In a poignant scene in the award-winning 2010 documentary “Atomic Mom,” filmmaker M.T. Silvia tells the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima atomic bombing victim, as she presents 1,000 paper cranes to Silvia’s mother, Pauline, a former U.S. Navy biologist involved in radiation testing on animals in the 1950s.
The tale of Sasaki, who after being exposed to radiation in the 1945 A-bombing of Hiroshima struggled to complete 1,000 origami cranes for good luck before dying of leukemia in 1955, becomes an important opening between Silvia and her mother, and a key scene in the documentary that recounts the story of two mothers across the seas affected in different ways by nuclear power.
“Atomic Mom” traces the reconciliation between Silvia, an anti-nuclear activist since her time in a university, and her mother, who had refused for decades to discuss her work on 1953 radiation detonations during Operation Upshot-Knothole at the then-Nevada Test Site. Parallel to their personal struggle, the film reveals the story of Emiko Okada, a Hiroshima hibakusha who is inspired by her meeting with Silvia to break her lifelong silence on the nuclear tragedy as she comes to terms with the infertility of her daughter, Yukie Tominaga, which Okada blames on her childhood radiation exposure.
The cranes presented to Sasaki’s mother in the documentary are a gift from Okada.
“The thing that is special about ‘Atomic Mom’ is that it is pulled from a women’s point of view, and the story of the bomb has never really been shown from a women’s point of view,” Silvia said. “And the fact that there is so much peace and reconciliation between my mother, who had such a crisis of conscience for the work that she did, and Emiko Okada, who offers her this olive branch in the form of paper cranes — it’s just a beautiful statement of humanity and how we are all part of a global family,” she said.
Silvia, 57, recently visited Japan for a screening of the documentary. It was brought to Hokkaido in July by Michiyo Yoshida, director of the Sapporo nonprofit organization Neighbors, which supports evacuees from Fukushima. Yoshida was given a copy of the film in December by Okada herself and was determined to share the film with the many evacuees from the radioactive fallout emitted by the March 2011 nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.
Yoshida invited Silvia to participate in the tour. “The response and generosity was really amazing,” Silvia recalled. “I was moved; it was even a little overwhelming. I think the film resonates in Japan for a lot of people because of the accident in Fukushima. Even though the film is three years old, the message is current,” she said.
“And even though the movie is about the development of atomic weaponry and the atomic bomb, you cannot separate nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
“I met a lot of evacuees from Fukushima and a lot of them have become anti-nuclear activists. They were mostly women and mostly mothers. I think it was a bonding. We all want the same thing, and it is so immediate for the mothers from Fukushima.”
The documentary, which is scheduled to be shown in Tokyo next spring, has enjoyed a wide international screening, with tours in Poland, Ethiopia, Brazil and Australia in the last two years. Another screening is scheduled at the Uranium Film Festival in Munich this fall.
In the United States, however, the reception has been mixed. Although the film has won critical acclaim, garnering 11 awards from various film festivals around the country, the response of American audiences has been unpredictable.
“Generally, the reaction has been very positive, and it is airing regularly on the Documentary Channel right now, so a lot of people are seeing it,” Silvia said.
“But I do get a lot of hate mail, a lot of people who believe that dropping the atomic bomb saved millions of American lives and helped to end the war. Some of that negative response is done without very much respect. I had a couple of screenings at film festivals with quite volatile reactions from the audience, very challenging to deal with during the questions and answers.
“One time I had to be escorted to the awards ceremony after a man stood up in the audience and yelled that he was going to get me, was going to stop me, take me down. He was very threatening and it was very uncomfortable.”
For Silvia, as a long-time anti-war and anti-nuclear activist, the negative reactions are a sober reminder of the complicated feelings toward nuclear power, both for energy and weaponization.
Growing up in Rhode Island, Silvia was proud of her “scientist mom,” a rarity at that time: “As a kid, I knew that my mother had worked on the atomic bomb but I didn’t really know what it was. It was all top secret, and we couldn’t talk about it. I had this fantasy in my head that she was some type of James Bond, espionage spy, that it was all kind of cool.
“As I got older, increasingly I needed to find some resolution in my own mind.”
Silvia started her anti-war protests as a teenager, against the Vietnam War. A graduate in women’s studies from San Francisco State University, she was inspired to also fight against nuclear power while still in college by Dr. Helen Caldicott, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility as well as the Nuclear Policy Research Institute.
Caldicott’s work inflamed the doubts and questions Silvia developed as an adult about her mother’s past research, and she repeatedly tried to discuss the atomic testing with her. In the 1980s, Silvia even spoke about her mother’s work and her own questions on National Public Radio, but respected her wishes when her mother requested her to stop.
Silvia’s questions were put on hold until her mother’s 50th class reunion in 2001.
“Her university did a feature article about all the pioneering women in her class, and when my mother read the written words of what she had admitted in the interview, I think she finally wanted to talk about it more,” the filmmaker said. “I was so curious and kept pushing, and one day she brought a big box of her navy files to me on a visit. We went through every item and that’s when I first turned on the camera.”
Silvia never intended to make a documentary film. She was merely recording family history. But her day job made it natural for her to work in video. As a media systems manager for Pixar Entertainment working in audio and visual engineering, she also had an opportunity to visit Hiroshima.
“We have a world traveling art exhibition, and it was in Japan for a year, so I went to Tokyo to install the exhibit. I took a few vacation days to see the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and they put me in contact with Tomoko Shisaki of the Hiroshima Film Commission, who later put me in touch with Emiko,” she recalled.
By unfolding the story of Okada, the hibakusha, and her daughter, Silvia realized that it had something with universal appeal. After Okada sent the paper cranes, Silvia’s mother responded with a heartfelt letter to the Okada family, gaining a measure of peace herself, although health issues made it impossible for her to travel to Japan.
At the 2011 Japanese premiere of the film in Hiroshima, Okada and her family presented Silvia with a lei of paper cranes, placing it around her neck.
As an activist, Silvia is encouraged by some recent developments to limit or reduce nuclear power in the United States, but believes there is still a long road ahead.
“They just recently closed the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California, after safety concerns. But Fukushima is no longer in the news in mainstream America, and that is really sad. I have to really look for new information,” she said. “There is a lot of fear and speculation about what is going to wash up on the West Coast from Japan, so it is more selfish thinking than empathizing with what is currently happening in Fukushima.”
Still, Silvia said she remains hopeful: “The resolution with my mother has been the most meaningful for me with this whole process. I am still surprised at the film’s continued success, as I had no idea that the film would be so important to so many people.
“It’s my prayer for ourselves, for the world. And I feel the film, in a small way, is making things happen.”
For more information, visit www.atomicmom.org.