First-time feature filmmaker debuts at RVA Environmental Film Festival

Photo Courtesy of April Wade.
Photo Courtesy of April Wade.

First-time feature filmmaker David Schumacher’s film, “The New Fire” uses documentary storytelling to suggest nuclear energy as a solution to climate change.

The film screened on Feb. 15 at the RVA Environmental Film Festival, followed by a discussion led by Schumacher and Sama Bilbao y León, Director of  Nuclear Engineering Programs at VCU.

“Climate change is a huge problem,” Bilbao y León said. “But instead of looking at it from that doomsday point of view, (the film) shows we have technology, we have people with fantastic ideas that are working really hard to find a solution.”

Schumacher detailed the efforts of young engineers to develop a nuclear reactor which could consume existing stockpiles of nuclear waste. While he doesn’t have a science background, Schumacher was interested in the innovations occurring in the nuclear field.

“When I found this story, on the one hand I felt like, wow, I can’t believe no one else is making this movie, or nobody else is already telling this story,” Schumacher said. “But then when I started to try to make this an entertaining film, I realized there’s a good reason for it. It’s a very difficult subject matter.”

Schumacher said the issue of nuclear energy alone doesn’t make a good film — a narrative has to be present to engage audience. This balance works well, according to Bilbao y León, because viewers acquire some knowledge of technical details and an understanding of how they fit together.

“I think that the public doesn’t want a lecture on the details of nuclear technology,” Bilbao y León said. “People want to have a general vision of how it all works.”

According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, nuclear energy went from producing 2.4 percent of U.S. electricity to about 20 percent in 1990, a level which hasn’t shifted much since. About 10 percent of U.S. electricity comes from renewable sources like solar and wind. Bilbao y León said nuclear energy is sometimes vilified in environmental communities.  

“I found that there was some really interesting innovation happening in the field of nuclear and it made me think about what role innovation and technology could play in addressing climate (change),” Schumacher said of his research process for the documentary.

The innovation on the part of young engineers inspired the documentary in part.

Schumacher and his team — which sometimes only consisted of his cameraman — didn’t have third party funding for the first nine months of production. Eventually, he acquired about $400,000, less than half of the film’s $1.15 million cost, in funding from individuals in Silicon Valley who were interested in nuclear innovation. The rest of the money came out of pocket.

To acquire that amount of funding is “actually pretty good” for indie films, Schumacher said. In addition, it’s challenging for first-time filmmakers to receive funding.

“I didn’t do this to make money,” Schumacher said. “When this story dawned on me, it just became an obsession all of a sudden and I couldn’t stop doing it.”

The acquisition of funding enabled Schumacher to travel to other countries, like Senegal and China, for filming in order to contrast different global energy needs.

Schumacher said he enjoyed all of the moments portrayed in the final film — his favorite parts are those dealing with the “characters” of the film, or the prominent individuals in nuclear energy innovation.

The independent nature of the film’s production meant Schumacher had more freedom over the final product.

“It enabled me to tell a story that I think is very different from certainly any other climate film that’s been out there,” Schumacher said. “It’s just really fun and very satisfying.”

Georgia Geen Spectrum Editor 

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