9 June 2005 | sawwaha
As Close to Being There as a Movie Can Get
The minimalist approach to editing taken by the documentary crew brings the lives of the people living in Pripyat closer to home. Their emotions are more visible. They are allowed to talk and never interrupted. The black-and-white visuals somber the movie greatly and add an aura of danger. No music is added, no narration; it's just the subjects answering questions (and going on their own tangents) for the camera. All of these elements combine to produce a truly unique documentary that shows us what life is like in a town that no one wants to remember. It is deeply human, profoundly tragic, yet never melodramatized.
The viewer feels the weight of a profound, almost existential sadness in the eyes, speech, and gait of the people who inhabit the "Contaminated Zone." In response to one of the interviewer's questions, a man who herds sheep in the Zone begins explaining the decontamination procedures he was taught by "engineers" in times gone by, but trails off to silently reveal his knowledge of their profound inadequacy. It becomes painfully obvious that he has come to terms with the fact that nothing he does will make any difference - and the fact that the people who were supposed to "help" him in the past in fact did nothing.
What strikes me most is how afraid the people living around Chernobyl are, and how resolutely they try to mask that fear. The fear is not as much of the explosion that happened nearly two decades ago but of all the current unknowns: What is happening to my health? What is safe to do? What can I eat? What can I drink? Will I ever get out? Will I die? How much radiation is there? Is this/that dangerous? As is repeatedly emphasized by interviewees, "They (the authorities) don't tell us anything." These authorities have long stopped taking radiation measurements. Even the town doctor complains that she doesn't know anything about what's safe or what's not. One firmly-muscled old lady comes to her with a mysterious pain in her knee ("like someone's beating nails into it"). She has not slept the night before; the only treatment she could afford her ailing body was a vodka compress. The doctor listens to her frighteningly weak heart. In response to the doctor's concerned silence the grandmother says in a tremulous voice: "Oh well. You have to live and you have to work." Nor have the authorities done anything to repair the town's non-existent infrastructure, so communication with the outside world is next to impossible. In the absence of working telephones, another elderly lady laments, "You could die here waiting for an ambulance." With no police force, crime is unregulated, so theft and murder are common fears.
The town is inhabited almost exclusively by elderly people too poor or too attached to leave. Those who refuse to leave make up one group; those who cannot make up the other. The latter are the ones who curse the government for keeping them in the dark about everything, isolating them, and "leaving (them) to (their) fate." The impossibility of acquiring a car has destroyed travel both to and from Pripyat, so leaving on one's own terms is not an option. Those who choose to live in the town speak with a barely-believable cheerfulness about how safe everything is.
I cannot describe the pain I felt after watching even a small portion of Pripyat. In the final analysis, the film affords little hope since the secrecy and rampant incompetence of the Soviet administration remains under the autonomous Ukrainian government. In one moving section, a former lab technician prefaces her criticism the Soviet government for sending in young, uninformed soldiers to perform "clean-up" operations in the wake of the disaster (in effect, sending them to their deaths) with the phrase: "I don't care if they send me to prison." Even in 1999, people in the former Soviet Union must fear both their environment and their government.