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Filmmaker, women unite over expanse of atomic bomb's history

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The movie poster of the documentary film "Atomic Mom" is shown. The film will be presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Stephens City at 7 p.m. Saturday and at Franklin Park Performing and Visual Arts Center in Purcellville at 3 p.m. Sunday. Courtesy photo

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Pauline Silvia

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M.T. Silvia

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Dr. Robert John Veenstra Courtesy Jennifer Green-Flint


By Josette Keelor

When director and producer M.T. Silvia was in Rhode Island last summer promoting her 2010 film documentary "Atomic Mom," she didn't expect to bump into longtime friend Tracy Marlatt, executive director of the Shenandoah Arts Council in Winchester.

Both were in Jamestown for the Rhode Island International Film Festival to see the film, which ended up winning the Audience Choice Award, Marlatt said Tuesday. The experience inspired Marlatt to bring Silvia's film to Stephens City this weekend as part of Women's History Month.

It will be the first film the SAC has helped bring to the area, Marlatt said.

"Atomic Mom" is a feature-length documentary film about two women -- one who helped provide U.S. government research for the atom bomb and one who lived through the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan.

It will be shown at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Stephens City and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Franklin Park Performing and Visual Arts Center in Purcellville. The Magic Lantern Theater in Winchester and the arts center are teaming with the SAC to offer the film, which also won 10 other awards, including The United Nations Association Film Festival "Official Selection" award, Marlatt said.

"I wanted to do something for Women in the Arts Month," she said. "[Silvia is] a woman, the film is about two different women ... and it seemed appropriate."

Silvia, whose studio team at Pixar won an Oscar last month for the animated film "Brave," said that the idea for "Atomic Mom" stemmed from her interest in her mother Pauline's work for the U.S. government during the 1940s.

In a preview of the film, posted at atomicmom.org, Silvia explained her great interest in her mother's work: "My friends' moms were, you know, making Rice Krispy treats, but my mom, she was doing secret government work -- the atom bomb."

"And I just thought that she was so cool," she said.

In a phone interview from California on Tuesday, she said the film is about peace and reconciliation, a way for her mother to offer an olive branch to those affected by the work she did for the Army, work she has spent decades regretting.

"It's a very unusual way to tell the story of the atom bomb ... it's never been done before," the filmmaker said. "That makes it very unusual. It's a very feminine perspective."

"I learned all about [her work] during the research for the film," Silvia said. "She could never talk about it. She had a lot of conflict talking about it because she had sworn to secrecy."

Jennifer Green-Flint of Stephens City also realized a connection to Silvia's mother when she happened upon the film while channel surfing last fall. She turned on the TV and looking back at her was a photo of her grandfather, Dr. Robert John Veenstra.

As she would learn, Veenstra's work as a career veterinarian with the Army had him working one-on-one with Silvia's mother, doing testing on animals.

Green-Flint looked up the film online to order a copy, and after receiving an email confirmation of her order, on a whim, she hit reply, changed the subject headline to "request for information regarding John Veenstra" and typed out a brief explanation of seeing her grandfather featured in "Atomic Mom."

"And I never expected anything back," she said, but she did get a response -- a long email from Silvia offering what information she had on the atom bomb specialist.

Green-Flint, director of Shenandoah Conservatory Arts Academy, posted on Facebook her amazement of what she now calls "an odd juxtaposition" of seeing her grandfather's picture in a documentary. Her friend Marlatt saw the Facebook post and replied about her own connection to Silvia and the film.

Green-Flint plans on seeing the film with her mother this Sunday and looks forward to reconnecting with Marlatt and meeting Silvia, who said she plans to fly out from California for the film presentations. The filmmaker explained her mother's excitement that Silvia will get to meet Veenstra's granddaughter.

Said Silvia, "The whole film has been serendipitous the entire way through."

The film, which shows the American side of the atom bomb's impact, also focuses on the Japanese impact, through Emiko Okada, who was 8 years old when the bomb struck Hiroshima. Her 12-year-old sister was never found.

While doing research for her film, Silvia said, she had the opportunity to travel to Japan for her work through Pixar, and she contacted the Hiroshima museum asking to compare photos.

"They asked me if I wanted to interview a survivor, and I hadn't even thought about that," she said.

As an American, Silvia said, she was afraid to go to Hiroshima, but said everyone she met was very welcoming. When Okada met with the filmmaker, she asked to walk with her and then to hold her hand.

Then Okada grinned, Silvia said, and told her, "I can't believe I'm walking at Ground Zero holding hands with an American."

"It was really profound and extremely emotional," Silvia said.

"This was a long 10 years," she later explained. "It's hard enough to make a documentary, but even harder to make one about your mother."

Her mother's experience dealing with guilt over her part in contributing to the atom bomb has in many ways mirrored the experience of Veenstra, his granddaughter said.

"He was an atomic veteran, and anyone who worked in research in atomic fields is called atomic veterans," Green-Flint said. She always had been interested in her grandfather's work but didn't know much about it because his work, like Pauline Silvia's, was classified.

He died in the early 1990s, she said, around the same time that the Freedom of Information Act made it possible for her and her family to begin learning about his work.

"This was something that was beyond our comprehension," Green-Flint said. "The level of stress and personal crisis that he felt [about his work] ... versus what he felt was good for the community and the people, was a big [deal] for him."

"It has to be a crushing struggle between your personal ethics and what patriotism requires of you," she said.

After seeing the film, Marlatt said, she was moved to take greater interest in current events and the state of the world today.

"I think the film is timely," she said. "If we forget our history, there is that old adage that history repeats itself."

"[The film] discusses what happened in 1945," she said. "And here we are ... 67 years later, dealing with the possibility of a nuclear attack [from North Korea], and we know as humans how awful and devastating that would be."

"I think [viewers will] walk away truly touched and impacted on this nuclear experience for both women."

"Atomic Mom" will be shown at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 6380 Valley Pike, Stephens City, and at 3 p.m. Sunday at Franklin Park Arts Center, 36441 Blueridge View Lane, Purcellville. Tickets are $5 for the general public and $3 for university students with ID. For more information, call 540-667-5166 or visit www.shenarts.org.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com



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