Altered States Competition

3 questions for Travis & Erin Wilkerson

The directors of Nuclear Family talk in detail about their film, featured in the Altered States Competition.
3 questions for Travis & Erin Wilkerson

In Travis’ films there is a very clear interweaving between the history of the United States and the personal, especially family, history, and yet the film never falls into narcissism. How is this achieved?

Travis: The question of the personal is really a question of positionality to power. The starting place is an evaluation of one’s relationship to power – have I been oppressed? Do I oppress? This is a hard question, but an essential one. The tendency to find ways in which one has been oppressed is dominant, it is inscribed and culture, in the structures of power. And yet it is often a false narrative. A dishonest construction. If so many are oppressed, who did all the oppressing? The world I grew up in was created by apocalyptic violence and threatens even more. Because that place was already inhabited by other people – an indigenous population – with history, culture, traditions, families, structures – one could only exist with the destruction of the other. At least as Western Settlement is concerned (another mode was possible, but rejected). So, in this case, looking inward is a way to recognize the outward. The personal can cut both ways. It can lead you away from the world or directly into it. The latter can be uncomfortable, but it’s what I always strive to do.

How did the idea to use the format of a documentary road movie come about?

Erin: Travis and I both grew up in the west, taking road trips through these landscapes, and we both have a strong impulse to examine subversive histories. It felt important to revisit the nostalgia of these memories, in the context of moving through this land, seeping with the ghosts of violence and settlement.
Travis: I really had the notion that the best way to contemplate the relationship between the landscape I grew up in and the violence that created that landscape, was to go on a family road trip – the quintessential US American summer family activity. And by doing so, you could interrogate another quintessentially US American activity – conquest and war. One, of course, is connected to the other. US power has always rested on the subjugation and destruction of others. It has never conceived of another path forward. And that means US leisure is built on subjugation and destruction too. It’s like radiation. It’s everywhere. At all times. You just can’t see it unless you know how to look.

At what point did you decide to connect the history of nuclear armament to the history of the dispossession and extermination of native peoples?

Erin: The nuclear missile silos in the US are primarily located near Reservations, the land the indigenous people were forcibly removed to during colonial settlement. This land of displacement is harsh, the unwanted places, and just as the people were treated as disposable, so are these lands. Their descendants are still weighted by generations of poverty and disturbance. In the northern Reservations, are the silos, sitting as targets, in the middle and southern Reservations are the testing sites, their dry desert sands forever altered, and in the deeper south, hundreds of coal and uranium mines have rendered the little water there unusable, and much of the land poisonous. The US was built on genocide and theft, and its nuclear arsenal, is a reminder that that tradition continues unchecked.
Travis: For me, it was a matter of coincidence. It happened when the car broke down in Julesburg. We had a few days to sort out the car and what to do next. Should we just cancel the trip and the movie? But the connection between those two barbarisms just kept asserting itself, everywhere. In geography, in coincidence, in tourist sites. It wouldn’t be ignored. One of the things I love about filmmaking is how the world asserts itself against your intentions. If you learn to listen, the world is always wiser than your pre-conceived ideas.