A vital document
“At a time when American cinema is celebrating the so-called intelligence of Oppenheimer, Austin’s little film, funded by Robert Redford’s ecologist Foundation, is to be celebrated so much it shows the complexity of this underground fight against global poisoning.” — Panorama.Cinéma
Poet and filmmaker Hadley Austin’s debut feature is one of the most important documentaries you will see this year, already evident in its recent Peace Prize nomination. Shot over four years and co-written with Navajo native Dr Tommy Rock, this deeply personal project not only presents the Indigenous struggle for vital living space in the radioactive desert of the American Southwest but, specifically, through Hadley’s humanistic (and artistic) approach, delivers a story that shows the breadth of the Navajo Nation in a landscape perforated by abandoned uranium mines. The nature of time is put into sharp focus as the documentary begins to unearth the thousand-year-long project of reclaiming sacred homeland.
Hadley lived for many years in Flagstaff, Arizona — a border town to the Navajo Nation which is close to the Pinyon Plain mine — her work often informed by a combination of ecology and social justice. She also co-owns the production company Formidable Entities with her partner, Yoni Goldstein who was the DP on Demon Mineral, lending the film its distinctive (quiet) aesthetic. Although Hadley still can’t speak entirely for the First Nations involved, she recently took time out to discuss her film’s themes and approach to the material…
This project is long in the making and has resulted in a profoundly personal and powerful connection to a people and their environment. In terms of beginning development on the film, where did it all start for you as a director?
One could argue it began when I was 18 or so, which was when I first became aware of the mines, the contaminated areas around the mills, and the uranium-related transport where I was living, in Flagstaff, Arizona. Many years later, during the protests at Standing Rock, I was moved that everyone cared so much about this water that hadn’t even been contaminated yet. All I could think was, I know of a place where people haven’t been able to drink the water for generations, where the government has delivered water in old oil containers; people unable to safely eat their crops or their livestock because of contamination. Suddenly it seemed like more people should know. And so, I called my friends, and their friends — all these folks who are in the film — and began work on Demon Mineral.
There is this interesting mix of Yoni’s haunting infrared black-and-white cinematography, illustrations, interviews, and monologues but also a breakdown of the façade of what a film can be: from the references to Hollywood to showing the recording for the voice-over. How did you settle on your approach and style for the film?
Although I wrote the text, Emma Robbins provided the VO… and she did such a good job. She also approved it and made edits and so it felt natural to show her reading the text because she has a relationship to this story; it’s a central part of her life. Emma is not a removed ‘God-voice’, she is a member of this community. I also wanted to show the VO as part of a thread throughout the film that shows its construction — like when you see Brandon, our boom operator, or Orlando, our field sound recorder, or you hear me ruining the sound with my laugh — because this film (like all films), is a made thing. It wasn’t birthed, perfect and whole; tt carries with it the hopes and perspectives of all of us who made it. It grew as we grew.
This place was first made famous in John Wayne Westerns, and in those films, the stories are told in a contained and fantastical way, and from a very specific perspective. We set out, in many ways, to make an anti-Western, one that told the history of how we got here, in terms of contamination, but also one that gave those whose heritage is in Diné Bikeyah narrative reign.
Clayson Benally’s “Mother Earth monologue” is astonishing. Were a lot of these moments captured there and then or conversations you have recalled over the years with individuals to return to and punctuate the documentary?
Yes, Clayson is so well-spoken and generous in that monologue. His brother passed recently and my thoughts are with him. There are so many conversations that stick with me, and many of them didn’t even make it into the film. For instance, Anna Rondon gave a wonderful and generous interview that unfortunately we couldn’t fit in, in which she said: “Mother Earth is going to be just fine. We are the ones who are fighting to survive.” I think about that at least once a week, and honestly find it comforting.
Helen Nez’s talk that closes the film is also so moving to me, especially when she says, “We must be like the ant carrying a huge rock bigger than its size on its back. Even though the ant is small. That is how it can work.” In other words: we feel small, as though it is impossible, but maybe it isn’t. Our translator, Judy Basham, also deserves a great deal of credit for her gorgeous translations from Diné to English.
The use of sound is interesting. Could you explain more as to why you felt that this was an important texture to add.
