Helsinki-based filmmaker and visual artist Mika Taanila and art-house cinematographer Jussi Eerola co-directed a documentary titled Return of the Atom. The film revolves around the city of Eurajoki, Finland, which becomes the site of the first nuclear power plant constructed since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. In 2003, Eurajoki was selected as the location for a fifth new nuclear reactor. While watching news coverage of the announcement, Eerola detected an undercurrent of dissension in some of the reporters’ facial expressions. “I started to wonder why they were not happy because nuclear reactors one and two [Olkiluoto 1 and Olkiluoto 2, also located in Eurajoki] were seen as a gold rush for local workers,” he recalls.
The construction project would take eight years to complete, and Return of the Atom covers the entire story from start to finish. “Nobody knew about these huge delays and the cost of the construction,” explains Taanila. “There was some interesting drama that surprised us so many times. There were many themes that we realized during the process. I became interested in radiation being invisible and odorless, and how to deal with that in cinema.”
Financing the documentary was not an issue. “We are in a happy situation in Finland because we have public funding,” explains Eerola. “We can be quite independent when making decisions.” Also helpful was the cinematic track record between the two directors, as well as the topical nature of the subject matter. “Mostly our research was based on meeting people and on spending time in Eurajoki and at the nuclear site itself,” remarks Taanila. “We were able to get a sense of what it’s like to live in a nuclear town.”
Individuals from both sides of the nuclear debate are represented. “Some of the interviews, especially with TVO [Finnish nuclear power company Teollisuuden Voima] vice president Rauno Mokka, were fantastic. You couldn’t imagine what he was going to say. It was a gift from God! He is so arrogant, open, funny, and charismatic,” Taanila recalls. Overall, the film takes a neutral approach when presenting the nuclear debate. “We wanted to come up with a film where, in the end, the viewer should be able to make up his or her opinion about nuclear power,” explains Eerola.
Return of the Atom does not include a narration. “We have never used a narrator in our projects,” Taanila explains. “When we got the sum of the parts edited and were spending the first two or three years with the material, it was interesting to hear the rhetoric and how different people talk about radiation, nuclear power, and something that is larger than life.”
The team assembled eight years of footage into a two-hour theatrical runtime. “Mika [Taanila] made single scenes and a rough cut,” explains Eerola. “The structure was the most difficult thing. We have this main character who is a former TVO electrician. Every time he came onto the screen he stole the whole film. It was quite a challenge to find the balance between his scenes and the rest of the material, so the film moves along in an interesting way. There is not one protagonist we are following all the way through the film. It’s more like episodes and a collage type of film. In the beginning, we knew that we would have multiple characters. We tried to base the structure more on themes and atmosphere to keep it interesting and surprising. We were happy with the final structure and flow.”
The filmmakers chose not to radically alter their camera equipment throughout the course of the project. “If we had been changing the cameras all of the time then we would have had mixed aesthetics in the film,” explains Eerola. “We were not sure that certain scenes would end up in the beginning or later in the film.” The team utilized many formats, including Super 16 for the time-lapse scenes. “We tested different kinds of small video cameras back in 2004 and ended up shooting most of Return of the Atom on MiniDV. We tried one camera and printed that on film. It looked like 16mm film. Because we finished the film so much later it would have been quite a big cost to print it on film and scan back in video,” says Eerola. Canon XL2 and Sony XDCAM were the cameras of choice, and these were paired with a large variety of zoom lenses. The team only used lighting equipment for interview segments, and strived to maintain a natural look. “We didn’t want the documentary scenes to be too stylized, so even the lighting is realistic,” Eerola explains.
“The music is by a pioneering Finnish minimal electro group called Pan Sonic,” Taanila tells us. “They were living in Berlin at the time, and we had previously collaborated with them on a couple of art installations and short film projects. Quite early on, we commissioned Pan Sonic to compose and record soundtrack music. They did three extensive recording sessions in Berlin between 2005 and 2011. We used the music from the first recording session in the rough cuts edits. It was an important part of the tone, mood, and editing rhythm of the film.” Eerola adds, “There was a non-spoken atmosphere of fear, and the time-lapse scenes are revealing these emotions.” The film includes whimsical, upbeat segments as well. “The lighter music, like the bus ride in the beginning, came at the end with the sound editing,” reveals Taanila. Sound designer Olli Huhtanen helped the directors craft the film’s final soundscape. “We needed to bring in some contrasting element to this dark, heavy, mechanical, and sterile music. We ended up using some production music pieces to give a more optimistic feel.”
“Because we weren’t using a lot of extra lights we had to go with whatever we had. But, of course, we could make some changes while color grading,” explains Eerola. “We were quite happy with the realistic feeling that we had in the documentary scenes. With the time-lapse scenes we chose to shoot at dusk and at night, so we could have this more dramatic feeling.”
The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan served as an unexpected bookend to Return of the Atom’s subject matter. “We were so passionate and fascinated by so many themes. We didn’t know how long we should keep on shooting, when the plant would be ready and what the timeframe was for our film. When the Fukushima disaster happened, countries like Germany closed down all of their nuclear power plants. It made for a natural closing for our film,” explains Taanila.
Watch the trailer:
Images courtesy of Deckert Distribution & Jussi Eerola