It is peculiar to look at NUCLEAR FAMILY now, in the shadow of all that’s happened since we started on it. I suppose apocalypse was on the horizon. But we’ve all crossed that horizon. Apocalypse is behind us, in front of us, and we’re straddling apocalypse too. In a sense, the film is entirely in step with that reality. Though all of that came of an accident.
We were conceiving of US militarism as kind of singularity, an absolutism. Which it is, and also isn’t.
We spent months preparing for our road trip. We charted out a path, based on “nodes” of destruction—nuclear silos, weapons plants, laboratories, military academies and bases. At this point, the film was really monotonal in conception. We always strive to connect seemingly isolated but in fact fully interwoven elements—labour and ecological catastrophe, for example, or agriculture and colonialism. The connections are almost always more powerful, more essential, than we imagine. But somehow we hadn’t quite made those sorts of connections in this case. We were conceiving of US militarism as kind of singularity, an absolutism. Which it is, and also isn’t. For the first several days of the trip, I found it challenging to start shooting. I don’t know why. I imagine it had to do with this existential lack. I knew something was missing. I didn’t know what. And I didn’t want to turn the camera on until I knew what and why.
But we were already well on the road with our kids, our dog, and our travel trailer we named Nelly, and they were loving exploring. We followed fireflies on grounds still muddy from extreme and unusual flooding months earlier, in Illinois. At our first stop in Iowa, at the edge of a cornfield near wind turbines, we stopped to stretch our legs and we found hundreds of butterflies, their wings torn and tattered, scattered lifeless along the ground. We continued on to a campground, also backed up against corn stalks, where we could swim and hang a hammock from two old trees. Our road trip—that classic bit of Americana—began permeated by inescapable reminders of calamity.
Travis and I traveled to Japan for our honeymoon eight years earlier. We were invited to a city in the north just months after the earthquake and the tsunami, and nuclear disaster that followed it. As the bullet train from Tokyo stopped in Fukushima on the way there, we stared at each other, wondering what to do. The station is inland, meaning we were unable to see evidence of destruction. Furthermore, since radiation has no scent its traces are indiscernible; it does not subtly bend the air like gas or heat, it can’t be felt like an oil slick, and in this case did not explode like the bombs the US dropped on that country nearly seven decades earlier, singeing shadows into the last surfaces they would ever touch. How do you prevent exposure to something so catastrophic, yet so elusive?
And so we made the decision that the first shoot would be at a missile silo, just across the Nebraska/Colorado border, named after former US Senator Tim Wirth.
In the 1980s, I dropped out of high school and went to work on his political campaign for a group called Freeze PAC. That, temporally and conceptually, seems a million years ago. But the essence was that we were working to pressure US political figures to support a “freeze” on building US nuclear weapons. The notion was that this freeze would lay the foundation of eventual disarmament. And that the path to that freeze was to work within the system. To support Democrats and “pressure” them to betray their essence as representatives of the oldest bourgeois party in the Western world. It was a pipe dream, to be sure. And of course, it utterly failed.
Somehow the idea of filming at a silo named after the embodiment of that failed political strategy seemed like the way to kick the dust off my creative impulse and propel the project into motion. So we drove across the state line and pointed our Kia, travel trailer in tow, towards that silo.
But that plan was exactly as effective as the original political strategy. Literally the moment we crossed into Colorado the car started making noise. Soon enough, the engine crapped out altogether. Later, we would learn we were incredibly lucky, as the engine failure of that particular make and model was prone to bursting into flames. It’s happened hundreds of times now. But at that moment all we knew was that we were stuck as a family on the side of the road in Eastern Colorado, on the 4th of July, trying to figure out what the hell to do.
We eventually got the car towed to the nearest town—Julesburg—where we checked into the only motel, feeling run down and pretty sad, while we waited for word on the car. What happened instead is that we started shooting—the swimming pool was closed for repairs, the town was totally shut down, and we had literally nothing else to do. And that filming—for reasons almost mystical in nature—would shape the entirety of the project.
And that’s where I found a little hitchhiker, a tick, crawling up my skin under my shirt. As we waited for the tow truck, I had walked through the prairie along the highway with the kids. The prickly pears were in bloom, and their blossoms, quite delicate for such a robust and barbed botanical, are so short lived. I knew that the prairies were being invaded by foreign plants too. I used to practice landscape architecture, and I still have an interest in land use, revitalization, and the synchronicities of indigenous plants. They tell stories of invasion, movement, and migration, of miraculous healing and sudden death. These vistas resembled the old landscape paintings that represent the country as vast and borderless, free of inhabitants, free to build on, to take; propaganda supporting settlement that still hangs proudly in our museums and institutions.
These vistas resembled the old landscape paintings that represent the country as vast and borderless, free of inhabitants, free to build on, to take; propaganda supporting settlement that still hangs proudly in our museums and institutions.
I was curious if we would see signs of botanical duress in the ghostly landscapes of the silos. But also if there would be evidence of the large quantities of uranium stored underground, when radiation poisoning can move without smell or visual warning?
That tick was a reminder that we did not and do not exist outside of the narrative of settler invasion in this country, that our history and ancestry are part of the story too.
It would be several days yet before we’d learn the car would need its engine replaced and that it would take weeks. But that’s all another story.
Of all places we would find ourselves trapped, it was in Julesburg. The town is bleak and basically dying. It was a frontier town but the frontier long since jumped over the town. It’s mostly agricultural now, but like many small agricultural communities in the rural US, it’s in bad shape. Big agribusiness isn’t terribly interested and the sugar beet crops aren’t what they used to be.
But its settlement history has a strange convergence with my own interests and filmmaking past.
Back around 2010 I filmed in a place called Sand Creek, much further to the south but also along the eastern range of Colorado. In 1864, it was the site of the worst massacre of Native peoples—the Cheyenne and Arapaho—by Colorado Cavalry in the history of the region. It’s a very cynical story. Essentially, the tribal leaders were trying to avoid conflict with the white settlers and asked where they would be allowed to camp and hunt in peace. They were told Sand Creek was acceptable as long as they flew a white flag and a US flag over the camp, which they did. But the Colorado forces, which were led by a now-infamous figure named John Chivington, got all liquored up, then used those flags as markers and rode in, massacring the entire village. Nobody knows exactly how many were killed but it was at least hundreds, and—as a large hunting party had left to find food—the victims were mostly women, children, and old men.
That massacre is pretty foundational in Colorado history. In one sense, the massacre laid the foundations for the creation of the state, some 20 years later. It was a prerequisite. It is also weirdly existential. Colorado remains the state of the mass shooting. It’s both hard to explain this connection and hard to deny.
But what does all this have to do with Julesburg? Well, after the massacre, the surviving Cheyenne and Arapaho organized into “military” units and started a war of retribution—a war they lost. And that “war” began in Julesburg. Though, as the film makes clear, the Cheyenne and Arapaho had a very different idea of revenge than the white settlers.
Without any clear intention, the car suddenly breaking down in that place, at that time, on the way to that silo named after a Senator I’d worked for to try and stop a war that thankfully hasn’t yet arrived, helped us to understand the fundamental relationship between white settler-colonialism, the destruction of Indigenous culture, community, and ecology in the West, US militarism, and nuclear war. The connections are so clear. But somehow, we just couldn’t see them. That’s what accidents can sometimes do. And that’s what our film is trying to convey.
Seize the Land with a Gun. The Land Becomes the Gun. Point the Gun at Everyone’s Head.
Erin and Travis Wilkerson