Imagining Disaster: Into Eternity

FILM, Film Festivals
At the Documentary Edge Festival, Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen contemplates the future through the burial of our past.

A new kind of eco documentary emerges with Into Eternity, a film that doesn’t preach to the converted, galvanize support for change, or lay down a heavy-handed doomsday prophecy designed to scare the shit out of viewers. No, its raison d’être is a much bigger picture—the next 100,000 years, in fact—during which the planet’s current environmental and energy crises will cease to exist. What is expected to outlast the human race and this incomprehensible timeline is the nuclear waste we produce as a modern civilisation—lethal radioactive material that will remain harmful well into the distant future. The pioneering storage facility Onkalo, manned by grave faced engineers and physicists, has been charged with sealing away Finland’s legacy of nuclear power, and may be the answer to the dilemma of radioactive waste management. It is the first permanent solution of its kind, though as an ongoing project will not be completed until at least 2100. Such vast time spans, however difficult to grasp, are fascinating to contemplate, and director Michael Madsen, who largely ignores the schematics of the subterranean repository and its bold engineering feat, indulges the philosophical questions and repercussions of this grand scheme.

For instance, what becomes of the complex after it is decommissioned and closed off? Should it be signposted with markers to notify visitors—human, or otherwise—of the dangers entombed? Should this message be conveyed through a universal pictorial language (similar to the inscription onboard the Voyager probe), an ominous monolith (like the one depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey), or a reproduction of, for the hell of it, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”? And how can we really be sure, given the deteriorated remains of the oldest known structures in the world as examples, that the bunker will last even a fraction of the 1000 centuries it must endure? The multitude of quandaries is at once sobering and stimulating in a way that affects the viewer on an entirely different plane, far removed from the clumsy absolutist statements, scaremongering statistics, and righteous finger pointing of many activist documentaries. Madsen’s film is constructive insofar as it opens up a discussion of how to deal with mankind’s folly, and yet it isn’t naïve, and there’s a straightforward fatalism to its role as a document. It is a film made not for us, but for a future we can barely comprehend.

Shot in a cold, glacial style akin to the Kubrickian industrial food expose, Our Daily Bread, Into Eternity, for all its serious portent as a caution to beings who may one day stumble upon our dirty laundry, plays like a piece of high-concept, apocalyptic science-fiction. There is very little science, however, only the imagination of disaster, to borrow the title and thrust of Susan Sontag’s classic essay—a text that anticipates the trauma, anxiety, and sense of morality implicit in the film. Campaigners for safer energy sources might argue that the “disaster” has already happened—that nuclear power plants, not to mention nuclear arms, have been allowed to subsist in our time—and what is apparent in the film’s subject matter is a metaphor for sweeping our mistakes under the carpet, and not without a sense of shame. It would be wrong, though, to draw conclusions of an eco agenda or political message in Into Eternity. Mostly, it is about responsibility, but not for a moment about reshaping the way we live as a society. As evidenced in the resigned testimonies of the personnel working at Onkalo, we’ve reached the point of no return.

The shift in focus to handling nuclear waste, rather than reducing the creation of it, may be hard to understand for New Zealand audiences, considering the nation’s admirable nuclear-free policy. And yet, in a climate of diminishing resources, how long can the country realistically hold out? Hundreds of years from now, the government may be forced to dig its own bottomless pit for the thousands of tonnes of waste a concession to nuclear power would result in. By then, perhaps a consensus will have been reached as to some of the speculative scenarios posed: such as, the hypothesis of leaving no trace of the site and throwing away the keys, so as to ensure the radioactive burial ground is never found. If sci-fi cinema’s obsession with Pandora’s Box—and its reoccurring plotline of space explorers who locate a deserted vessel or extraterrestrial crypt containing not the promise of discovery, but an unspeakable evil or threat to the human race—is anything to go by, then the curiosity and greed of others cannot be underestimated. Forward thinking as it is, Into Eternity also has the power to make one feel hopeless, if not wholly insignificant—it’s an existential downer whose insurmountable concept of oblivion through infinity could just as well nudge the public towards pure abandonment, and the excessive, devil-may-care lifestyle discouraged of us today. As for whether Madsen’s “time capsule” and its warning messages within—including a portentous address by the director himself, spoken to the camera in darkness save for the flicking light of a matchstick—will ever serve its true purpose, only time will tell.

‘Into Eternity’ screens at the Documentary Edge Festival 2011 in Wellington, March 10-27. It previously screened in Auckland.