DENVER – There’s a scene in “Uranium Drive-In” showing an ordinary act in rural Colorado that’s rarely caught on film.
A rancher ropes a calf, takes out a knife and, with the calf’s legs spread open in front of the camera, castrates it.
The audience flinches, but the camera never does.
Director Suzan Beraza didn’t flinch, either, when she realized her environmental film about the dangers of uranium couldn’t be made without telling a human story of the despair of poverty.
Beraza, who lives in Telluride, started tracking the Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill soon after it was proposed for the Paradox Valley, a former hotbed of uranium mining, where many people have family members who mined and died of cancer. She learned quickly that if she made a movie about the mill, it wouldn’t be a typical environmental film about local people fighting off a power plant, coal mine or waste dump.
“Here was a situation where the community was welcoming it back with open arms, and I thought it was a real twist on the traditional story,” Beraza said in a phone interview from New York, where “Uranium Drive-In” is playing at a festival.
People in Naturita and Nucla invited Beraza and her crew into their homes and talked about the three-decade bust in their uranium boomtowns, and their willingness to risk mining and milling if it means a paycheck to buy food and clothes for their kids.
In one of the film’s opening scenes, Ayngel Overson tapes magazine pictures to the wall showing places she and her husband would like to visit – someday.
“We’ve done good being poor, but we kinda miss having money,” Overson says on screen.
The mill is proposed by Energy Fuels, which in the late 2000s was just another junior uranium company with big dreams and few assets.
The movie opens with company CEO Steve Antony promoting the mill at a town picnic in Naturita. Mayor Tami Lowrance excitedly says it will be six or eight months before the uranium trucks start rolling down the streets again.
That was five years ago.
By the movie’s end, Piñon Ridge seems less like an environmental threat and more like an unfulfilled promise to a pair of towns whose luck gets harder every year.
Overson attended two screenings in Denver this week, and Energy Fuels employees talked to her after one show and said the mill could still be built.
“It’s too late,” she said in an interview with The Durango Herald. “It’s not going to help at this point. Telling us it’s going to be built in another five years – we’ve been hearing that since ’07.”
Overson and Jennifer Thurston, formerly of environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance, play two of the leading roles. Over the course of the film, their relationship shifts from enmity to empathy.
“I often feel despair and heartbreak arguing against the mill when it does mean jobs,” Thurston says on screen.
Thurston and others from Telluride have remained involved with efforts in Nucla and Naturita to kick-start the economy, Overson said.
“I really feel like we saw each other in a different way and stopped seeing each other as enemies,” Overson said.
Tensions remain high between the two communities. But after the movie debuted in Telluride in May, a handful of people from both communities formed the Stone Soup Group, which is looking for economic development opportunities in the West End of Montrose County. Ideas include a call center, festivals and organic farms and ranches to raise food to sell in Telluride.
Beraza is happy that at least a few people are trying to bridge the cultural gap between Telluride and the Paradox Valley.
“When you get down to the essence of it, both sides really do want the same thing, which is healthy communities, healthy schools,” Beraza said.
The movie debuted in May and is getting play just as it’s sinking in that the mill will not be built anytime soon.
Energy Fuels made a series of strategic mergers and buyouts, and now it’s a major force in the North American uranium industry. It also bought the country’s only existing mill, in White Mesa, Utah, and Piñon Ridge went on hold until the price of uranium increases significantly. The price plunged after the earthquake and tsunami that caused a nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.
Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore said he wants to see the movie but hasn’t yet. The low price of uranium is preventing construction of the mill, although environmental lawsuits didn’t help his company’s cause, he said.
“I certainly wish the market would have supported it, because that area needs economic development,” Moore said.
“Uranium Drive-In” sold out two screenings at the Denver Film Festival last week. It also has played in Telluride, Naturita, Colorado Springs and New York City’s DOC NYC festival.
It’s scheduled to play at the Durango Film Festival at the end of February and at an environmental film festival in Washington, D.C., in March.
It’s the second environmental documentary for Beraza and the crew at Reel Thing Films. Their first film, “Bag It,” examined the use of plastic bags and is currently playing on public television.