Can a documentary about nuclear weapons be entertaining?
Films about the nuclear threat, whether fictional films like “The Day After” or documentaries like “The Atomic Café” and “Countdown to Zero,” usually and rightly are somber affairs, scaring and worrying audiences about living in a world with enough nuclear weapons to kill everyone on the planet — nine times over.
Smriti Keshari’s and Eric Schlosser's experimental film “the bomb” takes a different approach. Mixing hypnotic images with a soundtrack by the rock band The Acid, there’s something pleasurable about watching a film that sneaks past our defenses, engaging with the viewer’s emotions in a surprising and different way.
The movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in a special installation where The Acid played live, and screens playing the film surrounded the audience. Since then, it’s played everywhere from the Glastonbury Music Festival to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.
It’s streaming on Netflix, and Keshari is bringing the film to Madison to screen it at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5, at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1308 W. Dayton St. The free screening is sponsored by the Outrider Foundation, an organization that spreads awareness about both nuclear and climate change dangers, and will be followed by a panel discussion.
The spark of “the bomb” came when Keshari read “Command and Control,” a 2009 book by Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”), with whom Keshari had worked on “Food Chains,” a documentary about the human cost of our food distribution system. “Command” is a book about the history of nuclear weapons and the dangers they pose, and Keshari was shocked by how much she didn’t know.
“It left quite a deep impact on me,” she said. “It made me feel both angry and quite sad. Sad because I couldn’t believe this nuclear reality we live in, with enough weapons to destroy the planet nine times over. And angry because I didn’t know enough about it. I had read the headlines, but it didn’t have the same cultural or emotional impact as it did for those who lived through the Cold War.”
Keshari said it’s understandable that nuclear weapons aren’t at the forefront of people’s minds, given that the weapons themselves are hidden. She recalls heading to a bar with her co-director, Kevin Ford, after a long day in the editing room and asking customers how many nuclear weapons they thought there were. Answers ranged from “9” to “222.” (The correct answer is closer to 15,000.)
“The human mind is incapable of having an emotional connection to an abstraction, something they can’t even see,” she said. “These weapons are literally out of sight. They’re underground. The average human doesn’t even know what they look like or how many there are.”
In structuring the film, Keshari took a lot of inspiration from Adam Freeland, the British DJ who leads The Acid. As they would take morning runs through Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, Freeland would explain that a great DJ set doesn’t just build and build, but has an ebb and flow that takes the listeners on an emotional journey.
The movie has a similar push and pull, going from beautiful images of the earth to terrifying archival footage of mushroom clouds. The film kicks off with footage of the weapons themselves that are meant to invoke awe in the viewer.
“Before you decide whether something is bad or good, you need to be seduced by it,” Keshari said. “So we really show the beauty of these machines, the power and the allure.”
Keshari said it was fascinating to screen “the bomb” at 360-degree installations like the Tribeca premiere and watch how viewers were entranced by different aspects of it.
“There were some people in the crowd who went straight toward the band,” she said. “There were others that were closer to the screen. There were others moving around like they were at a museum. And then there are people who felt they were at a music festival and just started dancing.”
After engaging with the audience’s emotions, "the bomb" aims to move them to action. “Our silence is a form of consent,” reads the text in the epilogue. Keshari said that the subject is so broad, and the stakes so high, that almost anybody can deploy their particular passions to engage with it and spread awareness.
“I read a book and it led me to wanting to make something so powerful from it,” Keshari said. “Whether you’re an educator, whether you’re a designer, no matter your field, there’s an entry point.”