31st October – 3rd November, DCA
Originally aired on BBC 4 in 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Mark Cousins’ Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise is now touring small cinemas across the UK. Cousins, perhaps best known for his ambitious fifteen-hour long project The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), stitches together a kaleidoscopic array of found footage within Atomic’s running time of just over an hour, presenting both the destructive qualities and the medical benefits of the nuclear age. With a soundtrack written and performed by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, drifting effortlessly between thunderous swells and near silent lulls, Cousins does away with any voiceover narration, creating an impressionistic, emotive and unusually inventive “documentary.”
Opening with a somewhat derivative montage juxtaposing mushroom clouds with the natural world, Atomic soon moves forward to encompass all the usual nightmarish reference points of the nuclear age – Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima and the apocalyptic nature of the Cold War arms race. However, these now clichéd images are given a new lease of life by Cousins and Mogwai. Montages of devastated Japanese cities are soundtracked by sparse instrumentation; as the bomb falls over Hiroshima, ominous bamboo percussion adds to the feeling of collective dread in the cinema. Interspersed between such horrific images are laughable televised safety videos teaching the “duck and cover” technique in case of a nuclear attack, as though it could realistically have saved any of those killed or maimed in the heat of nuclear fission.
When dealing with Chernobyl, Cousins’ use of found footage offers the best results in the whole film as he zeroes in on a village of impoverished Ukrainian farmers resolved to stay in the contaminated zone. The archival footage of men, women and children, still largely living a pre-modern existence, who fail to comprehend the invisible danger that scientific modernity has brought is distressing to say the least. Cousins often allows individual voices to be heard giving his evocative film a loose form of narrative. The gaps in time and space between different segments of found footage are bridged by common conceptions and misconceptions of the nuclear age as voiced by victims of Chernobyl and Fukushima, CND demonstrators and American school children.
Cousins’ work also shows the latent promise of the nuclear age. Footage of x-rays, CT scans and other medical advances are bathed in triumphant walls of Mogwai’s noise, offering an inspiring vision of hope that cuts through the film’s otherwise dark content. The nuclear age becomes a double-edged sword, science being capable of both destroying and saving humanity.
As the film closes, and the final image of our gigantic sun spewing forth radioactive solar flares fades, Mark Cousins leaves the audience with a quote from W.G. Sebald: “We gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is form of dawning horror.” This description of the nuclear age is a fitting end to Atomic. The pluming mushroom clouds seen repeatedly in the film do inspire a form of perverse aesthetic wonder despite the devastation they left behind, while the revolution in medical care is a wonder in itself. Cousins’ experimental patchwork of found footage offers an ideal fashion in which to represent this duality and in doing so he creates a rewarding and impressionistic experience for the audience that is far more interesting and honest than yet another documentary complete with academic talking heads.