The Pathological Inner Workings of an American Phenomenon on the Rise BUNKER 2021
An Interview with Film Director Jenny Perlin
There couldn’t be a more apocalyptic way of spending the scariest night of the year with discussions about preparing for survival. On October 31st the Apocalyptic Cinema presented a bunker special with the screening of Bunker (2021) by Jenny Perlin and Der Bunker (2015) by Nikias Chryssos during the opening week of the new Karlstorkino location. Afterwards, CAPAS fellow Robert Kirsch commented on the ‘Bunkerization’ of (American) society as a kind of neoliberal logic. Among others, he addressed the fact that prepping and bunkering is a continuation of class society via conspicuous consumption, and that at some point the home becomes a bunker instead of the bunker becoming the home. During the event, both film directors discussed their experience working on the topic, and Jenny Perlin answered the following questions:
How did you get inspired to make a documentary about bunkers? Why did you choose this topic?
I’ve been interested in the Cold War for decades. In 2012 I made a film called The Perlin Papers about declassified Cold War documents. I decided to make Bunker in 2016 when the election of that president (who will not be named) crashed into my country like a meteor we all knew was coming but couldn’t do anything about.
Many years ago, I began researching about people who were transforming missile silos and other military infrastructures into living spaces. It is something that feels very specific to the United States, and I found it fascinating, though I had no desire to live like that. In addition, I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, a place that appeared to be bucolic and peaceful but was, in reality, filled with uranium processing plants, hidden missile silos, and other military infrastructure. Finally, I was inspired to make Bunker because after 2016 I wanted to go back to the Midwest and experience a feeling of the political and social and physical landscape, because how people living in New York or LA talked about the Midwest had always been at odds with my lived experience there. It was important to me to find a lens through which I could talk about the intense social and economic forces that bunkers represent in a country that has a history both of ravaging Indigenous landscapes and leaving the so-called “settlers” to their own devices. The idea of “independence” and “self-sufficiency” is so completely woven into the ideology of the United States that I wanted to look more closely at it, not only from the outside, but also as a way of understanding my own lived experience.
The owners of the bunker are preparing to survive after things ending. For what ‘apocalypses’ did they prepare?
Most of the bunker men had more than one “threat scenario” that prompted them to live in or try to sell bunkers. They also told me that their clients were only really convinced to buy bunkers after a number of these scenarios had piled up in their minds, so to speak. But each person you see in the film has a kind of “specialty threat scenario,” though they are not explicitly mentioned in the film.
Some are more obsessed with meteors, some with water scarcity and climate change, some with pandemics, some with a more general xenophobia. But they all have several concerns which together drove them to seek this kind of shelter.
How has your perception of the apocalypse changed or has it at all changed through working on the bunker production?
While making the film, I learned a lot of things that I had never heard about, like Faraday cages, EMPs, acronyms like SHTF, phrases like “bugging out,” and perhaps I think more about how I need to buy more batteries and have more flashlights lying around. But what I think is more interesting is how the things that I thought were very niche and strange when I started making Bunker in 2018 became things I heard about in the news every day just a couple of years later. And the other thing I think about regarding the perception of the apocalypse is how incredibly privileged I am as a white woman living in New York. So many of the things that are, in fact, devastating to millions of people in my country and around the world (drought, famine, flooding, war) have not touched my life in any significant way. I think it’s essential to remember that when we talk about the apocalypse we must acknowledge and take very seriously that there are communities experiencing apocalypse-like scenarios for years, decades, and centuries.
During filming, did you have encounters which you hadn’t expected at all?
In the film I try to show not only the bunkers and the people who live in and buy them, but also to present my development as a character in the film. At the start of Bunker you don’t hear my voice at all and by the end I am interrupting my interview subject, asking questions, behaving “badly” on purpose. I do this because I wanted to show how, over the course of making the film, I learned about this culture and engaged with it, not as a fly on the wall, but as a human being. I think this is more useful than making a film while pretending I don’t exist behind the camera. I made this film alone, just me and the people in the film. I edited the film too. The film will never be objective nor did I want it to be.
