Opinion: What a community of preppers taught me about survival
Editor’s Note: Arianna LaPenne is a New York-based documentary filmmaker who has produced Emmy-nominated and award-winning works by Peabody and Edward R. Murrow in more than 50 countries. His recent television directorial credits include the Netflix documentary series “Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything” and “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak”. His CNN Films documentary short, “The Bunker Boom: Better Safe Than Sorry,” will premiere on Saturday, August 7 at 9 p.m. ET. The opinions expressed here are his.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I would make a prepper movie.
When I started envisioning the idea in late 2020, I had the same concept most people have of those who diligently prepare for the worst – the kind of doomsday preparer for bad reality TV.
Reality TV looks for the most extreme or marginal behavior, so I knew that impression couldn’t be particularly precise. Yet I was also aware of some historical overlaps with so-called militia groups, and was hesitant to lend a platform to viewpoints that I might fear amplifying. I didn’t want to give apocalyptic conspiracy theorists a mic, and I also thought, frankly, that the image of apocalyptic preppers was being played on and exaggerated.
So I went in search of something different: people who defy the stereotype. I wasn’t sure what to find. It turns out – as is often the case with a stereotype – that the dominant perception was inaccurate and unrepresentative.
Director Arianna LaPenne encountered preppers of all kinds while researching her documentary short, “The Bunker Boom”.
As I began my research on the documentary, I found a bunch of preppers who were forming a community – something preppers are never supposed to do. I discovered a growing number of city dwellers, and those who wouldn’t even identify as trainers, securing survival supplies. I encountered a bit of a preparation phenomenon among technical executives and engineers in Silicon Valley, whose willingness to prepare was driven by climate change before any other reason. And it’s not just the rich who can or are preparing for disaster – while researching, I’ve come across preparers from various socio-economic backgrounds who are used to putting a few supplies aside on a regular basis.
All of these groups challenged the television standard. But two concepts interested me the most. One of them made this topic relevant by exploring the practicalities of preparation and taking the preparers out of the realm of ridicule. And the second was to explore the psychology around the preparation to figure it out for myself.
It’s very easy – and I think heartwarming – to paint the preparation as absurd. Then we don’t have to be afraid of the concerns raised by the Preppers. But, after last year especially, the situation has turned against us a bit. Preppers have a sort of ‘I told you so’ moment, while the rest of us start to feel silly and ill-advised for not preparing for the uproar.
There is no shortage of worrying news, whether it is a continuing pandemic; floods; Forest fires; droughts; heat waves (the list of environmental disasters is apparently endless); the content of the public debate; social unrest; a growing wealth gap; and the decline of the American middle class. The list goes on – and it’s the kind of thing that can keep you awake at night. I started to see the film as an opportunity to explore the anxieties that each of us feels when we browse the headlines or browse our social media. This feeling that things are coming to a head, an inflection point where our world seems to be going from bad to worse.
To capture the “Bunker Boom”, director LaPenne visited a prepper community in South Dakota.
I decided to dive with the motivations of two groups of people. The former are those who have not only purchased “doomsday bunkers” but have moved into them before, living mostly off the grid in old windowless missile silos in South Dakota. The second group focuses on anything but a bunker – all the practices and skills that can prepare you for the scenarios that scientists and economists predict are most likely to occur in the near future. While a little less breathtaking than living in an old missile silo, these types of skills can include gardening for edible plants or setting aside an emergency fund. I wanted the film to be both informative and useful for the audience.
Throughout the document, my approach to explaining preparation focused on people’s stories, in their own words. I decided not to label anyone based on their political affiliations. Human beings make assumptions; I know, because me too. It is in part an evolutionary survival mechanism. But it doesn’t help you get to know someone or understand their point of view. I wanted to give the audience the best chance to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
One of the families described in “The Bunker Boom” by LaPenne.
What I have learned is that people have a very wide variety of reasons for preparing. Many people I have met were trying to reconnect with a practical, sustainable approach to life that may have been lost in the name of convenience, distraction, or capitalism: This is how you start a generator. This is how you heat a house with firewood. This is how much food you need. This is how you store it. This is how you survive without going to the supermarket, if you ever need to.
And these are not crazy things to prepare to deal with. After this year of pandemic, in which we have seen shortages of basic necessities like food and toilet paper; a winter storm in Texas that caused a massive power failure; and deadly wildfires all over the west coast that have scared people away from their homes, it’s starting to seem crazy not to prepare.
And that was perhaps the most interesting conclusion of the filming process for me. While I initially had some hesitation about this, in the end I would probably consider myself a convert – maybe even a preparer at heart.
As someone who lives in Southern California and has witnessed wildfires so severe that you might see fires on both sides of an active freeway on your commute to work, I truly see the wisdom. having an emergency kit in your car, knowing how to change the oil in your car and learning how to grow your own food instead of depending entirely on supermarket supply chains. We definitely live in a changing world, and it would be wise to prepare for it.