The scene opens with a shot of a green island surrounded by blue ocean waters and the voice of documentarian Adam Horowitz explaining his lifelong enchantment with the Pacific Islands.
What he found in his ensuing years visiting the Marshall Islands, however, was much uglier than what’s seen on the islands’ pristine surface: Damning documents and personal anecdotes from survivors detailing the US government’s Cold War nuclear experiments in the area.
“My first child born did not look human,” Almira Matayoshi, a native of the Marshall Islands, explains in Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1. “It was like a bunch of grapes. The second one came out limp, with no muscles or bones at all. It was like a monster…like a jellyfish.”
Horowitz, a Santa Fe resident, spent more than four years getting the story on film and assembling the documentary that takes a critical look at the effects of Cold War research. What he came up with, he asserts, is a story that should garner profound local and national interest.
“They destroyed an entire country that we were not at war with, that we were at peace with,” he says. “Not only did they blow up all these islands, but they purposely contaminated all these people as human experiments. It’s a very unknown story here.”
Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted 67 large-scale nuclear tests on the Marshall Islands, most infamously with Castle Bravo at Bikini Atoll. There, military airplanes dropped and detonated a hydrogen bomb, which was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima during World War II.
Officials also drafted what is known as Project 4.1, intended to study the lingering effects of the contamination on the people who lived in the area.
Among participants in the project was Los Alamos National Laboratory, which Horowitz says gives his film a significant local angle.
Altogether, the power of the nuclear explosions on the Marshall Islands added up to “1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years,” according to what Tony DeBrum, a former foreign minister and now senator in the islands, says in the film.
Nuclear Savage is set for an 11:30 am screening Dec. 1 at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. Still, Horowitz laments that the film’s financial backers are keeping it from reaching its largest audience—public television viewers.
It’s unclear if the film will ever air on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
PBS funded Horowitz’s research for Nuclear Savage, but has yet to air the film despite receiving a final cut from Horowitz more than two years ago.
“They control the US broadcast of the film,” he says of PBS. “By not showing it, they are suppressing it.”
Pacific Islanders in Communications, a Honolulu-based nonprofit organization that works with the National Minority Consortia, is the entity trying to get PBS to broadcast the film. But the organization objected to both the length and to some of the content of Horowitz’ final cut, which runs 86 minutes and features autobiographical scenes of Horowitz.
“A lot of the film is him, and he’s not a Pacific Islander,” Leanne Ferrer, executive director of Pacific Islanders in Communications, tells SFR.
Horowitz agreed to a new edit that deleted some personal scenes and cut the film to a more standard hour-length running time. Ferrer, happy with the new cut, started shopping it around to public television outlets. Some got back to her complaining that the film was biased, she says.
“The most common feedback I got was that there was a lot of him in the story and a lot of his claims are not vetted by substantiated fact,” Ferrer says.
Eventually, World, a Boston-based digital PBS subchannel which reaches more than half of the US markets, showed some interest, and earlier this year, local PBS outlets advertised Nuclear Savage for an airing on World in May and June.
Those days came and went without a broadcast of Horowitz’ film, however.
Ferrer says the advertisements were “premature” and that World was worried about a number of claims he makes in the film.
Among the examples of unsubstantiated facts, according to Ferrer, is Horowitz’ claim in the film that the Marshall Islands are one of the most radiated areas in the world. Ferrer says he should back up such statements in subsequent scenes, but doesn’t.
Horowitz argues that his film is getting extra scrutiny because of its controversial nature. One segment, for instance, compares the US government’s experiments on the Marshall Islands to the systematic torture conducted by Nazi doctors in concentration camps in the name of science. Other scenes show him repeatedly trying to interview tight-lipped government officials in what Ferrer describes as a “Michael Moore style.”
Despite all this, Ferrer says she wants the story to be told and is working hard to get Nuclear Savage aired. World recently sent her a list of fact-checking notes, which she plans to go over with Horowitz this week (Ferrer would not provide the list to SFR).
“Bottom line, the film needs tweaks to be journalistically sound, and once those tweaks are made, it will be aired,” she says.
“It’s totally political why they’re not showing it,” he says.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misquoted Tony DeBrum's explanation of the power of nuclear explosions.