Taking a stance against nuclear weapons proliferation might not be as controversial as hating on vaccines– as we saw when Tribeca Film Festival announced it was pulling Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, the doc made by a disgraced doctor that pushes the dubious theory linking autism to vaccines. But the filmmakers behind The Bomb (premiering Saturday, April 23) are nevertheless hoping t0 strike an equally urgent chord with festival audiences, even if they’re reluctant to call it an “activist” film.
“Well, it’s an immersive film and music experience. It’s a human story, too,” explained Smriti Keshari, one-half of the filmmaking team behind the immersive, multimedia documentary focused on the persistent threat of nuclear weapons. “It’s one that makes you realize just how powerful individuals can be when they care about something. I think all art is political if it’s a reflection of what’s happening around you.”
In light of issues like anti-vaccine conspiracies (and for that matter, how a shady documentary like Vaxxed made it onto the roster at a respected film festival like Tribeca in the first place), discourse on nuclear weapons might seem old-fashioned. Which is kind of the whole point, Keshari said: “There are two major threats to humanity and one is climate change and the other is nuclear weapons, and the latter is instant, it’s urgent, and it’s one that we are not talking about. The more we don’t talk about nuclear weapons, the more dangerous they become. The more we talk about them, and the more we’re aware of them, the more we can do towards reduction.”
The Bomb, then, is aimed not only at bringing nuclear weapons discourse into the 21st century, but tailoring the disarmament message for a new post-internet age. “One of the more important things for us was to create a powerful, visceral sense of the danger that we now face an do so in a way for a younger generation that doesn’t understand or know the gravity or danger of the situation,” Keshari explained.
We really can’t blame the filmmakers for repeatedly invoking the term “visceral” to describe the film– The Bomb, with its retina-stretching visuals and live musical score, promises a legitimate multimedia film experience, so much so that any old movie theater simply would not do for the premiere. Visuals will be projected via “massive floor-to-ceiling screens,” providing for a “360-degree” experience, and The Acid, the UK-based ambient electro-rock DJ/producer supergroup, will perform the score live at the center of it all. “I can assure you that no one has ever seen something quite like this,” Keshari said. “I don’t know if they’ll like it– but it’s definitely different.”
We should mention that less than a week after the doc premieres at Tribeca, 4DX insanity (that’s 4-D to IMAX’s miserly 3-D obsolete garbage format, for those of you who don’t know) will drop at Regal Union Square. But we should be used to rapid technological turnover like this by now, and anyway The Bomb isn’t simply out to spray its audiences with Ghostbusters goo or confuse innocent moviegoers as to whether that slithering sensation in their ear was part of the 4DX effects or just some creepy rando trying to get fresh.
“Whether it’s a film, a theater performance, or a live music show, things are always projected at you and there’s a particular way of how you stand or sit– it’s very crafted,” Keshari mused. “But what if you were in the center of the story? What if it was more experiential? How would your perception be different? If you think about it, we’re more and more all the time surrounded by screens– you have multiple windows that are open and you’re going from one to another to another– and the space has become more controlled and seemingly more isolated.” Instead of numbing viewers into submission (or anesthetizing them into “politically captured” zombies, as the environmental activist Reverend Billy would have it), The Bomb is all about pressing the refresh button on awareness. “To me, these weapons existing is quite insane– they were made to do one thing, at their core, and that’s erase existence,” Kesharie argued. “Once you know that, you can’t un-know that.”
While Keshari’s documentary film resumé includes titles like Food Chain, the factual meat of the The Bomb is largely based on Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, a 2013 book authored by the film’s co-creator and investigative journalist Eric Schlosser (he also wrote Fast Food Nation). Upon reading the book, Keshari said she was struck by its urgency. “I had an immediate reaction to want to create something around it, to bring it to light, so people could really understand the gravity and reality of it.”
Schlosser already had a head-start when it came to access– interviewees provided him with some “never-before-seen” video of nuclear weapons which is included in the film, combined with hard-to-reach government archival footage. While Command and Control is much more expansive than the 55-minute documentary, Keshari explained that the film expounds upon some aspects of the book that she found to be the most visually inspiring. “At the end Eric describes being at this nuclear missile silo, and what it was like to be face-to-face with a nuclear weapon,” she explained. “It was really powerful.”
The Bomb emphasizes not just the enormity of scale, but the process of designing the weapons as well. “We take viewers through the heart of the weapon– through the ingenuity, the complexity of that construction,” Keshari said. Cultural impact and political rhetoric are given significant weight as well. “We reflect on the propaganda, and how we demonize the enemy and minimize the risk,” she explained.
Since the earth-destroying potential of nuclear weapons is largely (thankfully) hypothetical and defense technology is inherently secretive, the documentarians had to find some way to visualize nuclear holocaust predictions and the closely-guarded secrets of weapons development. Animation, then, is a major aspect of The Bomb, which joins some other recent docs we can think of (the Kurt Cobain biopic Montage of Heck, for one) that have used the medium to do majorly cool new things with IRL storytelling.
Under the art direction of Stanley Donwood (aka Dan Rickwood, an artist whose work you might recognize from each and every one of Radiohead’s album covers since 1995’s The Bends) and with help from animators at The Kingdom of Ludd, the film acquired an anxiety-inducing aesthetic. The trailer reveals a collage-based animation instinct with overlays of document scans that hint at a plethora of hidden information, bevies of coded language, and bureaucratic rabbit holes, while footage of armies marching in perfect unison invoke the dangers of blind conformity. “Stanley’s art, all of it, is really bold, and really graphic, and really political,” Keshari said.
Of course, there’s a huge difference between making artwork for an album concept Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, which can get away with leaning heavily on vague, Banksy-like political rebellion (i.e. no real critique, let alone real solutions) and a documentary on the very immediate, clearly defined issue of nuclear disarmament. And yet Keshari said that it was a memory Donwood shared that helped her understand the need to close the gap between personal identification and hard facts.
“When we first started talking about this project Stanley mentioned an experience he had when he was 13 years old at a campaign for nuclear disarmament rally– he had this sudden awareness of being a human and [of] his place in the world, and understanding the gravity of these weapons,” she recounted. “It was amazing to hear his connection to the subject matter– when all we had were those really one-dimensional government documents– and to think about how we can really show this depth and dimension and what it actually means.”
In doing the research for a project like this, Keshari said there’s a danger of getting “lost in the jargon” and caught up in the monotony of literal stacks of documents, things that rely on cold, objective language to maintain a level of distance. “There’s the term ‘megadeath,’ which refers to an optimal place to drop these weapons to have the maximum impact– when you hear something like that, and to think that we used these words to create these machines to erase existence, and when you see them in that light, and not as a symbol of power or a symbol of security, but for what they actually do, that’s the added depth.”
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly credited the 2014 documentary “Boobs” to Smriti Kesahri.