Richland – Tribeca 2023

Nuclear family, Sunset Memorial Gardens, Richland, WA. Photo credit: Helki Frantzen.

Richland is a documentary that explores the Washington state town next to the Hanford Nuclear Site and reckoning with the mushroom cloud.

To say that this documentary is heartbreaking would not be an understatement. Say what you will about the Manhattan Project and its role in ending World War II in Japan. However, we as Americans need to reckon with the fallout on U.S. soil. Families in this Washington town were exposed to plutonium, killing their children. We’re talking about a town that is only 40 miles away!

A retired teacher discusses the mascot at the Richland High School where he worked. While he was against the mushroom cloud as a mascot, he was not against what the symbol had done. I mean, is it really a good idea to have a school mascot be a mushroom cloud?!? Say what you will about the nuclear bomb and how it put an end to WWII with Japan, it’s probably one of the last school mascots one would want. Interestingly enough, the mascot didn’t get changed during the past few years, what with summer 2020 and all. The teacher even gets into American history, including Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Where he wants the Richland mascot changed, he’s not really helping himself with using General Lee as an example:

“To see that destroyed, it bothers me. It bothers me. To Look back and say, oh, slavery was so bad and I would never have had slaves–let me tell you, if you were white and you had any kind of money at that time, you would have had slaves. So don’t tell me that you were better than, you would have been exactly the same. And so I hate that hypocrisy. Was slavery wrong? Yeah. Was it invented by us? No. It’s back in biblical times.”

I’m not so sure that General Lee and slavery is the best comparison when it comes to Richland being a nuclear town. Is this really the hill that you want to die on? Yeah, yeah, I know, there are way too many racists in this country and you and I both know that they want Lee’s name to live in. But to want one mascot replaced but not Lee is where you absolutely lose me in an argument. Such thoughts should not be normal! But I digress.

Anyway, filmmaker Irene Lusztig weaves in the current interviews with archival footage as she explores the full reckoning of the Hanford Nuclear Site. But for all those who want to see the mushroom cloud dropped a mascot, one really gets the sense of how proud they are of their heritage. Never mind the fact that it had a serious impact on children because of the plutonium. Lusztig makes sure to include the following: nuclear workers, community members, archeologists, local tribes, and a Japanese granddaughter of atomic bomb survivors. In doing so, there is no stone that goes unturned.

Richland focuses less on an investigative lens and more of a focus in getting to know its citizens. They may not all agree but one can only hope that common ground exists somewhere. While the film can be very uncomfortable at times, Richland does not really offer any answers nor does it take a for or against approach.

DIRECTOR: Irene Lusztig

Richland holds its world premiere during the 2023 Tribeca Festival in the Documentary Competition. Grade: 3.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.