While we love the classic storytelling of Gary Smith or Chris Jones, sometimes a Notable Narrative attracts our attention even if it sits on the border between narrative and straight news. “Fallout,” an August print and video package from Newsday, falls into the second category. (The video can be seen at the bottom of this page).
Thomas Maier’s and John Paraskevas’ video, which is the more narrative of the project’s two elements, recounts the story of the people living on the island of Rongelap at the time of the 1954 explosion of “Bravo,” the most powerful bomb ever detonated by the U.S.
Bravo’s radiation burned the faces, skin and hair of every resident of Rongelap. The U.S. evacuated the islanders but then encouraged them to return home after just three years. Documents from Brookhaven National Lab show that investigators, who were also in charge of medical treatment of these Marshall Islanders, believed that “the habitation of these people on the island [would] afford most valuable ecological radiation data on human beings.”
After the rate of birth defects, death and cancer increased in the population, the residents of Rongelap fled without warning the Brookhaven researchers who had treated them for decades. Later, tests showing that the island was still contaminated became public, and a nuclear claims tribunal set up by the U.S. awarded a billion-dollar judgment against the U.S. government. The Bush administration refused to pay the award; the Obama administration has not yet announced its decision.
Maier and Paraskevas faced difficult challenges. How could they fashion a narrative when both the doctor in charge of returning people to Rongelap and the mayor who trusted him with the fate of his people are dead? Much of the power of the story rests in Brookhaven documents, newsreels, and government footage.
It might have been possible to create a more traditional narrative arc on film, but Maier and Paraskevas had limited time with the islanders at their current home and only two hours on Rongelap itself. What’s more, the project’s timeliness was key—they were not just recounting history; they were working to get out a story with current policy implications before Congressional hearings on the $1 billion payment.
Maier and Paraskevas included a wide range of relevant characters—including still-living doctors who treated residents, along with children and relatives of the two dead protagonists—and stitched the elements together using voiceover.
The third chapter of “Fallout” shows newsreel footage from 1957, in which islanders come to the U.S. to have the radiation in their bodies measured. In one grotesquely chipper scene, an announcer explains that Mayor John Angain of Rongelap is “a savage, but a happy, amenable savage,” who was given “apples and other good things to eat” after his examination.
With video snippets tied together by an omniscient announcer, Maier employs the same approach of the newsreel and government films. He also creates a counter-narrative by using documents intended to show the government’s benevolence and scientific prowess to indict the bigotry that had such terrible consequences for the residents of Rongelap.