A New Film Coincides with the Rebirth of the Nuclear Age

by Carey Monserrate

August 6th of next year will mark a date of tragic distinction: the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Along with the incineration of Nagasaki, the United States’ decision to develop and deploy history’s most efficient “weapons of mass destruction”—effectively ending World War II and inaugurating the nuclear age—resulted in over 200,000 deaths upon impact, and an estimated 125,000 subsequent fatalities from radiation exposure and related ailments, almost all of them civilian casualties.

Attempts to grapple with the frightening legacy of the bomb in this country have produced a number of memorable works in print, television, and film, most notably John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), the Oscar-nominated documentary The Day After Trinity (1980), The Atomic Café (1982), War Games  (1983) and ABC’s chilling prime time post-nuclear dramatization, The Day After (1983).

Taken together, their release dates read like an electrocardiogram of Cold War anxiety, with spikes roughly corresponding to the milestone events of the post-nuclear era: the end of the World War II; the Cuban missile crisis; and the election of Ronald Reagan, whose pro-military and defense policies, centered on an exponential build-up of our nuclear arsenal, are popularly credited with the collapse of the Soviet Union (a development which—in accordance with the law of unintended consequences—resulted in the potential exposure of enormous stockpiles of nuclear weapons and fissile material to criminal and terrorist access at non-secured sites throughout the former Soviet Union).

The anniversary of Hiroshima may produce yet another spike in collective anxiety and cultural reflection upon the nuclear threat: after an interval of relative complacency following the end of the Cold War, the issues of nuclear warfare and proliferation have returned to center stage in international affairs, prompted by the twin specters of global terrorism and the uncontrolled dissemination of nuclear technologies and fissile material to formerly non-nuclear states with anti-Western political ideologies (see below). If so, South African director Carey Schonegevel’s Original Child Bomb, produced by Holly Becker and premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival (May 1-9), serves as an eloquent harbinger of works to come.

Crafted in the style of montage, Schonegevel’s visually engaging, rhetorically forceful hour-long documentary unleashes a battery of cinematic modes and techniques—from dramatization, straight narrative, and interviews to animation and archival footage—to recount and interrogate in evocative terms the events surrounding the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the current landscape of nuclear proliferation, and their implications for our collective future.

In certain respects, Original Child Bomb operates squarely within the tradition of American “anti-nuke” protest documents, presenting a kaleidoscopic synthesis of many of its predecessors’ approaches to the subject: Hersey’s accounts of the infernal suffering visited upon Hiroshima’s citizen-targets, told from the perspective of surviving witnesses, or hibakusha, find echoes here, along with Atomic Café’s canny use of stock footage to cast American officialdom’s triumphalist attitude towards nuclear arms in a darkly sardonic light.

But this film is articulated in a thoroughly contemporary visual idiom, its aesthetic elegantly poised between experimental/avant-garde cinema on the one hand and educational/activist documentary on the other. Editor Mako Kamitsuna—a Hiroshima native—displays a keen sense of rhythm and pacing, apportioning the flow of imagery and information in carefully calibrated segments that occasionally challenge but never overwhelm the viewer (unless so intended). The result is a visual orchestration integrating quick-edit intensity and contemplative, elegiac tranquility—a threnody in the key of vexed moral reflection.

The film’s moral pedigree derives from an authoritative source: Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the influential American Trappist monk, mystic, author, and poet. Original Child Bomb borrows its title and various narrative and thematic elements from Merton’s 1962 prose poem of the same name—a synoptic evocation of the events leading up to the bombings, which he termed “points for meditation to be scratched on a cave wall.” Becker and Schonegevel successfully reprise the dominant notes of ironic indictment in his spare poetic diction.

Their selection of this particular work as a source text for the film is inspired, resonating with several enigmatic parallels in the trajectory of Merton’s life and thought and Japan’s involvement in the war. Merton entered the order at the Abbey of Gesthemani outside Louisville, Kentucky a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Although a Catholic by affiliation, he was powerfully drawn at the end of his life to the religions of the East, and especially to Zen, writing extensively on the subject (see his Mystics and Zen Masters [Noonday Press: November 1999] and Zen and the Birds of Appetite [New Directions: 1998]). He died in a tragic accident during a pilgrimage through Asia, a final journey movingly recorded in The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1998). Finally—and most strangely—one of the airmen aboard the plane that dropped the bomb on Japan would enter Merton’s Abbey several years after the war’s end.

[Original Child Bomb was made with the endorsement and fiscal management of the Thomas Merton Foundation in Louisville, Kentucky; additional support was provided by the Becker Family Foundation].

