By Chris Gallagher
TOKYO (Reuters) - Decades ago, the citizens of Japan's Futaba town took such pride in hosting part of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex that they built a sign over a promenade proclaiming that atomic power made their town prosperous.
Now, they are scattered around Japan with no clear sign of when they might return to their homes, and their story has become a cautionary tale about the dangerous allure of nuclear power.
"Nuclear Nation," a documentary that premiered at last month's Berlin film festival, follows the residents of Futaba who were evacuated after a series of explosions set off by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami at reactors some 3 km (2 miles) away in neighboring Okuma.
With Futaba hit by high levels of radiation, its former residents don't know when, or even if, they will be able to return to their homes within the 20 km (12 mile) exclusion zone around the plant. In the broader region, tens of thousands were forced to flee.
"You tend to think about the resolution of the Fukushima Daiichi accident, but you have to look at the people," the film's director, Atsushi Funahashi, told Reuters.
"The people who got the most damage are the most ignored, and that's (what) you have to show."
Besides "Nuclear Nation," two other March 11-themed documentaries also screened at last month's Berlin film festival, as filmmakers start focusing their lenses on the worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl catastrophe in 1986.
Funahashi began filming last April at an abandoned high school in a Tokyo suburb where 1,400 Futaba evacuees were living in classrooms and had set up town administrative offices.
Based on interviews over the course of the year, the film captures the monotony of their daily lives as they bide their time in cramped conditions with nowhere to go and the mayor describes a "refugee feeling."
"The thing that I really wanted to depict in 'Nuclear Nation' was the waiting time of these people," Funahashi said.
"They're going to get compensated eventually for the land and homes they lost. But they're not going to get paid for the time they lost, and that's one of the tragedies."
Their only chance to return home was for one two-hour visit last summer, clad in protective suits and masks to collect belongings and pray for ancestors in tsunami-flattened cemeteries.
They express anger at the government, regulators and plant owner they feel had assured them of the power station's safety.
That's a far cry from the sentiment of the late 1970s when the town of 8,000 suddenly found itself flush with funds from property taxes and government subsidies after plant owner Tokyo Electric (Tepco) began construction in Futaba on two reactors.
With this "nuclear money" to burn, Futaba spent big on an athletic center, a library and other infrastructure, while residents were able to work in town at the plant and get bigger houses -- the power plant was seen as a godsend.
In one scene, the camera lingers on a sign that proclaims: "Atomic Energy Makes Our Town and Society Prosperous."
Under depreciation rules, however, the reactors were worth almost nothing after 15 years, and Futaba nearly went bankrupt under a pile of debt, becoming one of Japan's poorest towns by the late 2000s, according to the film.
Futaba nearly tapped new nuclear money to help fix its financial woes, with Tepco set to begin construction on two new reactors, in April 2011.
"We thought Futaba's future was at stake without that money," Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa said in the film. "Now I realize the cons far outweigh the pros ... I've come to think it was wrong to invite the nuclear power plant into our lives."
Some 500 people are still living in the high school, and Funahashi said he has already started work on "Nuclear Nation 2," about their lives in the second year since the disaster.
"I really feel a strong urge that I have to follow them until they go back home," he said.
"Nuclear Nation," produced by Documentary Japan and Big River Films, has secured distribution rights in the United States and is set to screen at Hong Kong and other film festivals. France's Wide House is handling global sales.
(Reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Elaine Lies and Bob Tourtellotte)