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VIFF 2015 Interview: CONTAINMENT director Peter Galison

by Jason Whyte

"Deep underneath the high desert of New Mexico is an underground repository that houses the radioactive waste generated in the production of some 30,000 Cold War nuclear warheads. It is a legacy that will remain toxic for hundreds of generations. The task of warning the future "Do Not Dig Here" fell to an extraordinary group of scientists, archeologists, artists and architects. CONTAINMENT is about the futures they imagined, the stay-out monuments they designed, and the vital challenge of keeping it away from people in the here and now. Filmed underground, in a nuclear weapons plant, and in Fukushima, the film takes us back and forth between graphic novel glimpses into the future and an all-too real present." Director Peter Galison on CONTAINMENT which screens at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

So is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

This is my first VIFF visit. I will be at the 30 September screening, and very much look forward to it. Robb Moss, my co-director, wishes he could come!

Hope to run into you at the fest! Before we go any further, give me a little background on yourself.

I am by training a theoretical physicist and historian of science; all of my work, written and filmed, involves looking at physics and how it ties together scientific understanding, issues of war and peace, and problems at the heart of morality and philosophy. I go back and forth between writing and filming. One of my books is about Einstein's conception of time, and I have been writing about nuclear wastelands over the last years, which led to this project. CONTAINMENT is my third film. The first was on the building of the hydrogen bomb and the political and ethical issues that split the scientific community in the United States. The second, with Robb Moss, addressed the modern national secrecy system that grew out of nuclear weapons. Sometimes people ask who does what; Robb and I work on every aspect of our film collaboration in a shared way, from choosing characters all the way down to sorting out music. I should say that Robb is an absolutely remarkable documentary filmmaker who has trained a generation of many of the best young filmmakers around. Outside of our collaboration he has explored issues of time through his own autobiographical, observational films.

So while you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you? How much coffee?

I think coffee is the single best concoction human-kind has ever invented, and even if the world goes to radioactive hell in the next 10,000 years, I hope, for our descendants' sake, that the far future will still have cups of Joe.

So what was your biggest challenge with CONTAINMENT, and how did you over-come it?

One great challenge was figuring out how to depict how, 10,000 years from now, people might dig into the waste site. Using the scenarios invented by the futurists of the 1990s, we cracked the problem of visualizing these sketches of hypothetical futures by using the graphic novel as a way of showing 400 generations from now without being overly 'realistic'.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

I hoped, well, WE hoped that we could establish a connection between the warning markers cooked up by the Department of Energy and the tsunami warning markers the Japanese had placed at the high point of these terrible floods. There was a moment when we finally got a chance to see, in the edit room, these two strands of the film together, and I think it was then that we really thought that this will work!

Also, as a quick runner-up, no question that our greatest debt and happiest collaboration has been with our remarkable, creative editor, Chyld King, who has worked with Robb and me for some ten years.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the tech side of the film and how it was shot.

We worked with some terrific cinematographers during the filming. Some specialized in sound-stage work and others on the more observational sections. Perhaps the most challenging moments were filming in the radiation zone of Fukushima, where we were simultaneously juggling issues of translation, aesthetic composition, emotional moments, and not least, the ever-present warning readings of our radiation detector.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at VIFF?

I am a huge fan of Vancouver where I always enjoy coming, and the terrific mix of people gathering at the festival, from knowledgable and enthusiastic movie-goers to the wide array of filmmakers.

After VIFF, where is this movie going to show next? Any theatrical release?

We just showed at the Camden International Film Festival and the Zurich International Film Festival. in the coming weeks will be screening at quite a number of others, including the Margaret Mead and Imagine Science Festivals in New York City and GlobeDocs in Boston. We are talking with distributors now about the theatrical and television releases.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

I do find it crazy-making when I am in the audience, lost in the wonder of projection, and someone starts texting; the light, which seems hugely, unbelievably bright in the dark, makes it almost impossible to stay tuned in to the reason we are all in the theater. So I have to confess: I definitely would ask someone near me not to text.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

I would say start with something manageable, short, and approachable. Even a five minute film will teach you an enormous amount about camera work, editing, and sound.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

It's hard to say, but I'll tell you about one I just saw at Camden that I absolutely loved. Directed by Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol, UNCERTAIN, about a small town of that name at the Texas-Louisiana border, it is beautifully shot and crafted film with parallel stories that slowly but surely capture the essence of the characters.

Be sure to check out the CONTAINMENT official website at!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 24th to October 9th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 09/30/15 18:01:31
last updated: 09/30/15 18:04:57
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