A note on the film’s title: “original child bomb” is a coinage derived from the Japanese term for the atom bomb, genshi badukan. Genshi, which literally means “atom,” consists of root characters in Japanese which, if rendered individually, could be taken to mean “original” and “child.” Merton’s poem opens with the claim (reiterated at the beginning of the film) that the Japanese called the weapon dropped on Hiroshima “original child bomb” because it was the first of its kind the world had ever seen. This rather arresting interpretation turns out to be an instance of extravagant poetic license. A native Japanese speaker would regard the translation of genshi into “original child” as an unnatural semantic contortion, and it is unlikely that any Japanese person ever embraced this construal—one which appears to have originated with John Hersey, who rendered genshi badukan thus in Hiroshima.

Nevertheless, “original child” serves as an effective conceit, and in Schonegevel’s skilled hands, provides one of the film’s central motifs: the strange, unmistakable, morally exigent relationship between children and the dawn of the nuclear age. From the very beginning, themes of birth, childhood, parentage, and domestic tranquility surrounded the bomb’s development. President Truman’s coded message relaying the news of the first successful atomic test to Winston Churchill in July of 1945 read, “Babies satisfactorily born.” The flight crew assigned to carry out the run over Hiroshima gave the weapon that would ultimately kill 130,000 people the soubriquet “Little Boy” (perhaps because it was a lesser device of simpler design than “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later). The colonel in command of the fateful B-29 bomber that would deploy “Little Boy” quaintly christened his aircraft the Enola Gay after his mother back home in Iowa.

Schonegevel takes full advantage of this peculiar contrast, selectively disclosing these and other details in successive visual and narrative iterations to highlight the merciless, omni-directional destructive intensity of nuclear warfare—and its cruelly efficient, deadly assault on human innocence. A voice-over of Merton’s incantatory opening lines (“In the year 1945 an Original Child was born. . . .”) accompanies period footage of everyday life in Japan as it appeared in  
1945—children at play, men boarding the trains to work. Shots of army technicians preparing “Little Boy” for the strike and footage of the actual bombing runs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both drawn from US military archives, are followed by an animated portrayal of the impact on the ground (executed in anime, the at once sophisticated and juvenile cartoon style popular both in Japan and among cult aficionados here).

Images of children recur throughout Original Child Bomb: period footage of smiling Japanese children, taken from the McGovern Collection in Washington, DC, interspersed with filmed portraits of Hiroshima youth today; American schoolchildren in conversation; a child rehearsing her ABCs in terms related to nuclear warfare (“‘A’ is for atom; ‘B’ is for bomb; ‘C’ is for Cold War”). One sequence follows a contemporary Japanese boy dressed in American hip-hop attire and wearing head phones as he wanders through the streets of present- day Hiroshima and, in a proleptic interlude, steps into the past, meandering through the wreckage in the immediate aftermath of August 6th, 1945. (The spectral outline of a little girl trailing a white horse—the symbolic messenger of the gods in Shinto iconography—accompanies him).

In an especially heart-rending sequence, we are confronted by the arresting gazes of actual victims of the bombings, women and children recorded in color by the US Army shortly after the war, the surfaces of the skin on their faces and bodies disfigured, burned, and scarred into inhuman topographies of suffering (temperatures at the epicenter of the blast reached 10 million degrees, instantaneously vaporizing everything in the immediate vicinity). These are difficult images to behold, and Schonegevel takes pains to display the most graphic among them with judicious restraint.

The frame eventually jumps to a classroom discussion among high school students who have just surveyed these same images. Educators will be interested to learn that Original Child Bomb is tailor made for this demographic. Communicating to young people seems to be one of its driving ethical imperatives, with content conveyed in terms clearly appealing to younger viewers, and a soundtrack incorporating contributions from numerous well known (and cutting-edge) musical artists, from ground-breaking turntablist and producer DJ Shadow and innovative hip-hop artist Mos Def to master Japanese composer and film scorer Ryuichi Sakamoto and producer Dan the Automator.

Watching as these students weigh the meaning of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, earnestly debating the continued threat of a nuclear attack, is affecting. Their discussion yields one of the film’s more poignant comments, from a young woman who remarks, “The possibility of any kind of nuclear war—I don’t think it’s even remotely any type of reality for this generation. It’s something that’s in the past. And it seems like it’s something that’s in the future, but it’s not something that affects us.”

Events of the recent past suggest otherwise.