Julian Flavin, our sound designer, is so talented. As we were in the sound studio we were joking that the film is almost silent as it is a quiet film. My goal was to capture the sounds of the place, to make it transportative; I felt this would better connect the audience to the place, which was also part of the goal with those slow, wide, gorgeous shots. I wanted people to fall in love with it. When the film’s participants saw the first cut with rough sound several of them said it sounded like home, and I really felt successful then.
The documentary not only illustrates the exploitation of a people and the land but also shows us how small we all are as a species. The subject matter is intrinsically linked, but at what point do you feel the film becomes much larger?
I think it’s important to interrogate Western concepts of time. They are useful! I wear a watch, and I like being able to conveniently schedule things with folks around the world. But it’s not the only way to experience time, and it is a framework that doesn’t lend itself to inter-generational considerations. Uranium is older than the Earth (as is much of what makes up the planet; it had to be built from something, at least at first) and contamination is a problem that will last generations. This film is not the first film about this subject… and it won’t be the last, but it was important for us to acknowledge that, too. We have to be ok with just being a link in the chain… and make tools for the next link to use.
Following on from the above question: how did you go about your research and organize the wider connections — Marie Curie, the Manhattan Project and the bomb — without all of that detracting from the central message?
This part was challenging! It was important for us to show the interconnectedness of this issue, as, in many ways, a reflection of the interconnectedness of all things. In the end, it came together fairly organically… though structuring the emotional arc of the film required a great deal of fine-tuning.
The land is spoken about in such a beautiful way only those connected to it can communicate. The discussions about the mythic elements of the environment and how it translates are fascinating creating a film that is not only about exploitation but also the origin of a source. Again, very much interested in how you planned out the politics, the science and the mythology.
Just as it was important to me to view time from a Diné cultural perspective, or from a geological perspective (rather than an applied Western perspective), it was also important to me that the film reflect a Diné sense of place, rather than a Western sense of place. It just so happens that most of the Diné folks in the film are scientists; either they are such by formal education (like Dr Rock), or by necessity, such as the many civilian scientists you see who have had to learn the science in order to pursue vital living spaces near contamination sites.
Some concepts we had to be more explicit about in the voiceover. For instance, an initial screening revealed that the idea of underground water is challenging for those unfamiliar with it. So, we commissioned an animation to visually show an underground lake (aka an aquifer) and added a line to the voiceover.
The following are obviously movies (and different stories), but with the likes of Prey, Killers of the Flower Moon and the TV series Dark Winds and Reservation Dogs becoming so successful, do you feel the representation of the First Nation is improving?
Of course, Lily Gladstone, recently made history, so it does seem like things are improving, but I would hope a First Nations person is asked this question, to hear directly on how they feel about this. My friends from the Navajo Nation are forever reminding me I need to see Rez Dogs; their response to that show reveals to me at least that it makes them feel seen. They also had some really funny takes on the apparently not-so-great spoken Diné in Dark Winds. Terry Keyanna’s son (who is in Demon Mineral) has enjoyed being an extra in several of these recent productions and it has been nice to see him grow his craft in this specific moment of opportunity.
Would you want Demon Mineral to also be developed as a movie or that it should only remain a documentary?
If the community members who helped make the film were open to or desired a narrative film version, I’d be more than happy to see that happen!
If audiences wish to explore all of this further, what books should they be reading and what films/other documentaries should they seek out?
The directors of Broken Rainbow [Victoria Mudd, 1985] and The Four Corners: A National Sacrifice Area? [Christopher McLeod, 1983] — two films from the 1980s that also touch on these concerns — generously allowed us to use some of their footage. Watch these films to see (in some ways) how little has changed since then. Additionally, Tracy Brynne Voyles’s 2015 book, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country, is a thorough and valuable resource, especially for those starting with no prior knowledge. The folks who were in the film were also recently in this ABC News article about the current challenges in resisting new uranium mining in the region.
This has been an education, Hadley. Thanks for taking the time to discuss your film, it genuinely blew me away — I watch a lot of documentaries and this is easily one of the best I have seen in recent years.
Thank you for these kind and encouraging words. Demon Mineral is very important to all of us who worked on it and willed it into being, and I, as the director, am still very moved when anyone watches it, much less has good things to say about it.
I hope it gains all the attention it deserves.
Demon Mineral screens today, January 19th at 2.45 pm at The Yarrow, Theater A, Park City in Utah. It will screen again at The Yarrow on January 22nd at 2.00 pm.