Over the past month, nearly 20,000 people have been assigned new identities through the Department of Cultural Surveillance (D.O.C.S.), an organization yielding great nuclear power and the potential to launch a full-out assault on the Soviet Union, likely obliterating the entire world—after all, it just takes one deranged general.
With this in mind, February 17 through March 20 saw ordinary citizens becoming military personnel, world diplomats and— obviously—spies, who descended upon the D.O.C.S. War Room to assume active roles in a film screening like no other. Yes, film screening.
No, D.O.C.S. HQ wasn’t in Cold War America—while it could very well have been—but was instead, located in an abandoned 250,000 square foot South London warehouse reinvented to look like Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the latest immersive production to come from British events company Secret Cinema.
“Essentially, the whole concept around everything is secret,” says founder Fabien Riggall, who's been putting on audience interactive screenings since 2007, anything from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Back to the Future. For newbies to London’s all too hip scene, Secret Cinema does immersive storytelling through the recreation of movie-specific sets, getting audience members to play characters in a moving narrative that’s inspired by the choice film. A small cast helps bring the story along and eventually, the actual film gets shown. The screening location is classified and, if it's one of their "Tell No One" productions, so is the film.
“The way you contribute to the experience and become someone else, you realise you can change the course of the night,” says Riggall, his events usually running up to 8 hours. For this round of shows, Riggall tells The Creators Project, “We wanted to put something on in which the audience could be world leaders. The main concept was to create a summit.”
Recently, Secret Cinema has come under fire for canceled productions and over-the-top creations of Hollywood blockbusters, but the company’s use of Dr. Strangelove has brought the group back to its cultural advocacy roots, reclaiming spaces for the subversive.
“Our current world situation is so uncertain and as members of society we often just watch it go by in some respects,” says Riggall. “I think we have a responsibility culturally to debate these things and become activists through exploring film. This is a film that does that. It’s one of the bravest and boldest Kubrick films and I think that it holds the same relevance as today.”
If you haven’t seen Dr. Strangelove, then you’ve probably been missing out on a bunch of cultural references, because Riggall is right, this film is iconic. Using satire to draw on Cold War tensions amid the fear of a nuclear apocalypse, a slightly paranoid US general orders a strike on the Soviet Union without permission from his higher command. While hilarity ensues, the film demonstrates the power of cinema to provide commentary to very sombre issues, like war.
“Culture should be something that defines politics in some ways,” says Riggall “It should be something that drives it.”
In the case of the Dr. Strangelove event, audience members travel through the factory converted army base, assembling in the War Room—an impressive nod to the Ken Adams original—making statements, alongside the actors, on whether or not bombing Russia is a good idea.
“All of them are connected to the narratives of Dr. Strangelove around this B-52 bomb that’s about to be sent to attack Russia,” explains Riggall.
Six different War Room screens project various imagery relevant to things like the Manhattan Project and Joseph Oppenheimer, illustrating what Riggall believes, as education through culture and non-commercial cinema.
“Chinatown and Apocalypse Now, where are those films today?” he says. “Storytelling and giving people opportunities to feel like they do have a contribution to make should be a priority.”
24 performances of Dr. Strangelove took place, in support of War Child UK. Up next is horror, as Secret Cinema looks to create Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in what is sure to be a frightening experience. Find out more here and keep your eyes peeled stateside for screenings to come, hopefully sometime this year.