* * *

In the second week of May 1998, the world learned of India’s inauguration into the so-called “nuclear club.” Almost exactly three months after its historic victory in the Indian parliament, the ruling coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), conducted five nuclear tests beneath the arid deserts of Rajasthan state in the northwest, at a site only 93 miles from India’s border with Pakistan, its historic Muslim antagonist over the course of three wars since partition in 1947. To knowledgeable observers, the detonations (only the second and third to be conducted by India in 24 years) were simply the BJP’s way of making good on a decades-old promise: the Party had always maintained India’s right to “exercise the nuclear option” as the centerpiece of its national security platform. Its ascent to power was interpreted by Party leaders as a ratification of that position, one they wasted no time in executing.

Pakistan promptly responded in kind later that month by carrying out six underground nuclear detonations of its own at its Chagai Hills test site. At the conclusion of testing on May 29, 1998, Pakistan officially declared itself a “nuclear state”—a form of aggressive and menacing rhetoric the Indian leadership had taken pains to avoid in the face of international indignation—in an interview given to the Associated Press by its Foreign Minister, Goyar Ahub Khan.

Khan is a name that would resurface roughly five years later, again in connection with Pakistan, as the chief protagonist in an even more ominous chapter in the history of global nuclear proliferation. In early October 2003, a US Navy ship—operating on American intelligence obtained as part of the Bush Administration's Proliferation Security Initiative—seized the BBC China, a registered German vessel bound for Libya from a Persian Gulf port. Upon inspection by US and British agents, the BBC China was found to contain thousands of concealed parts, later determined to have been manufactured in Malaysia, for a uranium enrichment processing machine known as a gas centrifuge—the key component in thermonuclear weapons production. The discoveries made aboard the BBC China are believed to have played a significant role in persuading Libya to abandon its nuclear weapons program, an accord Tripoli announced the following December after months of secret negotiations with the US and British governments. Over the course of those negotiations, Libya furnished officials with a set of blueprints it had obtained for a nuclear warhead. The designs for both the BBC China centrifuge and the Libyan warhead bore a striking resemblance to those attributed by investigators to the founder and director of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan.

In a parallel development, the UN had issued an ultimatum on September 12, 2003, threatening Iran, long suspected of harboring a covert nuclear weapons program, with broad sanctions in 45 days’ time if it continued to conceal the extent of its nuclear weapons-related activities. Along with the Libyan revelations, Tehran’s subsequent compliance with requests from investigators at the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency set in motion a chain of events that would lead in an unexpected and terrifying direction.

Documents and interviews provided by the Iranian government through the fall of last year shed light on a shadowy nuclear technology distribution network originating with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and employing middlemen and suppliers scattered across three continents. At the center of the gathering international scandal was Dr. Khan, who in early February of this year, under mounting pressure, was moved to issue an astonishing public confession broadcast on Pakistani state television in which he admitted to leaking national nuclear secrets to several states and begged for an official pardon (days later, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf would summarily oblige Khan’s request, presumably in an effort to avoid any public criminal proceedings, additional revelations of Pakistan’s involvement in international nuclear technology sales, and the transformation of an already heralded hero of the Islamic world into an historic martyr).

These admissions, accompanied by a 12-page written confession outlining various covert activities, relationships, and transactions, served as the final confirmation of a chilling scenario: that Khan, known in some precincts as the “Father of the Islamic Bomb,” stole blueprints for uranium enrichment technology while employed by a Western consortium in the seventies and then distributed these designs—along with other forms of technical guidance, equipment, and material—for sale or in-kind exchange to nations with nuclear ambitions and similarly anti-Western sympathies. Libya, Iran, and North Korea were his acknowledged customers, but perhaps not the only ones. According to some accounts, Khan may also have made overtures to the governments of Iraq and Syria, with inconclusive results.

While no firm timeline has been established, the relationships and activities detailed over the course of these investigations span several decades. The New York Times reported on April 13 that, in recent sessions with interrogators, Khan dated the beginning of his negotiations with the North Koreans on equipment and design sales to the late eighties, but did not actually ship anything until the late nineties. (A June 2002 CIA report estimates that Pongyang first received equipment and technical information for thermonuclear device manufacture in 1997; North Korea may have reciprocated by providing Pakistan with missile technology and material for its nuclear tests in 1998. Although North Korea has never admitted possessing nuclear weapons, it all but declared itself a nuclear state in January 2003 when it withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—the only nation ever to do so). In the same Times article, Khan is reported to have told investigators that five years ago, while on a trip to North Korea, he was shown three nuclear devices at a secret underground site.

The extent of the current availability of Khan’s blueprints and other stolen nuclear technology to other as yet unnamed states—or to “stateless” terrorist and criminal organizations—is unclear.

