In our modern world, whether it’s climate change, wars, nuclear fallout or pandemics, nowhere seems safe from impending doom. Few people understand this feeling better than Daire Collins, who was mesmerised as a child by a drawer in his childhood home containing iodine For Emergency Use Only. Intended for the rare event of nuclear fallout due to concerns about the Sellafield power plant in neighbouring England, it made him believe that destruction was imminent. Revisiting these memories in the wake of the climate crisis and COVID-19, Collins creates a reverie on the way media-led paranoia can make for a terrifying childhood and whether being afraid all the time is really worth it. Combining archive footage, talking-head testimonies and a quirky personal touch, the film shows the universality of fear through its specific evocation of time and place. We talked to the Irish director about his childhood, working with The New Yorker magazine and how his background as a journalist came into play.
The film is about memories and how they can come flooding back, was there a moment where these anxieties were retriggered?
There’s a really clear moment just prior to it at the end of 2019. There was a conversation with two or three of my friends just talking about the Fridays for Future movement. We were talking about how strange it must be to be like 10 years old and holding up a sign. That conversation sparked a memory. I genuinely forgot this, but I was terrified of nuclear destruction. It was a thought I hadn’t had in 20 years, but it was a huge obsession when I was nine and ten. At first I treated it like a joke, but when I went back to my childhood home, being back in that location made me really think about this. It started with me trying to figure out what scared me, then the bigger question around this. It was a really organic process. What was Sellafield? Why was I scared of it? Why did we have these iodine tablets?
Every time I spoke to someone, I realised that they had a story to tell too.
Was it a stronger fear in Ireland than England? I’d never heard of Sellafield until I watched this film.
It’s a funny one. Almost every Irish person you ask will know about it. In Ireland and Northern Ireland, there were no power plants at all so Sellafield was the closest one as the crow flies across the water. There was a fire in the 50s called the Windscale fire and they changed the name after the fire to cover it up slightly. There were anti-nuclear campaigns in the 70s and it became a net for nuclear fears because we didn’t have anything closer ourselves.
So I have strong memories of events in these films, like 9/11 and Beslan. With the latter, I did have that fear at school that gunmen could come through the windows! The film also puts you at the centre of the Sellafield controversy. Was it a challenge to have yourself as the main protagonist?
I come from a journalism background. This is my first short documentary independent of journalism. Initially I approached this as a really interesting story of why Ireland was obsessed with Sellafield. I worked with Matt Diegan who pushed me in some ways to realise that it was a story about myself and that this is a more universal thing so I reluctantly pushed myself into it. But every time I spoke to someone, I realised that they had a story to tell too. I could see a very significant link between my experience and theirs.
Tell me how your background in journalism informed the aesthetic of the film?
It’s been hugely influential. This is me taking the next step. I see it in terms of improving my voice inside the world of journalism and my reputation. I don’t think I would’ve been able to tell all these different stories, which combined together to give a broad sense of universality, without doing it in a structured, formal interview setting.
How many influences were there from the world of essay filmmaking? Adam Curtis’ films came to mind!
Certainly in terms of the use of archive. I really enjoy the process of delving into the footage of the public domain. That was a really fun process. Using these clips was definitely influenced by Adam Curtis, but I wanted a less detached approach. In terms of short documentaries, My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes by Charlie Tyrell was an inspiration in terms of approaching personal stories, especially in terms of reaching that perfect combination of humour and sincerity in the voiceover.
What was the challenge of getting that balance in the voiceover?
That was the first time I put my own voice on tape. I did many versions and many edits. I think that the final version was like rough cut number 30 or something like that. The voiceover was definitely one of the most difficult parts. It took me a multitude of versions to get comfortable on tape and realising that everyone’s voice sounds completely different at different times of the day or depending on your mood. Trying to hit those right notes is a process that I don’t think I’ve mastered yet.
Even from working in UK news media, I haven’t experienced that level of detail.
How did The New Yorker magazine get involved?
They were interested quite early. I applied through the open call forum on the website. That was early in 2020 and I had the first call with them in March. It was quite a different pitch to what it is now. We had a lot of calls with them and then they formally came on board at the end of last year. But it’s been a real pleasure to work with them.
They have a notoriously strict editorial process, what was it like going through it?
It was incredibly intense. Even from working in UK news media, I haven’t experienced that level of detail. It’s a frustrating but also quite an enjoyable process. A fact checker called us and went through the film with about 50 questions. We just had to prove that everything I said about Sellafield was true. There were also more obscure requests I had never thought of myself, about things that weren’t explicit but that we might be suggesting. We also had to go back to every contributor and make sure that they were happy.
What are you working on next?
I just had another film that was on BBC reel called The Colonel in West Cork, the story of a Swiss spy who lived in a rural part of Ireland. I’m working on developing that into a longer film. Then along with Matt Diegan, I’m working on a film called Buried Alive, which is a story of a man who buried himself alive for the Guinness World Records in 1999. He spent 150 days buried underground in an attempt to regain the world record for his family as his mother did it in 1968.