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Into Eternity
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by Jay Seaver

"A fascinating look at almost incomprehensible long-term plans."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2010 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Often, documentaries will be rated on the perceived importance of their subjects, as opposed to the actual quality of the film. "Into Eternity" is a rare example of a documentary that not only covers a vital (yet often overlooked) topic, but does so in a way that is informative and even-handed, as well as presented in an interesting way.

The topic in question is the permanent storage of nuclear waste. The waste from fission reactors is generally stored in pools of water above ground, an imperfect solution, as these facilities require constant monitoring and, while the technology is sufficient for the foreseeable future, when dealing with material that will be dangerously radioactive for a hundred thousand years, one must also consider the unforeseeable future. This film takes a look inside Finland's plans for the long term, a cavern being excavated half a kilometer into the bedrock of the Eurajoki region. The facility was started in the twentieth century and is projected to be finished, filled, and sealed at the turn of the twenty-second. It is called "Onkalo", Finnish for "hiding place".

Writer/director/host Michael Madsen (not, let us note, the American actor) does not spend a great deal of time debating the pros and cons of nuclear power itself, beyond pointing out that though there are dangers, today's civilization presumes the availability of abundant energy. Even if another fission reactor was never built, and the existing ones were shut down, there would still be hundreds of thousands of tons of spent fuel rods that (barring a new model of reactor that can use them as fuel) must be quarantined. Building something like Onkalo is presented as a practical necessity.

Still, the timeframe involved is so unbelievably vast that philosophical matters must be considered. How does one communicate that Onkalo is a dangerous place and should be avoided to people in the far future? Finnish and even English (the common tongue used by the film's interview subjects and voice-overs) could be dead languages by then. The various engineers and officials Madsen speaks to discuss the topic with the confidence and practicality of engineers, occasionally making the argument that, since they've done their job well, there is no need for markers.

Madsen interviews these scientists with a steady, unmoving camera, often in groups of two. This does not often lead to spirited debate - these are professionals working on the same project, after all - but occasionally polite disagreement comes through, or we'll be surprised when the half that has not spoken much throughout the film decides that this is a subject on which she will comment. He'll often hold the camera on them for a few extra moments, as if waiting for backtracking or elaboration, which seldom comes (although there is the occasional fidgeting), leaving us to ponder these ordinary-looking persons' confidence - a sometimes disquieting, sometimes reassuring sensation .

Another interesting thing Madsen does is to narrate and edit the film as if addressing people in the far future who found a copy when entering Onkalo. It's an occasionally pretentious device, but it allows him to get across the scale of the project by voicing curiosity about the (relatively) near and far futures. Keeping with that, he'll also use some visual tricks more often associated with documentaries about the ancient past than the present. They disorient the audience just enough to get one thinking about the scale of the project.

Onkalo is a massive undertaking, but a necessary one for which too few of the countries dependent on nuclear power have an equivalent. That makes the documentary worthwhile viewing from an educational perspective, but it is Madsen's ability to emotionally convey the near-incomprehensibility of the time and obstacles involved that make it fascinating viewing.

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originally posted: 08/04/10 02:50:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival For more in the 2010 Silverdocs Documentary Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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