Jamaican-born filmmaker Suzan Beraza could have taken the easy, well-trodden path of the pro-environment documentary, especially given the premise of her film, Uranium Drive-In: a hardscrabble mining town faces the construction of a uranium mill, the first to be built in the U.S. in 30 years. It’s a setup with a good versus evil narrative that almost seems to write itself — small-town residents against the big, faceless corporation.

If only picking whom to root for in this heartrending portrait of rural life were so simple. Set to the backdrop of southwestern Colorado’s brutal and beautiful desert landscape, Uranium Drive-In (which debuted at the 2013 Telluride Mountainfilm Festival) touches on two raw nerves that seem to have come at odds with each other — the economic toils of small-town America, embodied by a working mother named Ayngel Overson, and the fight for environmental, health and safety concerns in the face of the global energy industry, exemplified by a local activist, Jennifer Thurston. Both underdogs in their own right, the two women are caught up in forces larger than themselves. So how can two people be so true to their personal struggles, yet so wrong in each other’s eyes?

Ayngel lives in a town on the brink of economic desolation. Former shells of grocery stores and schools dot downtown Naturita, CO. Rusted entrances to abandoned mineshafts cling to cliffs like molted skin. In a poignant scene, the mayor cries over how desperate people have become. Ayngel’s husband, Ed, can’t find a steady job, so they make do by selling avatars on the life simulation game, Second Life. Because things aren’t going so well in Naturita, the couple finds refuge — and a source of income — in the virtual world. You can imagine their excitement when they find out a company, Energy Fuels, plans to build a uranium mill nearby, bringing high-paying jobs to the area. No longer do they have to choose between languishing in Naturita and leaving home.

Then there’s Jennifer, who leads a protest group based in Telluride. She won’t let that mill get built. To her, the dangers of uranium surpass any economic gain — just look at the polluted blue-green rivers, the uranium communities turned into radioactive wastelands, the workers who died of radiation poisoning after spending years inside the mills.

Uranium Drive-In is free of ideological preaching. The film begins with a pronouncement by President Barack Obama that nuclear energy is the largest source of fuel that produces no carbon emissions. Beraza could have then easily veered into advocacy. After all, the disaster at Fukushima in 2011, the largest nuclear meltdown since Chernobyl, still occupies the global consciousness. She might have ended up with a commercial hit, too. An Inconvenient Truth and the films of Michael Moore have proven that documentaries with a clear political message can score big at the box office. And it’s a type of film Beraza knows how to pull off, as she demonstrated in her first film, Bag It, a stunning expose on the single-use plastic bag industry.

Instead, after two years and eight months of filming, Beraza has emerged with an emotionally driven story, told through the colorful characters of small-town Colorado. It’s one that has sparked debate among environmentalists and small-towns alike, as Uranium Drive-In continues to make its way through festivals across the country.

Beraza took some time between festivals in Colorado and Montana to speak with GALO about the relationship she developed with her subjects, her evolving stance on the nuclear industry, and the artistic choices she faced in portraying a small Colorado town.

GALO: By delving into the nuclear energy debate, this could have been a very political film. Why did you choose to approach the topic from more of a character driven perspective?

Suzan Beraza: Our last film, Bag It, was very much an essay-style film. It was almost like a Plastics 101, where you learn step-by-step about single-use disposable plastics. For Uranium Drive-In, we wanted to approach the topic in a different way. We also felt a number of other films have already covered the nuclear energy debate pretty well. The final reason was our subjects turned out to be really interesting characters, and we live in this region. I knew from the offset that I wanted it to be a more balanced film as opposed to an advocacy film, partly out of respect for people who are my neighbors.

GALO: The town where you live, Telluride, is the source of most of the opposition against the mill. Was it a challenge approaching residents knowing you’re from the same town as Jennifer and her protest group, Sheep Mountain Alliance?

SB: It was less of a challenge than I thought it would be. There were definitely some people from Naturita, Nucla and the west end of the county, who didn’t want to be interviewed and looked at me with caution. But on the whole, when I actually sat to talk to people and explained I wanted the film to be from their point of view, they really did open up. The main thing I kept hearing was that they really wanted to tell their story. They felt like they weren’t being heard. They feel a bit powerless in this situation because the decisions aren’t being made by them; they’re being made by lawyers behind closed doors in Denver. So this was a chance for them to speak their mind and share their stories.

GALO: Was it a conscious decision to not interview the lawyers and decision makers? For example, there was no interview with Energy Fuels, the company that plans to bring the mill to Naturita.

SB: They denied us interviews. We did reach out to them several times and they just declined. But what was a conscious choice was to not make it an expert driven film. We talked to certain experts for background information, but then we decided not to go the route of the talking heads — nuclear physicists, that kind of thing. Part of what drew me to the project was that the film is very subjective because of each person’s version of the truth, what they believe to be true. Because it’s such a complicated issue — uranium, nuclear energy — it drew me to the stories that each person really felt so differently about, [like] the safety, health, and environmental impacts. The residents were approaching it so differently in terms of the jobs, the economy. So we decided to let it be a subjective film and go with that.