Ahead of Demand Zero Day, the British documentarian talks Countdown to Zero and the end of civilisation as we know it.
LWLies meets Lucy Walker only a few days after an earthquake has devastated parts of northeastern Japan. As we talked, 24-hour news channels obsessed over Fukushima as its reactors threatened to go into meltdown. Walker had cancelled a publicity junket in Japan and was painfully aware of this unwanted PR coup. She stopped herself more than once from saying ‘I told you so’, but it must have been tempting.
Countdown to Zero, which she wrote and directed, is a graphic reminder of the risks we take when we play with nuclear power, whether in the guise of energy or weaponry. Most of the enriched uranium from the defunct Soviet Union remains unaccounted for, terrorism has proliferated, and our current generation of nuclear energy plants are outdated, crumbling colossuses constructed in the '70s – giants built on feet of clay.
"I remember thinking at the time of the Iraq invasion, 'If I’m right, then bad stuff is going to happen', and unfortunately I think I was right," Walker says. "I feel the same way now. If I’m right about nuclear weapons, then I think there’s a real and grave risk of something absolutely awful happening. It gives me no pleasure to say that it’s the most urgent threat we face.
"I really wish I wasn’t sitting here worrying about Japan’s nuclear meltdown," she adds, "but that’s what we say in the film – that the risk is never zero, and with nuclear the consequences of something going wrong are really grave. I don’t want to be right, I want to be proved wrong."
These are not the kind of urgent doomsday quotes you might expect from Lucy Walker. A relation of the Observer political columnist Will Hutton, and an alumnus of both Oxford University and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she is a dyed-in-the-wool part of the liberal elite; a modernist documentarian in every sense and one of the first to really take advantage of the humanism that small, portable cameras allow.
Walker has used this to access tiny communities of people, like those in the Oscar-nominated Waste Land – the catadores that live in the refuse tip of Rio di Janeiro, and who eventually joined her on the red carpet in Los Angeles. So why the about turn? Why the reversion to a more conventional campaigning doc heavy on montages and graphics and talking heads?
"I like where the important meets the dramatic meets the real, and making a film about nuclear weapons is not very sexy. It’s not such an easy pitch, but I don’t like easy pitches. I like challenges," she explains. "It’s really hard to make a film that starts with a topic, and it’s really hard to make a film about a topic that no one wants you to film and no one wants you to say anything about.
"Just because we’ve got all these amazing interviews in Countdown doesn’t mean it wasn’t really hard to get them. Even though when you get someone amazing to sit down, it’s still amazingly hard to get them to say anything interesting, because the tendency is to say very safe platitudes about these things – 'We must be safe with nuclear weapons. We must get the numbers down.' These kind of things aren’t exactly screen dynamite.
"But I knew that just interviews wouldn’t suffice as a film," she continues. "I did try and shoot some verité scenes but it was really hard with permission – it was frightening and classified. I find it much easier when there’s a particular story to follow. I’ve done three films like that and it’s much more intuitive for me. Hats off to the editors because it was a hard film to edit when there isn’t a clear chronology or narrative.
"I sort of feel there’s this iceberg and you only see the tip in this film," Walker adds. “The good news is, what you see in the film in girded by a tremendous amount of research and reflection.“
That research and reflection comes from interviews with some big beasts of the Soviet and post-Soviet era, including Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Robert McNamara, Pervez Musharraf and Valerie Plame Wilson. Was she impressed by these powerful political figures?
"I definitely really tried to take them on," Walker replies. "I wouldn’t say that I was unimpressed with any of them. I tend to generally think that for anyone to agree to be filmed is actually really courageous, and especially with this issue. I think it’s actually a big risk because if you talk about these weapons, you associate yourself with them by discussing them. It would be much easier to not talk about them.
"We had [former US Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara’s last interview before he died, and he really wanted to impart this idea that he had changed his mind on this issue and he wanted people to know that. He wanted people to know that nations will be destroyed if these weapons weren’t destroyed. He was on his death bed and that was his parting act, and that was very powerful."
Walker punctuates the film with footage of the cities that have been victims of terrorism over the last decade – London, Moscow, New York, Berlin, Madrid and so on. She finishes with footage of Times Square on New Year’s Eve intercut with scientists describing the impact of a nuclear bomb on a city; a five-mile radius hotter than the surface of the sun – no hospitals, no police, no government, no shelter, no food. The reign of anarchy.
"I wanted to put that at the end of the film when people had been re-educated and re-sensitised. I thought if you put it at the end it would be much more impactful. If people thought ‘Oh God, these weapons could go off,’ I wanted to remind them of what kind of destruction these weapons could do, and they are so much more powerful than the one that fell on Hiroshima. Modern thermonuclear weapons use a Hiroshima-style device as their fuse. It’s really daunting to think about the massive size, so I wanted to do that in one go, as a dramatic maneuver. What I really didn’t want to do is cut willy-nilly to the mushroom cloud.
"We don’t have the choice of a few countries having a well-secured arsenal and that keeping the rest of the world safe," Walker concludes. "Regardless of whether you think that was a good plan, forget it. Unless we really get together and work out how this world is run, we’re going to be in a situation where a lot of states and non-state rogue actors are going to be able to have access to that stuff."
Countdown to Zero is premiering on Demand Zero Day, June 21. For participating venues visit countdowntozerofilm.com/screenings