Smriti Keshari on the Art of Nuclear Warfare

Do you know the difference between a cat and our planet? A cat has nine lives, and our planet only has one.

When New York-based filmmaker Smriti Keshari came to realise that, she was angry, and really, really sad. “Sad because I couldn’t believe this reality that we live in, this world where there are 15,000 nuclear weapons and nine countries that have them, with Congress in the US spending over a trillion dollars to modernize nuclear weapons, and we have enough weapons now to destroy this planet nine times over. But, you know, once you destroy a planet once, there’s no planet left to destroy eight more times,” she says.

the bomb, a multimedia documentary exploring the history of nuclear weapons, came about after Smriti read Eric Schlosser’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. “Eric is the co-creator of The Bomb with me and Kevin Ford, and the book is something he spent almost a decade of his life on, and it reads like a thriller. It left a profound impact us,” she says. Prior to reading the book, Smriti had already been thinking of creating an immersive, multimedia film project. “For quite some time, I’d been thinking about this idea of putting people inside of a film, and really thinking about challenging that one-way, one-directional experience of film. People always say ‘I’m really into LCD Soundsystem’, or, ‘I’m really into Stranger Things’, but they’re not really inside of it, it’s this one-way, one-directional experience, so how would the experience be different if you were inside? So Eric and I brought together The Acid, Kevin with live installation designers United Visual Artists, our artistic director Stanley Donwood and the animator The Kingdom of Ludd to create this live experience that puts you in the center of the story of nuclear weapons.”

The film will screen at this year’s Sydney Festival, on huge 30-foot screens, scored live by electronic band The Acid. This immersive, sensory experience is the way Smriti always intended the film to be seen. “The live version is the most important because you feel like it’s something that happens to you. It’s quite visceral in that sense. People have had some intense reactions to it—some people have even passed out.”

Nuclear test explosion at the Bikini Atoll 1946.

The soundtrack to the film is as important as the footage itself, and came together over much back and forth with The Acid, Smriti, Eric and Kevin. “In our early conversations with the band, they talked about a good DJ set, in terms of building and releasing tension. We talked a lot about this idea of an emotional timeline.” She says. “That conversation with the band really helped us decide that we were going to take people through these emotional journeys—we knew that we wanted to seduce them, we wanted to take them into the heart of the machine, and then bring them down in moments. And we talked about the power of silence. There’s a moment in the film where there’s silence, and it’s funny because telling a band that you’re going to have silence, they’d always be like ‘Smriti, everyone’s gonna start checking their phone!’” she says, in reference to the band’s live performance at screenings.

“Obviously, silence is the antithesis of sound, but I think you really need one to experience the impact of the other. It’s almost like dark matter and the universe!” she laughs. “So we talked about that a lot, and we would show them cuts, and we had some placeholders, like some of their music, already in it, and we would go back and forth a lot. We often talked about how in terms of emotion, nuclear weapons tapped into really different ones, from emotions of adrenaline, of fear, of celebration, of chaos, and of sadness, and how the music could really heighten those feelings.”

The film began screening internationally last year, premiering at The Tribeca Film festival in New York, before screening at the Berlin Film Festival and then at Glastonbury festival. Since the film was made, nuclear warfare is back in the news, and the bomb is as relevant as ever. “There are two existential threats that humanity faces—one is the effects of climate change, and the other is nuclear weapons. Whereas climate change is incredibly urgent, and gradual, nuclear weapons are immediate,” says Smriti. “The International Red Cross has said that they would not be able to provide aid efforts in the event of nuclear attack or accident. But because they are out of sight and out of consciousness, there’s a sense that they don’t affect us, or that someone else is handling it. But we are inheriting these and it’s the time to talk about it. So, in a sense, the bomb is almost meant to be a wake-up call.”

Before Smriti brings the experience to Australia for Sydney Festival, another of her films will be screening here first. On November 17, artist and filmmaker Stefan Hunt’s upcoming festival, We’re All Going to Die will feature her work along with many other artists and filmmakers, including Ozzie Wright, Land Boys, Otis Carey, Lincoln Caplice, and Stefan himself. The festival and multimedia art project aims to celebrate our inevitable fate and shift our perspective on fear and the role it plays in our lives.

“One of the things I love about Stefan’s thinking behind We’re All Going to Die is that the concept is insane enough, that it might just work”, she says. “He’s gathered an interesting cast of characters to use their craft to talk about fears and anxiety. It’s almost like letting in, to let go. He invited seven different directors to make a film and each one of them has a focus, ranging from rejection, disappointment to shame—mine is fear. What’s interesting is that about five years ago, Stefan and I were walking through the Brooklyn Bridge, I remember the sun was setting across the buildings and you could see the entire skyline of New York, with the water right under our feet. And suddenly, I felt so small, so disoriented and an overwhelming sensation of panic. Being by the water often does that to me. It’s why I surf, it’s almost an attempt to face that fear, again and again.”

Get your tickets to We’re All Going to Die Festival right here, or to see The Bomb live at Sydney Festival in January next year, head here.

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