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Atomic Mom

I was born in 1952 and, although I don't remember public service announcements about the atom bomb like the ones M.T. Silvia includes in her feature-length documentary Atomic Mom, I do remember "bomb drills" when I was in elementary school. At least we didn't just crawl under our desks like some PSAs recommended; we went down to the sub-basement and hunkered down in the dark. I don't remember being scared, but then I don't think I had a very good idea of what the hell we were doing.

I'm not sure anyone did. One thing Atomic Mom makes clear is how little anyone really knew about the atomic bomb before and after it was dropped on Japan and effectively ended World War II. Everything associated with the bomb was top secret; there was even a United States-dictated "gag order" on the Japanese from the time the bombs were dropped until 1953. Doctors had no idea what they were dealing with, as they were not allowed to conduct research or to trade information about radiation sickness.

Even those who studied the effects of radiation didn't know exactly why they were doing it or what would be done with the information they collected. M.T. Silvia's mother, Pauline Silvia, was one of those researchers. She was assigned to the Navy Radiological Defense Laboratory in San Francisco during her stint in the Navy from 1952-53, where she conducted research on the effects of radiation on mice and thermal injury on dogs. She was also on site to witness five of the eleven detonations that took place in Nevada during Operation Upshot-Knothole in 1953.

Pauline Silvia compartmentalized her experiences and refused to associate her research with the development of the atomic bomb for forty years. When M.T. herself became involved in the anti-nuclear movement when she was older, her mother became furious and asked her to stop. They didn't talk about the issue for almost fifteen years. Atomic Mom is about Pauline Silvia's journey from denial to acceptance—and ultimately forgiveness.

Interwoven throughout Pauline Silvia's story is the story of Emiko Okada, a survivor of the atom bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. While Pauline Silvia was fifteen at the time and only thought of the bomb in terms of it ending the war, Emiko Okada was only five and lived through its horrendous effects. (Her twelve-year-old sister was never found and her mother died soon after.) Today, she is a peace activist.

M.T. Silvia was introduced to Okada when she was sent to Japan for her "day job" (Manager of Media Sytems for Pixar Animation Studios). Her interviews with Okada and her daughter add depth to the film by contrasting the experiences of the two "atomic moms."

Atomic Mom is about many things: the excesses and irrationality of war, the peace movement, and the legacies that one generation leaves another. But most of all, it is about reconciliation, not only between former enemies, but between mother and daughter. It is obvious that the film is more than an intellectual exercise; it was meant to be a way for M.T. Silvia to learn more about her mother. In the process, they became closer and the world became a little smaller.

Written by: Ellen Keim, August 12th 2010

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