I didn’t have a lot of surprise encounters while making the film. I was confident that I would meet a wide range of people with different political affiliations. I was pretty sure people would be friendly for the most part. Which they were. I suppose knowing there were a lot of weapons in all these places was at first a challenge because that is new to me, but it is so much a part of American culture that I also got used to the knowledge that they were around even though I couldn’t see them. The only thing that really surprised me in the film was how gorgeous so much of the deep Midwestern landscape is. I had not been there in many years and was very moved by its beauty and scale.
What do you want the audience to take from the film? If there was one thing you should name that you want the audience to take away from it, what would it be?
That is not an easy question. One thing I don’t want the audience to take is a sense of mockery of the people in the film. These are people who could be your neighbors, at least in the U.S. In my experience, you have to be able to meet people where they are and engage with them as openly as you can, even if you are in complete disagreement with their position or way of living.
From Bunker, I hope the audience will find some small sense of compassion and curiosity about the way other people live. From a political standpoint, I hope the audience will arrive at an understanding that this kind of situation exists in the U.S. because of the country’s difficult history. Founding a country on the fantasy narrative that land is empty (which it was not) and for the taking and exploiting, and that it’s a place for everyone to make it on their own with the labor of enslaved people is one of the most dangerous and twisted narratives I can think of. I want viewers to understand that people move into bunkers when they feel isolated and adrift from community and when they know for a fact (and it is the truth) that there is no safety net, no government to help you if you lose your job or your health insurance or your home to a flood or fire. But the film is also about connection, humor, and life, things that I hope an audience sees through my journey into (and back out of) the bunker world.
How does the audience usually react to the film? What audience’s reaction surprised you the most?
Each audience has been very different. In New York, all the New York jokes made people laugh a lot. And the world I present in the film felt very foreign to the audiences that had grown up primarily in big cities. In Memphis, I sensed the audience was watching cautiously at the beginning because they did not want to see people in their part of the country as objects of mockery. Once they realized that the film was not making fun, they became deeply engaged, not in small part because they know people who are living like this or who are invested in this kind of lifestyle. In Europe the fascinating experience for me is to see that what I have experienced as normal is foreign to the people who have watched it here. I find each of these audiences very compelling as a filmmaker. As viewers, we project ourselves into the films that move us. The diverse range of reactions shows me that the film is working.
The documentary was completed in 2021. After rewatching it, is there something you would change or something you left out and wished to film if you could do it again?
No, not really. The issues remain and I continue to be compelled by the people and the subject matter. The film is what it needs to be. I wouldn’t change it.
What is the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse for you? What references do you have to the terms? (From your individual perspective)
As I don’t come from a religious tradition, my main references for the apocalypse come from a distanced vision of it through the history of art. Those were always the best paintings, lots of tiny details to look at (thinking of Hieronymus Bosch, or any of those fantastic late medieval and early Renaissance Italian painters). All kinds of things to imagine, the pleas, the cries, the desperation. I do have a vivid imagination. But I don’t think about the apocalypse or post-apocalypse in my everyday life.
Does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse play a role in your work? And if yes, how so?
When I think about my work I think about history and I think about how people live in the present. I think with passion, with anger, with determination about how the world is unjust and extraordinary at the same time. So, if I think anything about the future in relation to my work it is a desire to communicate with people, to promote conversation, and to move them.
What are some of your favourite pop culture references to the (post)apocalypse — whether it's films, books, a YouTube channel, or music — what can you recommend?
I am a big fan of Alexander Scriabin’s unfinished composition “Mysterium,” which was supposed to be performed in the Himalayas, with casts of thousands and bells hung from clouds to herald the apocalypse and rebirth of the world. That is quite something. Scriabin began plans for the “Mysterium” in 1903 but it remained unfinished upon his untimely death in 1915. In 2015 I made a sound piece and an animated film referring to the “Mysterium.” The research process was fascinating as I learned more about Scriabin and his transformative vision.
But my absolute touchstone for all things that we think are absolutely positively going to be apocalyptic but turn out not to be is Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. Because the aliens turn out to be great musicians and pretty nice after all. That’s a vision I can relate to.