Atomic Mom is a feature length documentary about two women, both mothers, who have very different experiences of the atom bomb. One is my mother, Pauline Silvia, who was a Navy biologist in the early 1950's and was sent to the Nevada Test Site where she witnessed five detonations. After decades of silence, she is in a crisis of conscience about the work she did. The other woman is Emiko Okada, a Hiroshima survivor who was eight years old when the bomb was dropped. Knowing the work that Pauline did, Emiko offers her an olive branch with a beautifully potent message of peace.
Atomic Mom, a feature length documentary, tells the story of two lives, two mothers, affected by the atom bomb - that of a scientist involved in the post-war development and testing of the bomb and the one on whom it was unleashed. As children and adults float paper lanterns at a Hiroshima Memorial in Berkeley California, filmmaker M.T. Silvia reminisces about her childhood. Growing up, no other kid in M.T.’s neighborhood had a mother who had the nation’s top most secret security clearance. “I grew up during the Cold War. As a kid I imagined my Mom as a character in a James Bond thriller”, says M.T. in the voice over. Yet no bragging rights came with being Pauline Silvia’s daughter. Instead the code of secrecy manifested itself into other secrets big and small that settled on the Silvia household like clouds. It took fifty long years and a chance drive across highway 101 in San Francisco to unravel the secrets Pauline had kept close to her heart. Now, seventy-nine, Pauline finally opens the doors to her past for her daughter filmmaker M.T. Silvia and reveals her role as an insider involved in the research of the most sophisticated, influential, and devastating technologies of the twentieth century.
Pauline’s story takes us back in time. Life in Newport R.I. from the 1930’s-1950’s is seen in the rich, lush archival film footage, home movies, ads, songs and PSAs. We see housewives were exchanging the perfect cocktail recipe and buying “modern” appliances, this is a time when music was lively and cheerful. U.S as a super-power exuded confidence and optimism. Educational films sold the atom as ‘friendly’ and the pressure to stay ahead of the Russians was seen as a matter of dire national security. It was against this socio-cultural backdrop that the journey of Pauline Silvia began. Pauline, an enthusiastic science student, joined the medical research team of the US Navy. As a young Ensign, her work soon takes her thousands of miles away from home to a Radiological Defense Laboratory in San Francisco. Later she goes to the Nevada Test Site as part of a group of scientists that attended five open-air detonations of Operation Upshot-Knothole in 1953.
Today, Pauline Silvia, with silver hair, a broad Yankee accent, and an eccentric penchant for white gloves is the image of old-fashioned respectability. Under that surface of traditionalism and conformity lies the story of a woman involved in one of the darkest chapters of US armament history. The details of the United States’ clandestine atomic testing program still remain largely shrouded and while many groups worked on different types of research, no information was shared. “It was all compartmentalized”, says Pauline as she shows M.T. her old Navy Service records. In the course of the film as Pauline gets older and frailer, she gets more and more conflicted about the value of the work she did so many years ago. Pauline talks of how she would raise litters of mice and put them at certain distances from ground zero. After the detonation, she would go out and retrieve what survived and study them until they were sacrificed. But it is the thermal injuries studies she participated in using dogs that haunt her most and bring her to tears. Through the revisiting of her own work, she provides a very human perspective on our dark atomic history, including the St. George, Utah disaster and the overyield test in the Pacific Island of Rongelap.
Thousands of miles away, Emiko Okada was only eight years old when the bomb was dropped on her city, Hiroshima. Her twelve-year-old sister was never found. Although a peace activist now, Ms. Okada finds it hard to talk about her immediate family and what they went through. She finally gives a painful testimony of her atomic bomb experience and relives that fateful morning when practically every living thing in Hiroshima was seared to death.
Emiko Okada’s decades long silence about her personal tragedy, like Pauline’s code of secrecy kept her from sharing the most significant part of her life with her daughter Yukie. Yukie, knew about the tragedy of Hiroshima but nothing of her own mother’s personal tragedy. It was as if Emiko wanted to erase all memory of her aching past by denying it any place in her present. When Yukie found out soon after she got married that she would be unable to have children, the news was agonizing for Emiko Okada. Emiko felt guilty thinking that Yukie’s medical conditions may be an inheritance of her own exposure.
The tide finally begins to turn for both Pauline and Emiko in their respective worlds. Pauline’s decision to break her vow of dutiful silence to talk about her work along with her thoughts, her regrets, her pride and her humanity open the doors for compassion. In memory of her sister, Emiko immerses herself into her work as a peace activist, traveling and talking about the need for disarmament.
Emiko takes M.T. to her favorite place in Hiroshima’s peace park -a giant grassy mound where the remains of the unidentified are buried. She believes her sister is buried there and goes there regularly, bringing rice cakes, incense, and water to honor the souls. She prays in front of the mound, telling her sister about Pauline and M.T. At ground zero, as Emiko and M.T. stand together, Emiko is happy to hold the hand of an American in a poignant gesture of reconciliation. M.T gives her a letter she has carried for Emiko from her ailing mother. Emiko in return offers an olive branch to Pauline - origami peace cranes that she wants M.T. to carry back for her mother.
Atomic Mom holds out hope in a world torn with conflict. As two women, whose lives have been altered in unimaginable ways, clear the clouds of distrust and anger and open their hearts to reconciliation, they provide hope for a better future for all of us.