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Friday 24 March 2017

Startling nuclear documentary will blow your mind

Lucy Walker brings together a who's who of world leaders to expose the real threat of atomic war today, writes Evan Fanning

Evan Fanning

ASK Lucy Walker what was the most difficult challenge she faced in making the startling (and terrifying) documentary Countdown to Zero and she pauses and gives it some thought.

Which bit to choose seems to be her biggest problem. It's an understandable difficulty given that, in a truly remarkable piece of filmmaking, Walker has brought together many of the most influential world leaders of the past two decades to talk about the threat posed by nuclear arms.

Men such as Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev and Pervez Musharraf agreed to feature in Walker's film. This who's who is a fraction of the people Walker approached. "Think of every other world leader -- they all said no," she jokes.

"Tony Blair turned us down 10 times before we got a different kind of an answer out of him," she says. "It was really hard but we just kept saying 'we want to understand this issue from the horse's mouth and from the people who are really dealing with them. We don't want to speculate; we don't want to fluff; we want to talk to the people who do know the information and also have to work with that information every day.'"

Walker is clearly passionate about the subject, speaking eloquently and at length on the matter, despite suffering from jet lag, having just arrived from New York, where she spends most of her time, along with her native London.

A graduate of Oxford, it's easy to see how her striking features and engaging, direct conversational style helped her to get these statesman to open up and leave the soundbites behind while discussing the issue. "Talking to world leaders was exciting," she says. "I wasn't intimidated. I wanted to speak to people who had had their finger on the button. You and I can imagine what it's like, but I wanted to talk to people about what it is like.

"Someone like Gorbachev opened up. It's tough when you're a world leader to expose yourself, be vulnerable and human, and talk personally."

It's not all world leaders who have contributed to the film. Walker brought together 84 people to discuss the issue, ranging from scientists to statesmen and even, in one of the most fascinating interviews, a smuggler who was trying to sell nuclear weapons on the black market and who is imprisoned in Georgia.

"I'm still not convinced why the smuggler talked to me," she says. "I'm very glad he did. He probably thought he was a dead man anyway, so why not?

"One of the things I was proud about was that [at first] he wasn't really saying anything. I was trying to think of ways to get him to talk about what he'd done, which was smuggle the highly enriched uranium. He was selling it to someone he thought was al-Qaeda. In his mind, he was participating in a nuclear attack on the West.

"So, I got him talking about American cars because he was a car mechanic. To get him to talk about terrorist attacks, I spoke to him about cars."

Walker's previous film, Waste Land, the equally startling although altogether more uplifting documentary about rubbish pickers living in a sprawling Rio de Janeiro dump, earned her an Oscar nomination earlier this year.

The photos of Walker arriving for the ceremony show her smiling and laughing with her friend and fellow nominee Tim Hetherington, co-director of Restrepo. In April, Hetherington died in Libya while covering the conflict there. It's a reminder of the dangers fearless filmmakers face in pursing their goal.

Countdown to Zero didn't require Walker to dodge bullets, but other equally serious threats were present. "We did some filming in Kazakhstan in a former nuclear test site for the Soviet Union," she says. "We were camping and they've had so many explosions there. That was the thing that scared me the most and I still wonder if I was exposed to radiation."

It's clear that Walker is not one to shirk a challenge, even if this particular project pushed her to the very limits. "I challenge myself a lot, especially with a film that was as daunting and had so much responsibility as this one," she says. "There were times when I felt like I don't have a superhero outfit. I don't have a Wonder Woman bikini."

And talking of superheroes ... "Hopefully we can save the world," she says, tongue firmly in cheek.

At times, it's a gruelling profession infringing on relationships and home life. "There are times when I never want to leave my house ever again," she says. "And then there are times when I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. One of the things I really enjoy about my job is that I get to talk to people as different as someone who has been living on a rubbish dump since the age of six to escape domestic violence, to Gorbachev."

Countdown to Zero has become the powerful centrepiece of a campaign to rid the world of nuclear weapons. It's a terrifying wake-up call and will cause sleepless nights.

"The goal is to avoid something bad happening by talking about it, anticipating it and making sure it doesn't happen," Walker explains. "That's exactly why I made the film. I don't want to be sitting around on the news shows when the nuclear accident happens, or when North Korea, or when the Saudis, or Israel or Iran decide to use nuclear weapons.

"You don't want to be right, but unfortunately I don't think we're wrong."

Countdown to Zero will be premiered at cinemas in Dublin, Belfast and Derry on Tuesday, as part of Demand Zero Day, followed by a live, streamed Q&A with Lawrence Bender, Valerie Plame, Queen Noor of Jordan and Margaret Beckett. For details on screenings, visit www.count downtozerofilm.com/screen ings. It will then show in select cinemas from Friday

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