Remember to Forget by Zachary Block

Michael Madsen’s documentary, Into Eternity, describes the epistemological discussion behind Finland’s Onkalo waste repository, designed to last 100,000 years. Zachary Block spoke with the director about this haunting documentary, screening now at Film Forum in New York.

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Filmmaker Michael Madsen. Courtesy of International Film Circuit.

Finland’s Onkalo waste repository—the subject of Danish director Michael Madsen’s documentary, Into Eternity—is an underground network of tunnels intended to store 1% of the world’s nuclear waste. The construction will take a century to complete, and is intended to last for one hundred thousand years—the approximate half-life of radioactive isotopes in high level nuclear waste. As it is likely that the ways humans communicate will change drastically before the tunnels are safe, the engineers of Onkalo have been faced with the question of how to warn future generations about the dangerous waste concealed below. Foreboding symbols, “Rosetta Stones” containing warning messages in all of the world’s languages, an image of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, even legislative measures obliging future generations to “remember to forget” the existence of Onkalo have all been considered as viable options. And, as even the research scientists behind Onkalo have conceded the futility of scientific inquiry in this particular area, Madsen’s film pursues a more epistemological discussion of Onkalo: of the Finnish government’s plans to “remember to forget,” and of the idea of shaping mythology, of planning into eternity.

Zachary Block Does Into Eternity have any sort of intended ecological or political message?

Michael Madsen No. I think that the real significance, in a way, of the Onkalo facility is that it represents something totally new to mankind. That we have to try and build something that lasts for one hundred thousand years: that is new. And the real interesting part of that, to me, has been that I could fear that one hundred thousand years is incomprehensible and that is the real problem involved in this. I do not have the viewpoint that, let’s say, if you are against nuclear power then you don’t have any responsibility to watch the waste because, in my mind, the waste is something that we do have already and something needs to be done. So, for this reason, it has been my hope that this film will ask some questions that I believe have a great significance in our own time: I believe that Onkalo tells us something about our own time, and that is what I’ve been trying to explore with this film.

ZB What do you think of the fact that your film will create a much broader awareness of Onkalo in the English speaking world and could therefore be an impediment to the world forgetting its existence?

MM I can only say that I did discuss this with the company and asked them if this is actually a problem, because if you really want to pursue the idea that it should be forgotten, then it is a problem, of course, but I have to say that, in my personal opinion—although I do understand that you can avoid human curiosity if it’s forgotten—in this mode of action, it’s only down to chance if it’s rediscovered or if it of course malfunctions. But I believe it’s close to hubris to say “okay, we can build something that’s going to be foolproof for one hundred thousand years.” And it will be much easier for any future generation to have some kind of idea about what’s down there if they have to perform repairs.

ZB Do you feel that there’s any validity to the argument that if future civilizations understood the value of plutonium and uranium they would also understand its dangers?

MM No, I think that, on the contrary, not only has history taught us that the only constant is instability—civilizations come and go, there is no continuity—but when the uranium deposits are depleted, and that may be very soon if we do increase the use of nuclear energy, then this technology will disappear and that will also mean that this highly specialized knowledge that also encompasses an understanding of what the waste is—something you can’t sense or smell or anything—that will be gone. So I think that to have this knowledge maintained and to therefore have some sense of what to do, how to protect yourself—I don’t think that will be maintained.

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Technicians at Onkalo, a nuclear waste storage facility in Finland, as seen in Into Eternity. Courtesy of International Film Circuit.

ZB Can you talk about the limitations of scientific pragmatism in the discussion of Onkalo?

MM I think that Onkalo and this sort of approach to solving this nuclear waste problem is based on scientific thinking and scientific understanding of reality. This is also why I believe that the scientists much prefer to talk about the technical aspects of the facility: because this is tangible. But, to enter the question of “should we warn the future,” and “if so, can we do it because we don’t know who we’re talking to in the future”: if we can’t know that, then we cannot know how to perform this communication. But these, you can say, “soft questions,” they are in many ways perhaps beyond what these engineers can think about and also what they are trained for. It was a surprise to me when I got there to learn that there are no philosophers, there are no semiologists, only a hydrologist, a geologist and engineers who are filling this facility. But, still, they are the advocates, the spokespersons for this solution. But it has been discussed, in those few studies that exist, that one way of performing this type of communication to the future could be if we could create a kind of myth that would be strong enough to be retold from generation to generation but retain its message. Of course, the quality of the myths that we do know about, the Greek myths, things like that, we know that they have traveled throughout the ages, for two or three thousand years, but the problem about those myths is that they derive their strength from the ability of any new age to reinterpret what these myths are about, according to their own age, and you could argue that what you really need to convey in terms of message would be that “this is dangerous” and it’s dangerous because of “this and this and this,” and you shouldn’t be able to alter the interpretation of the danger.

