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Documentary brings a dark side of nuclear past to light

A hydrogen bomb test in the South Pacific in the 1950s.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Adam Jonas Horowitz began his journey as a filmmaker more than 25 years ago. The Santa Fe resident traveled to the Marshall Islands in 1986 on a whim. What he discovered there was shocking.

The former American military colony in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was chock-full of radioactive coconuts, leaking nuclear waste repositories and densely populated slums.

All of these were the direct result of when the United States conducted 67 atomic and hydrogen bomb tests in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s. The project vaporized islands and exposed entire populations to fallout. The islanders on Rongelap received near-fatal doses of radiation from one test and were then moved onto a highly contaminated island to serve as human guinea pigs for 30 years, in an experiment conceived at Los Alamos.

If you go
WHAT: “Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1”
WHEN: 4, 6, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13
WHERE: Guild Cinema, 3405 E. Central
HOW MUCH: $7

“These are stories that we don’t really hear about,” Horowitz explains. “This trip opened my eyes to another part of history, and it all came at the hands of our government. It seemed like it would make a great film.”

After making his first film on the subject, Horowitz decided to travel back to the Marshall Islands in 2006 and dive deeper into the people’s stories. The result is his 86-minute documentary, “Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1.” The film was partially funded by PBS and is slated for a 2013 air date.

It will screen at the Guild Cinema on Tuesday, Nov. 13, where Horowitz will participate in a question-and-answer session after each screening.

He says he’s been living in northern New Mexico for more than 25 years and often was around Los Alamos National Laboratory.

“I always felt like I had nuclear weapons in my backyard,” he explains. “I wanted to find some story to tell about nuclear weapons that hadn’t been told. When I found out about this, I knew that this was one story to be told. It’s captivating about how these people have lived with this mess that was created around them.”

He says the Marshall Islands represent paradise, and it’s an archetypal view of paradise.

“You imagine blue skies and clear water,” he says. “But when I arrived it was so much worse than I dreamed.”

Upon arriving 20 years after his first visit, Horowitz says, he thought the film was just going to be an update of his first film. But what he found were stories of human radiation experiments.

“I didn’t believe it and was quite skeptical of the stories I was being told,” he says. “But I started to meet a lot of survivors of the experiments and the story became stronger. I think in northern New Mexico, we get a pretty rose-colored view of the labs. We are taught that the labs created peace and kept the Soviet Union at bay. We’re getting a very sanitized view, and I found the history is so much darker than we were ever taught.”

The documentary has been on the film festival circuit for the past year and has been garnering various accolades. It recently was nominated for best environmental film at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. It picked up the audience award at the Cinema Planeta International Film Festival in Mexico City and won the jury prizes for best documentary at the Chicago Peace on Earth Film Festival and the Festival International du Film d’Environment in Paris.

Horowitz says the film has resonated with audiences, which is what he wanted it to do.

The film screened in Santa Fe at the Center for Contemporary Arts, where it sold out a series of screenings.

“I made this film to give the people in the Marshall Islands a voice,” he says. “They had their land ruined and contaminated. Now the people are living with birth defects. I felt the responsibility to tell this story because people did need to hear it.”

SEND ME YOUR TIPS: If you know of a movie filming in the state, or are curious about one, email film@ABQjournal.com. Follow me on Twitter at @agomezART.




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