Editor’s Note: Arianna LaPenne is a documentary filmmaker from New York City who has directed Emmy-nominated, and Peabody and Edward R. Murrow award-winning work in more than 50 countries. Her recent television directing credits include the Netflix documentary series “Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything” and “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak.” Her CNN Films’ documentary short, “The Bunker Boom: Better Safe Than Sorry,” premieres Saturday, August 7 at 9 p.m. ET. The views expressed here are her own.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure about making a film on “preppers.”
When I began to consider the idea at the end of 2020, I had the same concept most people have of those who diligently prepare for the worst – the doomsday sort of prepper from bad reality television.
Reality TV seeks the most extreme or fringe behavior, so I knew that impression couldn’t be particularly accurate. Yet I was also aware of some historical overlap with so-called militia groups, and I had hesitations about lending a platform to viewpoints I might be concerned about amplifying. I didn’t want to give a microphone to apocalyptic conspiracy theorists, and I also thought, frankly, that the image of doomsday preppers was played out and overdone.
So, I went looking for something different: people who challenged the stereotype. I wasn’t sure what I would find. It turns out – as is often the case with a stereotype – that the dominant perception was inaccurate and unrepresentative.
As I began research on the documentary, I found a group of preppers who formed a community – something preppers supposedly never do. I discovered growing numbers of city dwellers, and those who wouldn’t even identify as preppers, securing survival supplies. I encountered a bit of a prepping phenomenon among tech executives and engineers from Silicon Valley, whose drive to prep was driven by climate change above any other reason. And it’s not just the wealthy who can or do prepare for disaster – in researching this, I came across preppers from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds in the habit of setting a few supplies aside on a regular basis.
All of these groups challenged the televised norm. But two concepts interested me most. One was making this subject relatable by exploring the practical aspects of prepping and taking preppers out of the realm of ridicule. And the second was exploring the psychology around prepping to understand it for myself.
It’s very easy – and I believe comforting – to paint prepping as absurd. Then we don’t have to be scared about the concerns preppers raise. But, after the last year especially, the tables have turned on the rest of us a bit. Preppers are having a kind of “I told you so” moment, while the rest of us are starting to feel foolish and misguided in not having prepared for the tumult.
There’s no shortage of concerning news, whether it’s a continuing pandemic; floods; wildfires; droughts; heat waves (the list of environmental catastrophes is seemingly endless); the tenor of public debate; social unrest; an increasing wealth gap; and the faltering of the American middle class. The list goes on – and it’s the kind of thing that can keep you up at night. I began to see the film as an opportunity to explore the anxieties that every one of us feels when we skim the headlines or doomscroll through our social media feeds. That sense of things coming to a head, an inflection point where our world seems it might be going from bad to worse.
I decided to dive in with the motivations of two groups of people. The first are those who have not only purchased “doomsday bunkers” but have already moved into them, living their lives mostly off the grid in windowless former missile silos in South Dakota. The second group focuses on everything but a bunker – all the practices and skills that can prepare you for the scenarios scientists and economists predict are most likely to occur in the near future. Though a bit less eye-popping than living in a former missile silo, these kinds 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 doc, my approach to explaining prepping was a focus on people’s stories, in their own words. I decided not to label anyone by their political affiliations. Human beings make assumptions; I know, because I did too. That’s partly a survival mechanism of evolution. But it doesn’t help you get to know someone or understand their perspective. I wanted to give the audience the best shot at stepping into someone else’s shoes.
What I learned is that people have a very wide variety of reasons for prepping. Many I met were trying to reconnect with a practical and durable 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 home with firewood. This is how much food you need. This is how you store it. This is how you survive without going to a supermarket, should you ever need to.
And these aren’t crazy things to prepare to handle. After this pandemic year, in which we saw shortages of basic essentials like food and toilet paper; a Texas winter storm that caused a massive electrical grid failure; and deadly wildfires all over the West Coast that sent people fleeing from their homes, it’s starting to seem crazy not to prep.
And that was perhaps the most interesting takeaway of the filming process for me. While I initially had some hesitation about this subject, by the end I’d probably consider myself a convert – maybe even a prepper at heart.
As someone who lives in Southern California, and has witnessed wildfires so bad that you could see blazes on both sides of an active highway on your commute to work, I definitely see the wisdom in having an emergency kit in your car, knowing how to change your car’s oil, and learning how to grow your own food instead of being completely reliant on supermarket supply chains. We are undeniably living in a changing world, and it would be wise to prepare for it.