Somba Ke: The Money Place [subtitled in part]

Somba Ke. The Money Place

Somba Ke: The Money Place is a high-minded documentary of just under an hour that’s hard to criticize, but that never really grabbed me.

The subject of the film is the push to ramp up uranium mining in Canadian Indian lands in the Northwest Territories. (One such area being Somba Ke, which means “The Money Place.”) The film contends that the history of radium and uranium mining in the area, and its health effects on the workers and nearby residents, provides reasons to be very wary of letting industry have its way.

There is much to appreciate about the approach taken by this film:

• The “other side” is given ample opportunity to present their views. Those interviewed include not only nuclear industry spokespersons and such, but unlikely allies from, for instance, environmental groups. (One of the very few left wing skeptics of global warming—Alexander Cockburn—was highly suspicious of just this alliance. He thinks those who will financially benefit from nuclear power have hoodwinked the Left and environmentalists into thinking burning fossil fuels is adversely affecting the climate so that they’ll throw their influence behind this resurgence of nuclear power.) And their clips aren’t edited to make them look like complete fools or liars.

• Rather than just talking about them like they’re always the objects of other people’s actions, Indians (“Native Americans,” “First People,” whatever) are allowed to speak for themselves. And not monolithically—different individuals express different viewpoints.

• The documentary isn’t weighted heavily toward emotionalism and shock value. It mostly makes its case in a rational manner by laying out the evidence, including counter-evidence, and discussing what can be inferred from this evidence. It suggests that the facts are somewhat more on the side of those critical of the uranium mining, but it doesn’t state that with an unwarranted certainty or hyperbole.

• Obviously the subject itself is a very important one, a life and death one.

One quick thing I’ll note that I didn’t like about the film is that—whether out of genuine naïveté, or a desire to pander to Indians and people who admire what they take to be the Indian belief system—it’s ridiculously credulous about Indian prophets having supernatural powers to predict the future. Much is made of an alleged prophecy that white-skinned people would take a magic rock from the Indians’ land and put it in a bird, who would drop it in a distant land to kill people related to Indians, etc., etc. that’s supposed to represent uranium being used for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Pardon me for not believing they investigated this scientifically and looked at all possible interpretations before inserting it in the movie.

There is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence that the Canadian Indians in the area and the white workers brought in from outside the area (and people associated with uranium mining elsewhere, including the Navajo) contracted cancer in alarming numbers from the radioactive material. It turns out not to be all that easy to prove though, as a lot of important factors—like how much of what grade of uranium the people in question handled for how long, how many smoked or did other things that might instead have caused their cancers, etc.—can at best be very loosely estimated.

A nuclear industry study predictably says uranium mining has no detrimental health effects, but critics dismiss it on the grounds that its way of handling all the difficult-to-measure stuff was to ignore it and stick to the health effects that could be examined more confidently. If instead you broaden the scope of the inquiry, they say, and simply do the best you can with the difficult estimates by using computer models and such, the case is quite strong that this mining cost a lot of lives and will cost a lot more if the industry is allowed to do all they want to do.

I will say, though, that even if we agree with the points made or implied by this film that are critical of the nuclear industry, it’s not as if that settles how we are to proceed. Energy policy requires looking at all the costs and benefits of all the options. If uranium mining has these adverse consequences, then that has to be one of the factors looked at. But so too do all the other environmental, health, economic, geopolitical, etc., etc. consequences of oil, coal, solar, wind, nuclear, conservation, and everything else have to be looked at.

Using more nuclear power appears to mean certain people will die of cancer who otherwise would not have, certain Indians will be economically exploited and/or pushed off their ancestral lands, etc., but every other option also will have bad (and lethal), as well as good, consequences.

Somba Ke: The Money Place is a documentary that I respect more than I liked. I don’t know if it needs some Michael Moore pizzazz and outrage (though obviously that could detract from multiple of what are now its best features), but I found the bulk of it dry and emotionally uncompelling.

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