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Berkshire International Film Festival documentary selection shows the past is still present in today’s world

The Triplex will screen "Unbroken," the story of the daughter of a Holocaust survivor uncovering her family's past, and "First We Bombed New Mexico," the tale of a victim of the fallout from the Trinity test seeking justice for those affected by nuclear testing, on Friday, May 31, and Saturday, June 1, respectively.

Berkshire County — The Berkshire International Film Festival will include several documentaries that chronicle the past but also show how the past has a substantial influence on the present.

Lane’s mother and her six siblings in the Weber family escaped from Nazi Germany after their mother’s murder at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The seven siblings hid in a farmer’s laundry hut and spent two years in Germany before eventually escaping to America. After immigrating to America, however, the once close family members were all told they had to declare themselves as orphans.

“I did not hear stories over the years from my family about what happened to them,” Lane told The Berkshire Edge. “My family did not talk about the Holocaust. My mother was so young when all of this happened and she had very few memories. Whenever we were talking about it, she would only share the same two or three memories. Each memory she shared was all less than 30 seconds long. My uncle did share, but he shared more in the form of documentation.”

Lane said that her uncle wrote a 40-page “kind of brief history” of her family in honor of the 50th anniversary of their immigration to America. “And that’s all I had,” Lane said. “I never felt comfortable asking my aunts about their experiences. When I decided to make the movie, that was when I just ripped the Band-Aid off and said, ‘Okay, I’m going in. I have to find out what happened.’ I wanted to find out how they survived and who were the benevolent and good faith actors during that time.”

Lane explained that she made many discoveries about her family in the midst of making the film. “When my mother was answering questions for me, I discovered all of the loneliness that she was feeling as a child,” Lane said. “She never knew why she felt so lonely. My mom discovered, as I interviewed her, that she felt so lonely not because she was so much younger than all of her siblings, but because she missed her mother. Her mother was deported to Auschwitz when she was just three years old. As a three-year-old, you can’t process what Auschwitz is. When you are three years old, you only feel the absence of your mother. So that was a discovery that I think was a really powerful one.”

Lane said that there were other discoveries she made about her family during filming the documentary, “but I can’t tell you, because they’re in the movie, and telling them would be spoilers.” “But I worked very hard to make a film that does give you the discoveries at the moment so that you’re discovering it at the same time as the beautiful people in the movie,” Lane said. “I hope that everybody who watches ‘UnBroken’ experiences their own personal muscles of empathy and compassion. We’re inundated with data information all the time, and we’re very desensitized. It’s really easy for us to hear about what’s happening in Israel or Palestine and kind of tune it out. But we can’t do that because we have to always look at the other side of the coin and have empathy and compassion for somebody who isn’t necessarily like we are. My goal with ‘UnBroken’ is for everyone to have this opportunity to practice their muscles of empathy and compassion.”

For more information about “UnBroken,” visit the movie’s website.

The documentary “First We Bombed New Mexico” will be shown at The Triplex on Saturday, June 1, at 5:30 p.m.

On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon was detonated 210 miles south of Los Alamos, N.M. The building of the nuclear weapon and its detonation, also known as the Trinity test, has been profiled and detailed in multiple movies, including the recent drama “Oppenheimer,” which was released in 2023 and details the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer who worked with others to develop the weapon.

While the story of Oppenheimer and the nuclear bomb has been retold multiple times, the aftereffects of the nuclear detonation and the effects it had on residents of the surrounding area in New Mexico have not been brought to life. “First We Bombed New Mexico” chronicles cancer-survivor-turned-activist Tina Cordova, who started the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium. Cordova and the Consortium group are seeking compensation from the U.S. government for those who have suffered generations of radiation exposure as a result of the bomb testing.

The documentary was made by Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director Lois Lipman, who filmed Cordova for eight years as she traveled across the country. “Back in 1945 when this tragedy occurred, the person who ordered the detonation of the bomb was General [Leslie Richard] Groves,” Lipman told The Berkshire Edge. Groves was a United States Army Corps of Engineers officer who oversaw the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb. “General Groves did not want anybody to know about the radiation because he was scared of litigation,” Lipman said. “So he just ignored it, and that’s how it all began. It was the worst nuclear catastrophe on Earth up to that point.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s LAHDRA Project report, which was completed in 2009 and compiled information about radiation exposure from the Trinity test site, the levels of radiation from the area surrounding the site are more than 10,000 times greater than what was allowed by the federal government. “Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, so it was a lot easier to just pretend that it never happened and leave the scene as quickly as possible,” Lipman said. “Tina’s goal has been to get Congress to acknowledge and apologize for the fact that the government irradiated her people and they were dying.”

The residents in the area of New Mexico surrounding the Trinity test site are majority Native Americans and Hispanic, and many of them have suffered from cancer through several generations. “Everybody in Tina’s village was dying, and everybody knew that this was all connected to the bomb, but nobody came to help them, and nobody assumed responsibility,” Lipman said.

Back in 1990, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) statute that provides monetary compensation for people who developed diseases as a direct result of exposure to nuclear testing. As of press time, however, the program is set to expire on June 7.

Activists, including Cordova, have pressed Congress to renew and expand the program to other areas of the country whose residents have had to deal with the aftereffects of radiation exposure. “We need to have a collective acknowledgment of how radiation exposure has harmed people, and going forward, we need to do better,” Lipman said. “To me, Tina is a hero. This documentary chronicles the hero’s journey that Tina is on. She is inspiring and unstoppable, and she has catalyzed a movement that many people didn’t even know about a year ago. We need to get justice, and we need Congress to vote on and expand RECA.”

For more information about “First We Bombed New Mexico,” visit the movie’s website.

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