Interview: Morgan Knibbe, director of The Atomic Soldiers

Description of image

The Atomic Soldiers is a powerful documentary on the use nuclear weapons and the 1950’s bomb tests. Morgan Knibbe talked to us about his film and his view on the selfishness and carelessness hidden in the essence of human nature.

This is a challenging and highly interesting documentary; what fueled you to tell that story?

My profound fascination for this subject was ignited the moment I saw fragments of declassified archival footage, showing soldiers at the Nevada Test Site attacking an imaginary enemy under the daunting gaze of the mushroom cloud. Many of the films were created within the context of Civil Defense. Today, some footage can be found on the Internet, in a ‘sanitized’ form. Enthralled, I watched and re-watched whatever was available and tried to find everything I could about the Atomic Soldiers.

The obsession with this subject started to grow while learning that these stories held tremendous cinematic power. The accounts by the atomic soldiers make clear that the experiments had an indelible physical and psychological effect on them. Most of them were in their late teens or early twenties, when they were just young men, marched out into a battlefield with an enemy they could never conquer. It gave rise to primal fear and forced them to think deeply about existence. They contemplated the nature of mankind, the power of the establishment and ultimately the meaning of the universe and the divine.

Fueled by their epic tales, I wanted to dive deeper into the subject and went looking for Atomic Veterans in the United States to interview them. It had to be done as soon as possible, because as time passes they fade, and many of them are bound to take their important stories with them to their graves. I recorded as many stories as I could. This resulted in the documentary The Atomic Soldiers

The stories of these veterans have inspired me to write a screenplay for a narrative feature length film based on their experiences. It is a long-term project, but something that I am very passionate about.

In  The Atomic Soldiers you choose to break the “fourth wall”. What was the reason for using that particular filmic method and what were the difficulties – if any – you faced while filming the interviews?

I wanted this film to be very sober, only showing the faces of these old, experienced men. They stare at the audience, because they are telling us an important story, which has been hidden for many years. The pace is slow, just like the lives and the words of the old men. I wanted to take the time to listen to them very carefully, to really see the expression on their faces.

I have seen some documentaries about this subject, but they only use snippets of interviews with the veterans and mainly show archival footage of the explosions. These images are impressive, but as I learned what the atomic soldiers really saw when they witnessed the explosions I realised there is no film material that is truthful to their experience. The soldiers were positioned many times closer to the point of detonation than the camera crews ever came. I believe that showing the archival material would downplay the experience of the veterans.

The use of nuclear weapons is highly controversial matter causing dispute worldwide. What is your stand and what are you hoping to communicate by telling that story?

My ambition is to show people that the human race has dangerous self-destructive tendencies and that nuclear weapons are devastating. In most cases, younger generations don’t have a clue, really. They’re ignorant. However, those who have witnessed the power of these mass destruction weapons up close have been traumatised for life. They have realised that huge amounts of people can simply be wiped off the face of the earth in a matter of seconds, while the residing radiation causes horrible illnesses for many generations to come. 

I’m not trying to take any political stance. Politics are all about complicated power dynamics, money and subjective ideas. Most politicians aren’t really sure about how to solve problems, and they’re often just bluffing. It would be good if people would take a step back and look at human behaviour from a macro point of view. It’s not so hard to see that we’re playing with fire and that we’re being incredibly selfish and careless. We are disturbing the harmony of life on this planet in many ways and we might very well cause our own downfall.

The contributors of the film describe quite a sensitive matter; they seem traumatized and moved, however they are quite open during the interviews. How did you achieve this level of intimacy with the interviewees?

I have spent a lot of time to gain the trust of the people I interviewed and I made many trips to and through the US. As a filmmaker to really understand your subject, I believe it is very important to emerge yourself in the world and the culture that you wish to portray. Some of the veterans have become good friends of mine and I’ve experienced things I will never forget, like a trip to Las Vegas with Harold and a visit to the Nevada Test Site, where over 1.000 nukes were detonated. 

Most of the veterans were very happy that there was finally somebody who showed interest in their experiences. Some of them had never really been asked about what they went through and a few told me their stories for the very first time. They had to keep these traumatic experience secret for over 40 years and couldn’t even tell their wives or children until the late 90’s. As time passed, people stopped to care.

You generally direct documentaries rather than fiction, what is that and what are your plans for the future?

For a long time, my focus has been on ‘real’ events rather than using purely fictional elements to tell a story. I think this is because I found so many important stories to be told in the things I saw happening around me. And I also wanted to learn and understand unfamiliar people and sub-cultures; to get a better understanding of the diversity of life.

However, whether one makes a documentary or a fictional film, the final product is always a subjective point of view. Apart from the obvious productional differences, I think the division between fiction and documentary has become largely irrelevant and those who seek to define it often find themselves in an outdated discussion. Filmmaking is always an art of manipulation. 

I am always looking for an audiovisual concept that closely intertwines urgent content with the symbolism of the narrative, taking the viewers along on an adventure. In my previous work I often used a hybrid documentary-fiction form and it was never my goal to document ‘reality’, but to create a highly subjective and immersive, sensory experience. 

The Atomic Soldiers makes use of a more sober audiovisual style, but it does make use of cinematic devices. In fact, by keeping the style so sober, it urges the audience to use their imagination to envision and relive the highly sensory experiences of the veterans.

But currently I am writing and working on fiction films. The focus has shifted to fiction because I have plans that require full control over the development of the characters, the story and the audiovisual style. However, most of it is inspired by true events. Except for a crazy science-fiction idea I have in the back of my mind.

The Atomic Soldiers screens in International Competition 4: Parched Land.

Interview by Errika Zacharopoulou