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“Countdown to Zero” Imagines a Nuclear Arms-Free World

"Countdown to Zero" Imagines a Nuclear Arms-Free World

More than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the threat of nuclear annihilation remains a grave concern. Today, however, the focus is not an identifiable nuclear superpower as foe, but rogue groups, extremists or anyone with enough money, engineering capability and access to enriched uranium be it by theft or paying off corrupt officials. Lucy Walker’s disturbing Cannes doc, “Countdown to Zero,” produced with Participant Media, explores the all too real threat of a nuclear event that could easily destroy a major city, and with that plunging the world into a crisis that could not only kill millions and topple the economy, but also devestate age-old social mores as civilizations panic and demand an end to the sort of rights considered the norm in the world’s democracies.

The ominous Soviet nuclear threat loomed in the popular imagination in much of the West throughout the Cold War (and in the Eastern Bloc as well). Footage of 1950s-era schoolchildren practicing their duck and cover drills in the event of a nuclear attack is a reminder of a bygone era in which a nuclear winter seemed probable as two ideologies clashed and an Iron Curtain – as Winston Churchill so famously said – divided Europe. With the end of the former Soviet Union in the final decade of the last century, nuclear annihilation has escaped the collective consciousness as a New World Order, as the first President Bush called it – or a ‘Pax Americana’ – prevailed.

Walker’s “Zero” deftly exposes the vulnerability of major cities to potential nuclear calamity and argues that the only way to ensure that atomic devestation never happens again is for the world to eliminate nuclear arms.

“If the U.S. and Russia continue to reduce their arsenals then other nuclear powers will be pressured to reduce their stockpiles and then other countries will be pressured to accept that as the norm. Other countries will be clearly isolated as rogue states and the film illustrates this beautifully,” said Jordan’s Queen Noor, a founding member of the Global Zero movement, in Cannes Sunday afternoon.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Dr. Gro Brundtland, “Countdown to Zero” director Lucy Walker and producer Lawrence Bender. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Queen Noor, the widow of former Jordanian King Hussein, was joined by Walker and an eclectic mix of international dignitaries for a post-screening panel in Cannes, including outted CIA Operations Officer, Valerie Plame Wilson (who is also attending the festival with Doug Liman’s “Fair Game” about the George W. Bush-era scandal in which she was illegally identified as a CIA operative), former Norwegian Prime Minister Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, producer Lawrence Bender and Participant’s Diane Weyermann. The group highlighted the film’s contention that the elimination of nuclear arms and securing stockpiles of the world’s enriched uranium were the only way to avoid an inevitable disaster.

“I am known in the media primarily by the betrayal of my covert activity,” said Plame Wilson. “I went from a job that I loved in which discretion was paramount to being the focus of unreal media attention. What I found appealing about this opportunity [with ‘Countdown to Zero] was that I could participate in something I have a passion for.” Plame Wilson said that she came to the conclusion that the work she did prior to being identified was “delaying the inevitable.” She now believes that despite the work of intelligence services to keep enriched uranium from falling into the wrong hands, those efforts only make it more challenging for groups determined to acquire them, but ultimately – if the situation remains the same – they will eventually obtain that capability.

“My position has evolved to the point that this is the only reasonable way that the world could eliminate that threat…Very little has been done in the twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is something about film that is able to grab people’s attention and say, ‘this is something you should care about.’ If I can add to that urgency of the issue, then I’m happy to do so…”

“Nuclear weapons have changed everything except our way of thinking,” added Lucy Walker. “Making movies is really hard and trying to change the world is really hard. My most urgent issue is making movies that are really important and this is one of the most urgent issues of all. Unfortunately, the nuclear threat did not go away with the Cold War.”

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