Review by Sean Boelman
The world is a big place, full of places we may have never seen or heard of — and cinema can offer us a unique glimpse into those parts of the world. Richland is a quietly affecting film, creeping under viewers’ skin with its intimate, harrowing glimpse into everyday life in small town America.
The movie is a verité documentary about the town of Richland, Washington — a town which was built to house the workers of a nearby testing site, but has since become a representation of some of the issues that plague our country. Things have been getting worse in our country before they get better, yet this film shows that there is hope, even in darkness.
As one would expect, there is a focus in the movie on the destruction caused by nuclear proliferation. However, there is so much more to this story than that. The film is all about legacy and how it tends to entrap people more than it empowers them — especially in relation to how the population of Richland struggles to cope with its dark origins.
Although the story may not sound that interesting on paper, it’s much more compelling than it would seem. Of course, those who are not a fan of the verité style of documentary filmmaking may find themselves a tad bored by the footage of people going about their daily lives, but for those who love nonfiction cinema, the unique and intimate access Lusztig has to these people’s lives is sure to be fascinating.
Lusztig’s presentation in the movie is absolutely fantastic, with amazing cinematography on the new footage, paired impressively with impressive archive materials. It’s extraordinarily difficult to craft a compelling narrative out of these types of materials, but Lusztig manages to do so brilliantly.
The people Lusztig interviews for the film run the gamut from teenagers growing up in a world they don’t agree with to some of the town’s older residents, who spout “patriotic” rhetoric. It’s this cross-section of demographics and psychographics that makes Richland such a perfect stand-in for the country as a whole.
However, even though the movie does not give the audience many subjects to particularly identify with, the film nonetheless does a great job of being emotionally affecting. As a stand-in for the state of the country as a whole, the concept of Richland is what audiences will latch onto, more so than any one of its residents.
Richland is a stunning verité documentary that takes a small-scale story and uses it wonderfully to comment on big picture issues. Although it may not seem like it on the surface, Irene Lusztig has made one of the most important movies of the festival.
Richland screens at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.