Irish director Frankie Fenton explores the movement of global activists who believe nuclear power is our best hope to fight climate change in “Atomic Hope: Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement,” which world premieres May 3 at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Paris-based documentary specialist Java Films, which is handling world sales on the film, has given Variety exclusive access to the trailer.
Intimately filmed across more than a decade, “Atomic Hope” follows the small movement of nuclear-energy advocates from Japan to Switzerland, America to Australia, as they try to win over a skeptical public – despite stiff opposition from traditional environmentalists and other interest groups.
Fenton admits he was as much a nuclear-energy skeptic as the next when he began researching the film. “I’m like anybody else: I started off being anti-nuclear and being scared of even the word ‘nuclear,’” the director told Variety. “The subject matter is so embedded in our culture – especially our pop culture – that it’s almost unthinkable to be pro-nuclear starting off.”
With time and research, his position began to shift, even as the signs of an impending climate disaster became increasingly difficult to ignore. “I think a grown-up conversation needs to happen regarding how we combat taking down our fossil fuel emissions as soon as possible,” Fenton said. “Whether we’re pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear, the thing to really understand is that if we’re going to get rid of nuclear power…what does that really mean?”
“Atomic Hope” screens in the Changing Face of Europe strand at Hot Docs. The film is produced by Kathryn Kennedy Fenton, who co-produced Fenton’s “It’s Not Yet Dark.” Narrated by Colin Farrell and based on the best-selling autobiography of the same name, the director’s documentary feature debut explored the work of Irish filmmaker Simon Fitzmaurice as he grappled with motor neuron disease. “It’s Not Yet Dark” won two awards after its premiere at the Galway Film Festival before playing in the World Documentary Competition at Sundance.
For his sophomore feature, Fenton enlisted an ensemble cast of advocates, academics, research scientists, and others at the forefront of the pro-nuclear movement. Following their successes and setbacks amid the daily ups and downs of life on the frontlines, the director discovered a diverse group of activists who believe their unpopular beliefs are mankind’s best hope to wean the world off fossil fuels and avert catastrophic climate change.
In the wake of an ever-growing catalog of unprecedented climate events – devastating wildfires in Europe and California; Antarctic ice sheets melting past the point of no return; record-breaking temperatures across the planet – their battle couldn’t be more urgent. Yet time and again, the director witnessed their frustration and disillusionment as they struggled to get their message heard.
“I’m not an expert. I’m definitely open to being wrong,” said Fenton. “But I did feel that the things they were saying seemed to make an awful lot of sense. And their message was being ignored by mainstream environmentalism.”
Their fight plays out against a broader backdrop of science skepticism and denialism in the public sphere, as recent battles over coronavirus vaccines and mask mandates have proven. “That is a question in society that we’re still grappling with – of whether we trust the science,” the director said. “It’s a timely one, and one that we need to answer soon because of what’s at stake.”
The science around climate change, and the role played by fossil fuels, is undeniable. Yet oil, coal and gas continue to make up more than 80% of the world’s current energy supply, said Fenton, and consumption will only rise on a planet whose population is projected to reach 10 billion in the next three decades.
In spite of the challenges, and the many reasons to despair, the director remains an “eternal optimist” and says he has “faith in humanity to make the right decisions.”
“We are doing incredible things, and we are amazing at solving huge problems,” he said. “I really feel that we owe it to the generation coming after us to give them hope as well, and to give them the best shot that they can get.” He added: “I think it’s super important to be positive about it. Because it’s too easy to let the world burn.”