ZB Do you also believe that it’s sort of impossible to will something to become mythology?

MM (laughter) Yes, I don’t think there is any example of that actually happening. I don’t think anybody has. I mean, Homer, when he wrote the Odyssey and Iliad, did not sit down and say “I’m going to write down certain myths, and… by that I will ensure that they will be eternal.” I don’t think he thought like that.

ZB The film employs a very particular mode of “direct address”: can you talk about this choice?

MM Yes, I think that my initial interest, what I thought interesting about this facility, was the one hundred thousand years. This is a time span that I do not understand, myself, and I didn’t want to create a mode of address in the film in which this would just be an abstract figure, that would mean that you would listen to some experts, but it wouldn’t mean anything to you. This is why I thought about creating a film as a kind of a message or letter to the future. But it was also—and all of the camera work and the sound design was derived from this—that this was a kind of science fiction film, but shot in the present day. All of these alienation elements, ofVerfremdungs-effekt: those were employed so that, ideally, the audience would experience today as if seeing from the future, from beyond that point that is the sole constructional design element—that everything will be forgotten—and this has to be able to work even without any knowledge. So, ideally, I had been hoping for the audience this kind of look back on our own time, whereby they would gain a kind of perspective on what are we doing today. Of course, although you can say that the film is a kind of film for the future, but it’s just as much—and this has to be the case, I believe—a kind of portrait of our time.

ZB Would you agree that it’s futile for us to try to imagine what future civilizations “might be like” or what they might be interested in?

MM I think that one of the paradoxes in making this sort of facility that is you cannot allow yourself to say it’s futile, although you may know in your heart that it’s futile to try to predict what will happen in one hundred thousand years. In a way, we cannot allow ourselves to give up. A lot of the work with nuclear energy and nuclear waste is guided by principles like “best practice,” because it’s very difficult to put up universal standards, so you have to do the best possible thing which is—although it might be impossible—we have to try to think about what are the possible futures because otherwise we cannot ever think about how to make counter-measurements to what might happen in the future. But it’s significant that, especially the Finnish company that builds this facility, they only have two scenarios for the future: one is that it will just go downhill, into stone age—you can’t dig a hole in the ground anymore—or it will just be continued technological development, and then there is also no problem because we will know forever what nuclear energy is. Those two scenarios are I think only honoring the ability to say to the Finnish politicians that no matter what the future looks like, there are no problems. So this is really just a communication that is designed for the present, it’s really not concerned with the future at all.

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The entrance to Onkalo, as seen in Michael Madsen’s documentary, INTO ETERNITY. Courtesy of International Film Circuit.

ZB I thought it was interesting that the blast technician described the tunnel as a place where time did not exist. The tunnel takes on this kind of mystical quality throughout the film. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about being in the actual space, what it made you feel.

MM When I first heard about this facility, and before I went there on my first research, I thought that, since these people here are working for this time span, they are in a way already in kind of an after-world, they are already transported somewhere else. So I have never experienced this place as a real place, and this informed how I was talking about it with the crew, how to film and how to do the sound design and so on. But when you are in the facility, when you are three hundred meters below the surface, which is where the main part of the location shooting took place, in the tunnel, you do have the feeling that this is not a place for humans. You feel the pressure when you go down, your ears pop, and you somehow feel the immensity of the bedrock, which is above you. At the same time, you see that all of the tunnel is crisscrossed with writings and numbers and figures that are trying to trace every single little crack in the bedrock, from which water will drip in, and does drip in, because water is the real danger: that’s what’s going to flush out the radioactive material in time. In actual fact, the Onkalo facility, whose name has this meaning of “hiding place,” is just a delay function: everything man-made will crumble over time. And when you are in this tunnel, and you listen and you see the water flowing there, it gives you a kind of an uncanny feeling.

Into Eternity is showing now at Film Forum in New York.

Zachary Block is a writer based in New York.

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