13 Short Films about Atomic Power: Interview (pt. I) with British filmmaker Vicki Lesley


BIO: Vicki Lesley is a 33-year old documentary producer from London. She has worked in the UK television industry for the last 11 years working on high profile single documentaries and documentary series for a variety of network and cable broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4, Five, Sky One and Discovery. She is also an active campaigner on environmental and development issues campaigning in her spare time with Greenpeace, the World Development Movement and CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).  Vicki set up Tenner Films as a way of combining her twin passions for social and environmental justice, and engaging, thought-provoking documentary films.

Her Film: Explain if you would the significance of the word “Tenner” in Tenner Films.

Vicki Lesley: A tenner is British slang for a £10 note. When I first launched my nuclear documentary project in mid-2006, I worked out that if I could persuade 10,000 people to give me a tenner each that would give me a reasonable, if modest, budget for a feature documentary. And that’s how I hit on the name for the company!

I found out later that I’d had the very same ‘crowd-funding’ idea of that’s since taken off with sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter and successful docs like The Age of Stupid. I haven’t reached that £100K target yet – crowd-funding donations stand at more like £5K which is still a very respectable total I think – but the idea of involving many, many people at a grassroots level remains central to my approach.

HF: Your current project is a documentary series of 13 short films about atomic power.  What made you want to do this project, especially as a series instead of a feature?

VL: It is a feature! From the outset, this has always been conceived as a feature documentary but because nuclear power is such a complex and multi-faceted subject area, I needed a way to break it down into smaller, easily understandable chunks. I knew I didn’t want to use any kind of on-screen presenting figure, which would have been one way to structure the film. So I was working with the idea of small segments or chapters right from the start. It was just a question of how to hang them all together.

But after I went to the States to do the first bit of filming in 2007 – looking at the impact of uranium mining on the Navajo communities of Arizona and New Mexico – I decided to cut that together as a stand alone short documentary which I entered and subsequently screened at a number of festivals. That served as something of a calling card, helping me to gain further grant funding for the project. But it also sparked something creatively – the idea of compiling a number of discrete but thematically-related short films together into one full-length feature.

Of course, this isn’t a brand new idea – I particularly remembered a biopic from the early 90s about an Australian pianist 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould – but it is unusual and I liked the idea of being able to ‘curate’ my shorts to build up a nuanced picture of the nuclear power industry without having to spoon-feed the audience with a particular ‘line’. By choosing which subjects I would turn my camera on, creating individual, stand-alone segments and then playing those out one after the other, I felt that the juxtapositions would become as important as the content itself, allowing viewers to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions.

I’m now coming full circle again and re-visiting whether I should create some sort of overarching framework with short, interstitial content between each of the shorts to help tie them all together as one film. I’ve also come up with a new working title ‘Chain of Decay’ to help prevent confusion about the film’s form. I’d love to know what HerFilm readers think – interstitials or just ‘pure’ juxtaposition..?

As for my motivation in making a film on this subject, it was a combination of personal frustration and political timeliness. I started this project in 2006  when I was coming up to 30 and working in TV on documentary subjects that were fun (everything from au pairs to aliens) but pretty insubstantial. As someone who spends a lot of her non-work time campaigning on environmental and development issues, I felt like the broadcast work I was doing wasn’t entirely fulfilling my ambitions in terms of turning the spotlight on important issues and untold personal stories. So I decided to make my own film on a subject that would!

At the time, the UK government was consulting on whether they should sanction a new generation of nuclear power stations. It seemed (and still seems) a subject people know very little about and I felt that here was an area where I could perhaps add something to the conversation, using the skills I’d learnt in mainstream TV documentaries to make something more thoughtful, but still very watchable.

Looking back, I don’t think I really knew what I was getting into, trying to make a completely independent documentary outside of the TV structures I was familiar with. But I’m very glad I did it – and hopefully everyone else will be too when the full film is finally finished!

HF: You’ve involved a lot of major players within the field of nuclear energy oversight, organizations with a mission focused around nuclear power, etc.  Discuss how and why you approached these figures.  Have you been able to access everyone you’d like to involve in the project?

VL: My whole approach has always been driven by the personal stories I’ve been trying to tell so the organisations I’ve approached have been ones with a direct connection to particular stories, for example the Southwest Research & Information Centre in Albuquerque [New Mexico] who work with the Navajo Nation in their struggles with the government and companies involved in uranium mining in the area, or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency who are the regulators overseeing the clean-up of radioactive particles released onto the beach at the Dounreay nuclear site in Scotland.

These organisations have generally been pleased to be able to draw attention to their work in the nuclear field and have been very co-operative in working with me on the film. Thus far, I’m glad to say no-one I’ve approached has been unwilling to take part.

