Lucy Walker has had quite a year. In February, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Waste Land and a few months later her latest documentary Countdown to Zero was released to widespread acclaim. This alarming and eye-opening film about the nuclear threat has had an impact beyond cinemas too, sparking a debate about the possibility of total nuclear disarmament. I spoke with Lucy Walker about her film recently ahead of its DVD release.
The topic of nuclear weapons is such a vast and complex one. How did you get to grips with the subject when you first embarked upon this project?
I had to try and figure out what were the most important things to include. I'm not an expert and I was left to my own devices to figure that out, but I'm pleased with the balance of the film and I believe it covers the most important aspects and issues. I learned a lot through my research, because I didn't really know much. I mean, I'm a regular concerned citizen, I read the newspaper and all that stuff, but I quickly realised that my A in physics A-level didn't mean anything and I had a lot of catching up to do. So I reached out into the various scientific, NGO and government communities and consulted all the experts I possibly could about what they thought was most important for people to understand. I encouraged them to educate me and point me towards other people who would be good interviews or other important stories. I spoke to something like 125 people off camera as well as all of the people you see on camera. I just phoned people up and asked for their help and they were all really generous in helping me figure out what to include.
The range of interviewees you have in the film is remarkable. Was it a challenge to get access to them and persuade them to speak on camera?
It was a real challenge across the board. For example, sometimes politicians are so used to delivering established lines, which is fine except it's not very interesting because you're just going to end up with something safe and boring, and that's not screen dynamite, so you had a problem there. On the other hand, I found the opposite problem with people who weren't media-savvy or were too alarmist, so there were a lot of different challenges in getting people to speak from the heart but to be accurate, informative and interesting. The goal was never to be alarmist and exaggerate the threat but to explain it as clearly and as humanly as possible.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how ignorant most people are of the nuclear threat and how apathetic a lot of them are too. I guess you had to make the film as accessible and easy to digest as possible so viewers with that lack of knowledge could be educated by it.
Yeah, I really did. I wanted to make a film that, if people watched it, they'd feel really empowered, like there would be nothing in the newspaper that they couldn't really grasp. Look at the Fukushima incident just now in Japan, hopefully that story demonstrates how important it is that people do understand the issues and what's at stake. The thing we have to understand about nuclear material is that when something goes wrong it can go way that's hard to control or predict. I was actually just filming in Fukushima in the wake of the tsunami and I also filmed in Hiroshima on the same trip, and I was very much reminded of what can happen with a nuclear explosion, when a whole town can be instantly destroyed. Nothing I saw in Japan made me thing that anything in the movie was wrong. If anything, unfortunately, it all felt very current with what I learned and put in the movie.
It's almost as if people saw the Berlin wall come down and that era of communism end and thought that was the end of the nuclear threat.
I think that's exactly it. I think we all thought that the Soviet Union went away, and with it all of the terror we had in the 80's, so surely the nukes must have gone or we would be doing something about it. I was a very enthusiastic and keen student at school, and I remember when I was very young my teacher showed me these articles about climate change, but I kept saying, "If there's a problem they'd be doing something about it," so I didn't believe her! Unfortunately, some problems are so complex you realise it's easier to deny that there's a problem, but I think the film demonstrates that we'll be in worse trouble if we do ignore it than if we try to deal with it now.
One of the major changes that has occurred since that era is the emergence of new countries that have nuclear capabilities outside of the traditional superpowers.
Think about Pakistan, for example. Pakistan is really interesting. We showed in the movie that it's the headquarters of Al-Qaeda, and I think we weren't wrong there, and think about how many nuclear weapons that country has and how unstable it is in many key ways. What could happen there if any number of different destabilising events might occur? There's so much tremendous anxiety in the world and so far we haven't been in a position where a country has fallen apart while being in possession of nuclear weapons, but there's really nothing to prevent that happening.
Particularly as you show in the film how easy it is to cause a catastrophe by accident.
That's right, it's important to understand that you don't even need someone to intentionally set one off and there have been far too many cases where they have almost gone off. By definition, most of the states that have nuclear weapons are sophisticated ones with the organisation and resources – North Korea would be the exception to that rule – but this idea of accidents not being preventable is very interesting. You just can't plan for every eventuality. The people of Fukushima didn't plan for the extremity of that event, but who does? As time goes on, these very unusual circumstances will always arise once in a while, and the consequences of these things are so off the charts it's important to anticipate that accidents are an inevitable part of these things.
What kind of reaction have you had from politicians?
We've had very encouraging words from Hillary Clinton who gave it two thumbs up, and I think it's considered to have made a big impact. I've never had it confirmed that President Obama has seen it but he has quoted from it at certain points, so I think it has been impactful. I don't know if they've changed the ending for the UK version but the ratification of the star treaty happened and that was terrific, because we emphasised that as the first real step.
Do you really think complete nuclear disarmament is feasible?
That's the big question. Hopefully the movie shows that the alternatives are worse, you know? People will tell you that having no nuclear weapons in the world is a naive position, but I think you have to turn it around and say that the idea of feeling safe with many more states active with nuclear weapons is way more naive. Whatever you once thought about whether nuclear armament or disarmament was a good or bad thing, we're now living in this changed world where there's no technological bar to entry with this stuff anymore. In the future it's going to be much quicker and easier, and as technology advances it proliferates. Look at Libya, for example. I was actually supposed to go and interview Gaddafi and also Sayeef Gaddafi, who was just killed, for the film, but they cancelled at the last minute. They had nuclear weapons, they had the whole kit, but then they voluntarily gave it all up in 2003. Now Imagine a situation where Libya in its current state had nuclear weapons; it wouldn't be pretty. In the future, we will be in a situation, inevitably, where countries will have nuclear weapons and grow unstable. I don't know about you, but I'd feel very unhappy about living in a big city in such a situation. If one nuclear weapon got into the hands of a terrorist organisation that had a beef with Britain, I'd feel very worried living in London.
You mentioned that you were shooting in Japan recently. Is that for a new project or is it related to this film?
Yeah, I'm filming a new documentary in Japan but I don't want to talk about it too much yet. This is quite hot off the press, because you're the first person that I've spoken to about the film in a while. I was just filming in Japan, in the area where the tsunami hit Fukushima, so it's a new project about those recent events.
I was commenting to somebody recently about how most of the best films I've seen this year have been documentaries. Do you feel it's an exciting time for documentary filmmaking?
Yeah, I really do. I feel like fiction filmmaking is in the doldrums right now, if you ask me, apart from a few very exciting filmmakers. There's a lot more dynamic work going on around documentaries, and there's a couple of reasons for that, which are quite easy to point to. One is the fact that camera and editing equipment is so accessible now. The cameras are so portable and affordable now you can shoot some high-quality stuff, and in documentaries it is so important that you can edit a lot of material and really build the story in the editing room. I also think that it's a really interesting time when we're trying to find out how the world works, and we have this opportunity to look directly at the world and understand really important, fundamental, exciting things that are going on in our world using state of the art film equipment. I just really exciting, so yes, I feel like documentary filmmaking is where it's at right now and that's why I enjoy it so much.