Reactive: A filmmaker unearths her mother's scientific journey in Atomic Mom.

Nuclear Family Secrets in Silvia's Atomic Mom

Michael Fox March 30, 2010

One of the oldest points of contention in documentary is whether the camera’s presence alters the subject’s behavior. It assuredly played a role in closing the distance between Oakland filmmaker M.T. Silvia and her mother, a biologist who was one of very few women scientists to work on the atom bomb in postwar Nevada. As a child, Silvia thought she knew what her mom did–but, understandably, wasn’t told that the job involved studying the effects of blast radiation on mice and dogs. While Silvia was shielded from the psychological effects of experimenting on animals, her mother was not. “I question whether she suffers from post-traumatic stress,” Silvia says. “This is coming back to haunt her now.”

Pauline Silvia opens up in her daughter’s forthcoming documentary, Atomic Mom. In anticipation of putting the finishing touches on the film by the end of May, Silvia will show the trailer at a San Francisco Women’s Film Festival panel discussion April 11 at the Variety Club.

“She never talked about it for 50 years,” Silvia says. “This was a whole part of her life I had no idea about until 10 years ago. She trusted me enough to start telling me about it, and I think she found some healing. This was a part of her life she felt bad about and needed to resolve.”

The filmmaker, who oversees Pixar’s audio-visual infrastructure as manager of the media systems department, set out five years ago to tell her mother’s story on film. But the focus quickly expanded, over M.T.’s initial resistance, to include the mother-daughter dynamics. Then chance came into play.

“Pixar sent me to Japan,” Silvia recalls, “and I took a couple extra days off and shot at the Hiroshima Peace Museum. But that just snowballed and the whole story went in a completely organic different direction.” The filmmaker was referred to Emiko Okada, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima as an 8-year-old child and had never confided the details of that awful day to her now-grown daughter. Atomic Mom morphed into a film about two mothers and two daughters.

“I really wanted Miss Okada and my mother to meet and I realized I was forcing that,” Silvia confides. “Twice I started it up and both times my mom’s health failed and I had to cancel. It wasn’t meant to be. Let it be what it was. It wasn’t really true documentary filmmaking to try and make that happen.”

Any doc where the filmmaker appears on-camera requires the objective yet blunt perspective of an experienced editor, and Silvia credits Jennifer Chinlund for her critical contribution. Meanwhile, Silvia worked for several years at Skywalker Sound prior to moving to Pixar, and can attest to the importance of a top-flight audio track. Ben Burtt provided authentic recordings of detonations from the Nevada test site that he sweetened, while Jim LeBrecht and his crew at Berkeley Sound Artists used the sound of the desert wind to accompany the images of Hiroshima after the bomb. Marco d’Ambrosio and Klaudia Promessi composed the score.

“There’s a lot of silence in the film, which we talked about philosophically from the start,” Silvia reports. “Even though there’s a lot of nuclear explosions, we used music instead of sound effects. It’s not about the big bang, it’s about the emotion around it and the feeling around it.”

There’s the temptation, for those of a certain generation, to view nuclear Armageddon as a thing of the past. But the arms reduction treaty signed a few days ago by the U.S. and Russia is a reminder that a daunting number of weapons exist. Indeed, Silvia hopes to show Atomic Mom in May at the United Nations nonproliferation treaty review conference.

“The film brings it to the present day,” She explains. “People don’t realize we still have weapons on hair-trigger alert, which is a greater threat than global warming right now. There is an immediacy because of that. We grew up in the Cold War and had this blind faith in our government. What are the secrets of today about weaponry that we don’t know about? My mother talks a lot about compartmentalizing. We don’t ask the big questions about our government today.”

Now 80 and living in Rhode Island, Pauline Silvia’s health precludes her from traveling to the premiere, wherever and whenever it will be. But Atomic Mom is a record of her courage in talking to the camera, and to her daughter.

“We got a lot closer than we used to be,” Silvia confides. “We’ve had our ups and downs, and there were times where it was really hard for her to watch the film and see herself on the screen. It’s all about telling the truth and telling secrets that people have had for such a long time. True intimacy happens when you tell the truth.”

Notes From the Underground
The L.A. version of Noir City, with Eddie Muller at the helm for the 12th year, runs April 2-18 at the Egyptian Theatre . . . . Peter Bratt’s S.F.-shot La Mission opens April 16 in theaters, almost exactly a year after opening the 2009 S.F. International Film Festival. . . .The lineup for Ebertfest 2010, in Roger’s (and my) college town of Champaign, Illinois, includes Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now/Redux with esteemed sound and picture editor and sound designer Walter Murch in the house April 22.

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