HF: You also have used records of incidents and accidents at one nuclear power plant in England in the short Fifty Years.  Can you explain the process of accessing those records – were there any special restrictions placed upon you as a filmmaker?

VL: The records I used for Fifty Years were all already in the public domain. A British campaign group based near Sellafield, the power station in question, had compiled a list of accidents and incidents up to 1997 from Health & Safety Executive reports. I filled in the gaps from 1998 to 2005 by accessing the HSE reports for that period myself (they are readily available online). I’m not aware of any restrictions in reporting this information, which is basically what this short film does, albeit in an experimental style.

HF: Has there been any public or institutional reaction to your project?

VL: The reaction I’ve received from people who’ve seen any of the short films either online or at screenings has been overwhelmingly positive, although there have been one or two less complimentary comments on YouTube!

I’ve not had much in the way of a direct institutional reaction so far, apart from the now-defunct UK Atomic Energy Authority who were in charge of the decommissioning of the Dounreay site in Scotland when I filmed there in 2008 (the site has now been handed over to a private company). They told me they were very pleased with the way that short turned out, which I was really happy about, not least because the film is fairly unforgiving in its discussion of past safety lapses at the site. It was great to know that the industry considered that I’d presented a fair and honest account of events at Dounreay.

HF: How has your perspective on atomic power changed during the course of this project of making 13 short films?

VL: When I first started researching the film, I had a fairly stereotypical environmentalist’s suspicion of nuclear power, based chiefly on fears about radiation and the risk of accidents. Those fears have not been entirely allayed, although I’m now more informed on the research and statistics that underlie them. However, I now feel there are two issues that, above all others, count nuclear out as an attractive energy source going forward: the waste and the economics.

I find it shocking that over 50 years since nuclear power stations first started producing radioactive waste, the world has not found a satisfactory answer to disposing of it safely and reliably over the mind-blowing timescales concerned (this was very much the impulse behind Beyond, the stop-motion animation piece I produced about waste).

And economically, nuclear power to me just does not seem to make sense. I’m unconvinced by politicians and nuclear industry figures who say it can operate without government subsidy. Both the back-end costs of decommissioning and waste disposal and the costs of insuring against major accidents appear to be left out of most analyses of the costs of nuclear energy.  This seems to me both dishonest and morally unjustifiable – especially when there are other, renewable sources of electricity available that don’t come with these kinds of costs attached.

HF: What are the most pressing issues, in your opinion, regarding the use and production of nuclear energy?

VL: As mentioned above, the waste is probably the number one unsolved major problem. But I’m also worried about the proliferation risks of the world’s ever-growing stockpiles of nuclear material and the risk of a terror attack on a nuclear facility that could make 9-11 look like a minor event. Safety-wise, I also think nuclear energy presents a very unsatisfactory gamble for society. The chances of a major accident occurring are certainly very, very low. But the scale of the impact any accident would have if it did occur is potentially so catastrophic, I just can’t see how it can be justified.

HF: You have a list of links on your film’s site which includes artistic works with a nuclear-focus:  books, movies, songs, art. What do you find to be the most poignant arguments and concerns within the discussion/debate over nuclear energy?

VL: As I’ve discovered while making the film, the nuclear industry has a long and not very proud history of secrecy about its activities. This has meant that many of the human costs have not been very well known. Even where the human impact is widely known – such as with the victims of the accident at Chernobyl – this hasn’t stopped proponents advocating its continued use. I find the huge imbalance of power between the industry and the people on the ground affected by its actions to be very poignant – it’s what lies at the heart of my whole project.

HF: Where do developing nations fit within the larger discussion of nuclear power?

VL: A number of developing countries have begun to show an interest in nuclear energy and the multi-national companies involved in the global nuclear industry have been keen to encourage their ambitions. But it’s hard not to wonder whether these companies are motivated more by their own countries’ political and economic interests than by a genuine desire to help developing nations meet their  energy needs in the most appropriate way.

HF: On your website, you mention global injustice as an issue you want to address through your films, along with environmental degradation. How do you see global injustice playing out, on a regional or global scale, within the context of atomic power?

VL: There are obvious justice issues around mining for the nuclear industry – many of the world’s biggest uranium deposits are in places where the local population are poor and marginalised and/or where local governance is weak or prone to corruption (eg Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union and indigenous communities in the United States, Canada and Australia). You have to look at who is and isn’t benefiting, from uranium mining and from nuclear power production in general. It tends not to be the poorest people in the world…

Check out Vicki Lesley’s documentary at Tenner Films.

Join the Facebook group for Lesley’s film.

Follow the conversation about this film & atomic power on Twitter @TennerFilms.


Part II of Vicki Lesley’s interview will drop in a few days… Stay tuned!