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50th San Francisco International Film Festival at PFA

Monday, April 30, 2007
9:10 p.m. Wonders Are Many
Jon Else (U.S., 2007)

Award-winning director Jon Else revisits the subject of his 1981 documentary The Day After Trinity—J. Robert Oppenheimer and the creation of the atomic bomb—but fashions a completely different film with this fascinating look at the making of the San Francisco Opera's 2005 world premiere of Doctor Atomic. Else tracks the collaborative process undertaken by the opera's composer, Bay Area treasure John Adams, and director, internationally renowned theater visionary Peter Sellars. Having previously worked together on acclaimed operas such as The Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China, Adams and Sellars make a perfect artistic match. They search for their story in Oppenheimer's correspondence and poetry, eventually deciding to focus on the forty-eight hours leading up to the first atomic test in 1945. Verité footage of the making of the opera is juxtaposed with archival interviews with Oppenheimer and his fellow physicists, scenes of the test site, and recently declassified footage of nuclear testing. This archival footage inspires the Opera's props team to create a remarkable bomb set piece. Sellars remarks that Oppenheimer and his team were not sure how effective the bomb would be, or to what end their invention would lead, then confesses, "I don't know how [the opera] will end, either." Else brilliantly observes the making of the opera, which in the gifted hands of Sellars and Adams transforms a seminal, still-shocking moment in American history into a work of art.

—Chuleenan Svetvilas

• Written by Else. Photographed by John Schenk, Michael Chin. (94 mins)