Mogwai & Mark Cousins
Exploration of nuclear energy for good and for bad from linchpins of Scottish culture
This article is from 2016.
'The government has decided you should be told how best to protect yourself in the case of nuclear attack.'
A stilted message delivered in Queens English formality portends the devastation to come: Mark Cousins' meticulous documentary exploring the history of nuclear energy, soundtracked by Mogwai
Bulbs erupt from the earth, grass – or is it hair – grows in superspeed, bees pollinate, fruit disintegrates, toast is made, a rainbow blossoms, 'Ether' blooms to its joyful climax in the background. The first act brims with optimism at the state of the world, seemingly innocent – at least for the purposes of this film – and celebrates scientists: Curie, Einstein, Higgs, and their contributions.
At an event titled Atomic, you know what's coming, but it's hard to be prepared for Cousins' scrupulously-curated montage of bombs falling, children gazing naively at the sky, ducking, running for cover. A four-minute warning playing a lone jarring fanfare. Interspersed with images of war and destruction are science lesson-style cartoons explaining the horrors of nuclear war to children, and marches for nuclear disarmament – proper 'British' protests featuring posh older ladies and desperate veterans.
Mogwai, seated and faded into the background below the screen, ebb and flow with the film – their songs creating a white noise whirl or building the to jangling confusion of attack. The soundtrack, written specifically for Cousins' film, could simply have been added to the footage, but the band's presence is essential. Juxtaposing the nightmarish film with real-time sound, the ticking of the doomsday clock and the rattle of explosion, jolts watchers back to the realisation this isn't a script, but real life.
Traveling on through time, the meltdowns at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are the next topic for exploration, with a focus on the human element. We see the story of a woman who lost her son in Chernobyl – poetic in loss, she wishes for wings to fly after him. Or, at the very least, a grave, and the music swirls in agreement.
Cousins is careful to represent different viewpoints, and a title – That must be our cure – flashes on screen to herald a celebration of sorts of the merits of nuclear energy: what came from it – NMR scanners, medical advances, computers, the internet. Mogwai swell to triumphant when Peter Higgs appears, quick cut sepia images of smiling children recovering from TB, or renewed heart valves beating in time.
It's all old footage, but – there's no doubt about it – this is an warning for the modern world. The footage is so distant from everyday life it seems unreal, but the cutting in and out of replayed images – a child shivering in the aftermath of destruction, a bicyclist flinging himself redundantly out of harm's way, that over-familiar mushroom cloud – are a stark reminder that history repeats itself.
Seen at Edinburgh Playhouse, Sat 27 Aug, as part of Edinburgh International Festival.