The Bush Administration, in apparent deference to Pakistan’s status as a key ally in its “war on terror”—and in order to avoid embarrassment over its ties to Islamabad—issued a relatively muted response to these developments, framing the unearthing of Khan’s nuclear technology distribution network as a coup for the intelligence community, a victory for international security, and one of the “key accomplishments in our efforts to prevent and protect against the proliferation of WMD.” [WMD: “weapons of mass destruction”]

As of this writing, President Bush has not mentioned Pakistan publicly for weeks.

* * *

Against the backdrop of these developments, Original Child Bomb will presumably find an interested audience. Although completed before revelations about Dr. Khan’s activities surfaced, the filmmakers take note of other near-current developments in quick-edit bursts, furnishing news broadcast clips of the Indo- Pakistani conflict, the military build-up in Iraq, and North Korean missile test footage, interspersed with on-screen “factoids” highlighting the staggering irrationality of nuclear armament (there are more than 22,000 warheads worldwide, most of them orders of magnitude more powerful than those dropped on Japan; nine countries have declared nuclear arsenals, and almost 33 countries have the theoretical capacity to manufacture thermonuclear weapons; the United States has conducted 1,054 nuclear tests to date, some of them undertaken within short distances of human populations). Among the most disturbing clips are those originally broadcast during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when the White House briefly floated the idea of employing “tactical nuclear weapons,” “mini-nukes,” or “bunker busters” to uproot Saddam and his forces.

Schonegevel goes to some lengths to render her film accessible to a Japanese audience, incorporating details they will appreciate and recognize. In one sequence, a series of Japanese characters intermittently glows and fades from the frame. These are key words drawn from Merton's poem—“atomic,” “light,” “harmony,” “revenge,” “burn,” and “power”—intended to amplify the film’s meditative atmosphere for Japanese viewers, who are otherwise numbingly familiar with accounts of the bombings. Several movies by Japanese directors dealing with themes of nuclear annihilation served as inspirations—Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990) and Record of a Living Being/I Live In Fear (1955), and Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (1988)—of which numerous visual cues can be discerned over the course of the film. These and other references to Japanese history, culture, society, and religion not only furnish a level of meaning for contemporary Japanese viewers; they communicate a respect for and responsibility towards the only society in history that has endured the horror of atomic warfare.

This is not to suggest that Americans did not suffer profoundly in the aftermath of the bombings. Original Child Bomb includes interviews with two members of the Atomic Veterans Association actively involved in anti-nuclear advocacy (and still seeking acknowledgment and compensation from the US Government) after suffering from exposure to radiation at the hands of the US military, both in Japan and during post-war nuclear testing. Neither was informed of the potential consequences of radiation exposure (serving instead as involuntary human guinea pigs) and, according to their accounts, each has met with years of government obstructionism and denial.

What emerges from their stories, taken together with the hibakusha testimony that forms the film’s centerpiece (gleaned from the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima), is an incisive portrait of the effects of nuclear weapons on ordinary people.

Among the most poignant disclosures in this remarkable documentary are those regarding the relationship between the bomb and religion—the nuclear and the mystical. It is almost impossible to witness the blossoming furnace of a nuclear blast, even from the remove of celluloid, without drawing an association at some level with cosmic creation-destruction. (100 Suns, Michael Light’s astonishing 2003 coffee table collection of US Army photographs documenting atmospheric and underwater nuclear tests conducted between July 1945 and November 1962, communicates the divine celestial quality of nuclear explosions like no other book in print today). It is equally difficult to grasp that a weapon of such incomprehensible destructive capacity could ever have been wrought by human hands.

Accordingly, religious language has surrounded the bomb since its inception. The code word selected for the first atomic test, conducted on July 16th, 1945 in Almagordo, New Mexico, was “Trinity.” The code word for the site where “Little Boy” was to be assembled, on the North Pacific island of Tinian, was “Papacy.” Numerous witnesses of the first detonations expressed their awed reactions in religious terms. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project, famously responded to the Almagordo test with a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One . . . I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” A semi-official report on the Almagordo test cited a line from the New Testament—“Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief.”

But the most touching detail regarding religion and the bomb, in this reviewer’s opinion, comes early in the film. (I could not find it in Merton’s poem, so its inclusion is a masterstroke). It seems to sum up everything this votive, compelling, cautionary work attempts to convey about the suffering nuclear weapons hold in store for humanity: “U.S. airman Matthew McGunigle photographed the Hiroshima blast. After the war, he entered a monastery and took a vow of silence.”

Editor’s Note: Information on Original Child Bomb is available at www.originalchildbomb.com.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2004, Vol. 54,  No 1.