For 'the bomb' filmmakers, the only way to move audiences out of apathy was to put them in the middle of an explosion.
For anyone born in the past 40 years, the atomic bomb can seem like an antiquated problem, a hangover from our parents' generation. But the threat of nuclear holocaust is more real than ever. More than 15,000 nuclear weapons currently exist—90% are owned by the U.S. and Russia collectively, and they are 20 times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just one explosion, accidental or otherwise, could obliterate humanity as we know it.
The Tribeca Film Festival ended with a sonic boom when the bomb, an immersive experimental documentary, awoke audiences to this haunting reality. Projected onto eight 30-foot-tall screens in a 360-degree formation at Gotham Hall, the film made a compelling case for nuclear disarmament. But creator and co-director Smriti Keshari (Food Chains), co-director and editor and Kevin Ford, and author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation, Command and Control) achieved this wake-up call without utilizing a single talking head; their film is an emotional journey, both beautiful and harrowing, that gives a whole new meaning to the communal cinematic experience.
"For some time I’d been thinking about the one-directional experience of viewing film," Keshari told No Film School, "and I thought, what if you were in the center of the story?"
By literally engulfing the audience in the film and thus forcing people to engage with the material, Keshari hoped to impart the urgency of the nuclear weapons problem. "I wanted to create a deeper and more visceral experience of nuclear weapons," she said. "I wanted people to feel the gravity in the reality of living with these weapons."
That gravity is felt throughout the hour-long documentary, which begins by inundating the audience with demonstrations of power surrounding the nuclear weapon—massive marches in North Korea and Russia, which Keshari describes as "phallic displays of 'mine is bigger than yours'"—and moves on to chronicle the technical ingenuity of the Manhattan Project through stock footage and diagrams created by Stanley Donwood (a frequent Radiohead collaborator).
Footage of nuclear blasts washes over the screens with a seductive power, at once evoking the moment of creation and the finality of total annihilation.
As the film was projected, indie electronic group The Acid performed a live score in the center of the room. The music itself became a character as it swelled and surged with the imagery. "They’re tinkering with knobs, just like the nuclear scientists do when they’re making and designing the bomb, all huddled around this thing," mused Ford. Like watching synchronized swimming, it was easy to take the seemingly effortless precision for granted.
At one point in the film, footage of nuclear blasts wash over the screens with a seductive power, at once evoking the moment of creation and the finality of total annihilation. I could feel the music reverberating in my rib cage. Despite the fact that the bomb itself is terrifying, I found the footage awe-inspiring. As the mushroom cloud morphed into an image eerily similar to the human brain, I thought about the absurdity of the invention; almost as if on cue, the film began to play absurd propaganda videos that minimized the risk of a nuclear disaster (suggesting that a simple "duck and cover" might ameliorate the impact). In a video documenting a test explosion on animals in the desert, a dog is chained to a fence. The helpless animal senses the explosion and struggles desperately to break free.
"I wanted to hit people with the images."
And then the climax—a final boom, and all but three screens went blank. The audience was standing at the center of the end of the world. Images appeared on the screen in a slideshow fashion: first, art depicting the horrific devastation of human life after Hiroshima, then short video clips of surviving children's faces.
Though the restraint the filmmakers exercised was commendable—that the bomb manages to avoid being gratuitous is one of its greatest assets—it wasn't easily achieved. In fact, nothing about the editing process was easy. Ford and Keshari spent over a year parsing hundreds of hours of footage. "There was a lot of tinkering and trial and error," Keshari admits.
"I had to go through all the raw footage," Ford remembers, "so I had all these terrible, grotesque images that I had to sit through that I could never un-see. At points I was so mad—whether it was watching what had been done to animals, or seeing the results, people with their skin peeled off—I wanted to put this in people’s faces to show just how evil we’d been. I wanted to hit people with the images."
Ultimately, Keshari and Schlosser convinced Ford that being respectful was of paramount importance; anyway, shock value wouldn't give their message a lasting impact. "Once we started to pull back, it became so much stronger," Ford said.
"Even though we painstakingly edited this for a year, I felt like an audience member. I didn’t know where to look."
The process of editing the film was like rehearsing for a play without props or a set; the team had to envision and build out the 360-degree experience on linear editing software and a computer with a single monitor. "We spent so much time with the archive footage in my office— this little room— and it was always an idea," said Ford. "We would watch the rough cuts imagining one day it was going to surround us."
When Ford finally stood in the center of those eight screens for the first time, he experienced a profound dissolution of ego unlike anything he'd experienced in his 20 years of editing. "I’m still trying to process it," he said. "As an editor, when I get to a screening, I’m in control. I know everything that’s coming. And even though we painstakingly edited this for a year, I felt like an audience member [when I saw it]. I felt like I was seeing it for the first time. That’s never happened to me. I was like, 'Who made this? What is this?' There was something about the enormity of the experience that whatever individual work we all did on it was swallowed up by the whole."
"Sometimes as a guerrilla independent filmmaker," Ford continued, "I [take pride in] doing it all myself, but after this experience, I realized it’s a good thing to assemble a crew in which everyone elevates everyone else."
The entirety of the bomb, both in creation and execution, underscored the power of communal experience. As the film drew to a close, contemporary headlines about the increasing prevalence and power of the nuclear threat shocked the audience back into the present. Explosions played out in reverse. Mushroom clouds shriveled back into the atoms from whence they came, like so many defunct parachutes. It was cathartic and the message resounded: if we work together, it's not too late.
"The whole nuclear dilemma happened from people coming together to create this reality," said Ford, "but as the film suggests, people can come together to uncreate this reality."