Atomic Testing and Adventurous Music | Real Reels

This month's must-see documentaries feature eccentric art thieves, trailblazing women musicians, and submarine volcanoes. 

Downwind. 96 min. Gravitas Ventures. 2021. DVD UPC 1009777488. $20.99.

From 1951 to 1992, there were 928 nuclear bombs detonated in Nevada. The government said it was safe. The extreme numbers of sick “downwinders” in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona might not agree. This film from codirectors Mark Shapiro and Douglas Brian Miller effectively personalizes the trauma of residents in heart-wrenching detail that will infuriate viewers. In addition to showing the medical dangers of the atomic tests, the film utilizes Cold War–era declassified films and images of tests to give a framework of how propaganda works to disseminate information that makes people believe they are not in danger. But in the pursuit of nuclear superiority, those without power had no option to move. VERDICT Both enlightening and enraging. Pair this with recent Hollywood blockbuster Oppenheimer to learn about the sinister effects of nuclear testing.

Hidden Volcano Abyss. 55 min. PBS. 2023. DVD UPC 4188704804. $24.99.

In January of 2022, one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history occurred on the Pacific island nation of Tonga. Within minutes, the eruption caused a massive tsunami with 60-foot waves that wreaked massive destruction. Duncan Bulling’s documentary for PBS’s Nova series uses exhilarating first-person accounts and eyewitness footage to show the terrifying power of nature. This being a PBS film, there is a lot of interesting science on display as volcanologists attempt to understand why this particular “submarine” volcano erupted and if there might be predictors for future eruptions in the more than 50,000 submarine volcanoes around the globe. VERDICT Fascinating science with implications for future preparedness across the world.

Sisters with Transistors. 92 min. Metrograph Pictures. 2021. DVD UPC 3832926393. $19.99.

There was a group of trailblazing women pushing the boundaries of early electronic music in the 1960s and 1970s. Lisa Rovner’s documentary shines a light on a collection of those unheralded women who existed both inside and outside traditional realms of the music business. Narrated by musician Laurie Anderson, the film uses rare interviews and footage as a framework to show how experimental many of these performers were. While delving deep into what made instruments powered by electrical current exhilarating and futuristic, this film also isn’t afraid to look at gender and the biases that kept these women more obscure than their male counterparts. VERDICT Fans of adventurous music will find much to like in this film about women pioneers of electronic music.

The Thief Collector. 96 min. FilmRise. 2022. DVD UPC 6013712581. $21.99.

In 1985, a painting by Willem de Kooning was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Thirty-two years later it was discovered hanging in a cluttered home during processing for an estate sale. Who stole it, and why did they steal it? Director Allison Otto’s film is a fun, sun-drenched tale of anonymous art thieves residing in New Mexico that exists in the genre of documentaries about eccentrics. Otto tells the story of the thieves, peeling away layers to expose their lives and the crime itself. Utilizing semi-comedic reenactments (featuring actor/filmmaker Glen Howerton in a surprising appearance), the film has an enjoyable, light tone throughout. VERDICT A quirky charmer for anyone with an interest in art or true crime.

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