Courtesy of Jon Else
FILMMAKER JON ELSE has won acclaim for his documentaries, one about the atomic bomb and another about the creation of opera. Remarkably, Else, who runs the documentary program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, revisits both topics in his new film. Wonders Are Many, featured in this month’s San Francisco International Film Festival, reflects on physicist Robert Oppenheimer and the first atomic bomb, while offering viewers a fly-on-the-wall peek at the making of Doctor Atomic, a 2005 San Francisco Opera production.
You seem the perfect director to do a movie about constructing an opera about the invention of the atomic bomb.
When I first heard about the opera, it took about four seconds to weave together the idea that we should combine capturing the inception of the opera with the history of the nuclear weapon. The idea of asking “how do you make art out of history?” interested me.
In addition to filming the backstage goings-on at the opera, you went out to shoot at the site of the first atomic test.
The Trinity site [in New Mexico] is just like any other patch of desert. There is a little stone monument around Ground Zero. On the other hand, the Nevada test site we show (pictured above) has taken on profound historical significance. This is where they built a miniature civilization out in the desert and set off atomic bombs to see what would happen to the buildings. The devastated structures are still there—it’s like Planet of the Apes. That sequence in the film was some of the first shooting we did, because we were concerned that the Bush administration was going to lock down the site and start new nuclear tests.
How have independent festivals helped introduce audiences to documentaries?
Every city has a film festival now. That was unthinkable 25 years ago. People are going to these festivals and people are talking about the films. The buzz starts there. And these films do very well in the heartland, not just in the Bay Area. There’s no question that documentaries are very much part of the national conversation these days.
Wonders Are Many screenings April 30, May 3, and May 6. For film festival information, visit www.sffs.org .