Le Bistro Atomique: The documentary 'Blowing Up Paradise' looks at how the French messed up the South Pacific with nuke tests.
The Whole Wide World
The U.N. Association Film Festival globe-hops to hot spots with five days of docs
By Richard von Busack
ALDEBERAN, Betelgeuse, Canopus, Encelade, Pallas and Achille: What do they have in common? Anzac and French Polynesian Jeopardy contestants will get the answer, handily: they're French nuclear tests performed in the South Pacific. If you remember the documentary The Atomic Cafe, consider Blowing Up Paradise as Le Bistro Atomique. The BBC's Blowing Up Paradise (opening the ninth U.N. Association Film Festival on Oct. 25 at 7:50pm at Stanford's Cubberley Auditorium) is an insouciant horror story, peppered with evocative spy-jazz, bongos and exotica music. It considers the De Gaulle and Chirac efforts to irradiate one of the last pristine places on Earth.
The first atmospheric tests produced photogenic "champignons" that we usually see in stock footage; those mushroom clouds look so glamorous with South Sea sunrises behind them. Still-proud Gallic scientists insist that the radiation is buried from the later underground tests (yes, buried in friable limestone, with the ocean lapping away at it). Fallout had predictable health effects on the locals. And old-time Tahitians claim that the arrival of military crews paving paradise, began separatist riots and squalor in these islands. Interviewees include ex-French Premier Pierre Messmer and Pierre Lacoste, former head of the D.G.S.E. (the French Secret Service). Lacoste explains "a blow to our national prestige" when two French agents were successfully caught by New Zealand authorities, after they blew up the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior.
Cackling at those excitable froggies is a lovely old American pastime, enabling us to forget for a moment at the kind of profile we offer to the world. Rights on the Line: Vigilantes on the Border (Oct. 29, 6pm) will refresh our memories. At the newly constructed DMZ along the Mexican border, 3000 refugees have died trying to escape the after-effects of NAFTA. A mass of volunteers ranging from genuinely concerned locals to foaming racists, help the INS patrol the border. And this documentary shows them at their worst: one vigilante crows over the unfortunate women and children he's collected at gunpoint. Some (it figures) use the Bible to justify their tormenting of the poor and desperate. One, waving the Good Book, says "everyone crossing the border [illegally] is a thief and a robber."
The United Nations faces duties it probably hasn't seen since the worst of the Cold War. Take two, they're not small: the horror of Darfur and the intransigency of North Korea. The UNAFF is a group of supporters for the U.N.'s aims. Also playing at the festival are Are the Kids Alright?, concerning mental illness among children, and Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars, a documentary about musicians who survived through the inconceivably vicious civil war. This year's theme "Sparks of Humanity" embraces subjects as varied as the threat of malaria, a former Mississippi executioner who has turned into an anti-death penalty crusader, the streets of Lima, Peru, and that universally popular item, boobs: Busting Out (Oct. 26, 10:40pm, Annenberg Auditorium at Stanford), attempts to bring some sanity to the topic of plain old every-day mammary glands.
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