can come up with their own ideas of what they’re seeing.”

Return of the Atom had a theatrical run in Finland through distributor Plan B and is screening this weekend and next week at the International Documentary Film Festival  Amsterdam (IDFA). For more information on screenings, please click here.

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