One of my favorite documentaries at BIFF this year was Into Eternity. You may see it pop up at art houses near you this spring. As of mid-March, 2011, with three Japanese nuclear reactors threatening to irradiate their surroundings, Into Eternity seems more timely than ever.
A Very Long Time
Finland is building a storage facility meant to last 100,000 years. Onkalo, as it is called, will house the most toxic of Finland’s nuclear waste. The film is both a poetic and prosaic message to future generations about us. (The narrator, Michael Madsen, also the director, speaks to “you,” referring to future generations.) Into Eternity also an explanation to current audiences of how we humans plan to build something more permanent than the pyramids.
Think about 100,000 years. It’s hard to wrap our human little heads around numbers that large, and Into Eternity helps by drawing a little back-of-the napkin cartoon. Put a pyramid on the left side of the screen, put Jesus’ cross in the middle of the screen, and put a movie camera at the right side of the screen.
From the pyramids to Jesus is about 2,000 years, and since then it’s been another 2,000. Now pinch that the entire timeline down to the tiniest sliver of the screen — 1/25 of it to be exact — and mark the far right side of the screen again. That’s how long this man-made structure in Finland has to last – 25 times as long as the pyramids have lasted.
Now imagine reading Chaucer without a translation. Here are some lines from eChaucer
GP 75 Of fustian he wered a gypon
GP 76 Al bismotered with his habergeon,
GP 77 For he was late ycome from his viage,
GP 78 And wente for to doon his pilgrymage.
Chaucer wrote in English. You and I speak English. Yet we find his English to be barely comprehensible, and it’s only 600 years old. How do you warn future generations for 100,000 years? How will “we” communicate with “you”, when language becomes incomprehensible in less than 1,000 years?
Maybe it would be better to simply forget the buried nuclear waste. Make the site so unassuming and unremarkable that future generations will not know there is any danger.
But people are nothing if not curious. What if we leave no sign, and some future generation discovers our tunnels and begins to dig? Madsen says “we consider you the main threat to the future of Onkalo.” Don’t we have a responsibility to warn “you”? Should we try to convey an emotional sense of dread without using language? Or will that just make you more curious? The pyramids at Giza were looted. Wouldn’t Onkalo face the same risk?
These problems are fascinating, and so is the idea that we are creating something so toxic that it requires us to think such thoughts. You can see how I might be predisposed to like a documentary on this subject. I’ve barely even mentioned anything about the movie yet.
Serious and Wry
I like the Scandinavian feel to the film. The pace is slow, and the conversation is adult and competent, even though the subject matter is a little absurd. The mere fact that politicians are discussing 100,000 year storage is a testament to their seriousness. Hard to imagine, say, Michele Bachmann talking responsibly about a project that will take 100 years to complete and will protect thousands of generations of our descendants with no immediate benefit to us except to create some jobs and appease our sense of responsibility.
The scale of the problem is almost surreal, and Madsen lets his wry side show. The Finnish politicians admit they don’t really have a good answer. Madsen gets them thinking out loud. Maybe they will legislate that an oral history be passed down from generation to generation, a history that warns future generations that they must not ever think about the tantalizing, forbidden tunnel of mystery.
But in the meantime, they are building a repository, and Madsen shows us some of the tunnels, some of the scientists, and some of the philosophers who are working on the problem. That’s more than the United States, more than Russia, and more than poor Japan can say.