Doc filmmaker Lucy Walker has blossomed into a strong storyteller. This month she is releasing not one, but TWO powerhouse films, each with their own hard topics. I met Lucy years ago on the film festival circuit when she emerged out of the gates with her first baby, Devil’s Playground, a film about the difficult teenage years of an Amish teenager.
(Lucy Walker, Filmmaker)
Devil’s Playground was about the Rumspringa stage. What does that mean? Up until 16 years old, each individual child is raised in true amish philosophy — that means no electricity, no TV’s, no modern toys, and no formal schooling past 6th grade. Enter the “rumspringa” stage, a period of time where all the rules are lifted, and the child is unleashed to taste the world with all its temptations… or as their parents would call it, indulging in “the devil’s playground”.
Some children experiment with alcohol, substance abuse, sex, or just plain technology. In today’s world, thats going from 0-300 MPH. Or as Lucy claims, “it’s like never having smoked, then going into a closet to smoke an entire carton of cigarettes”. The objective of this phase is to taste the outside world, and then decide on 1 of 2 choices — either choose the outside society (which is foreign and intimidating and forever bans you from the family) or choose amish ideology and re-enter the community for life. Obviously, it’s an extreme decision. It is, more or less, the “baptism” phase for all amish…all at the awkward age of 16.
(Devil’s Playground, Amish Teenagers during the Rumspringa Stage)
To make the doc, Lucy moved to Pennsylvania for 2 years, and befriended an entire youth culture. She followed one girls alienating journey to self-empowerment through college applications while she followed another boy who wrecklessly fell into drug culture. There were others too. She asked them ALOT of questions and really brought us (the viewers) close to their conflicted psyche. It was then then that I saw how hungry, patient, relentless, and compassionate a filmmaker this lady would become. Her lecture circuit after the film garnered endless Q&A sessions on this subculture. Her knowledge of this mysterious and previously undocumented society turned her into an expert within this niche.
For her next film, Lucy would scale to new heights. Literally. She took 6 Tibetan teenagers on a journey of their dreams… to the top of the North side of Mount Everest, the 23,000 foot Lhakpa Ri. Did I mention the children were all blind? The challenges of making Blindsight were unreal, and we slowly witnessed the unfolding of stamina, courage, and paralyzing fear seeping into these children who were all lead by the famous blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer.
(Lucy with one of the Tibetan Children in Blindsight)
We see snowstorms, panic, and peace… In addition to the physical challenges the children faced –i.e. asthma to frostbite, one cannot help but wonder sitting in a comfortable air conditioned theater, what the hell was happening to the filmmakers in terms of cameras freezing, technical difficulties, batteries charging, etc. It was yet another feather in the cap of Lucy’s high stake documenting.
Her next topic? The highest of stakes of all — Nuclear War.
Lucy rolls up her sleeves and gets in good with the best political, philosophical, and tactical minds in this arena. Among the dozens interviewed are Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Tony Blair, former U.S. cabinet members Robert McNamara and James Baker III, and former CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson.
I grabbed Lucy on her visit to New York, and just like old times, we sat down and grabbed a beer. On top of the fact she’s a good speaker and just plain educational on her topics, Lucy is also a damn fun woman… full of humor, wit, strength, intellect, and above all… passion. I asked her a few questions about Countdown to Zero and the current roads opening up to her now. We could have probably spoken another few hours on her other documentary coming out at the same time, Wasteland (an exploration of the worlds largest landfill located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro), but for focus sake, we stuck to just one of her films. In truth, you should go see both docs.
(Lucy’s other film out this month. A landfill in Rio de Janeiro, Wasteland)
Jauretsi: Since the film has been shown, have you been sucked into “the movement” of banning nuclear arms?
Lucy Walker: Well I have two movies out this year: Countdown to Zero is in theaters right now, and Wasteland is coming out in theaters on October 29th. For Countdown to Zero I have been doing a lot of work with a campaign called Global Zero and an organization called Ploughshares to raise awareness about the current-day threat posed by nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism, and how critical it is that immediate steps are taken such as ratifying the Start Treaty. When I was making the movie I felt I needed a superhero cape it was such a daunting responsibility to communicate the topic of the most urgent threat we face as a species, and therefore eliminate it. My newest film Wasteland is less of a “movement” and more of a film, but I’m happy to say that the project has raised over a quarter of a million dollars for pickers of recycleable materials in the world’s largest landfill in Rio de Janeiro, and I have become very aware of my own recycling and waste. But the movement on that project is in my head and my heart – and I hope the heads and the hearts of the audience. It’s the most emotional movie I’ve ever experienced – at all our screenings so far, entire audiences have been crying…
(Countdown to Zero)
J: What is the one most important thing you want your audience to walk away feeling after seeing your film?
LW: Forgive this answer, but MORE HUMAN! Definitely :0) Always! That’s what I do, and what I love to do, and why I love to do it…
J: What’s next for you project-wise?
LW: I’m working on a couple of new things, but quietly. I have a new project but it’s very hush-hush until I can secure the first key piece. Unfortunately, it’s even more dangerous than any of my other movies though…
Countdown to Zero is playing in several cities now. If you miss the theatrical release, the film will be broadcast on the History Channel or available on DVD later this fall. Wasteland opens in theaters October 29th and will be on PBS and DVD early in 2011.
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