Thursday, December 08, 2011

AFA Goes Nuclear: Pripyat

The Soviet Union was always colorless under the best of circumstances, but the restricted zone around the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power station remains profoundly bleak. As a result, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s decision to film his Chernobyl documentary in black-and-white was a rather inspired aesthetic choice. Yet, there are more people working and even living in the no man’s land than one would expect a mere twelve years (at the time of filming) after the disaster. Geyrhalter talked to many of them in Pripyat (trailer here), which screens this weekend at Anthology Film Archives as part of a block of nuclear-themed film programming built around Volker Sattel’s Under Control.

Very little was under control at Chernobyl on the fateful day of April 26th, 1986. As a result, Pripyat, a bustling industrial community built to house plant workers, became a literal ghost town. Though most inhabitants were eventually evacuated, the Soviet response was widely criticized as incompetent and even counter-productive. In fact, many of the so-called “liquidators” would later succumb to maladies caused by their inadequate protection. However, some residents illegally returned to their homes, frustrated with the authorities inability to find them permanent housing. Indeed, there is not much to be said in the film for either for Soviet or the subsequent pre-Orange authoritarian Ukrainian governments’ handling of the health and environmental risks of the radioactive area.

Though the zone is not exactly over-crowded, Geyrhater & company seem to have little trouble finding the stray soul to speak with. Some are the recolonizers, predominantly senior citizens who are largely resigned to the potential health risks, but most were workers somehow connected to Chernobyl’s then still operational reactor number three (it was reactor four that experienced the fatal power surge). Frankly, the fact that Chernobyl was still in the fission business so long after the notorious accident will likely be a revelation to many viewers.

Geyrhalter’s silent panoramic shots of the abandoned city speak volumes. The black-and-white cinematography sans scored soundtrack fully captures the zone’s atmosphere of isolation and desolation. It is also somewhat unsettling to get a good look inside a still functioning Chernobyl reactor (not fully taken offline until 2000). Unlike the German plants filmed in Sattel’s Control or the nuclear waste storage facility featured in Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, the technology here definitely looks dated, resembling the buttons and dials of NASA films from the 1960’s.

Without question, Pripyat is a spooky film. However, with more passage of time, conditions for the surrounding environment have evidently improved greatly, at least according Klaus Feichtenberger’s Radioactive Wolves, recently broadcast on PBS’s Nature. Still, the fascinating existential oral history Geyrhalter collects clearly suggests the Soviet response should have been quicker, better organized, and more humane. Also a very artful documentary, Pripyat is an appropriate companion to Under Control, well worth seeing this Saturday (12/10) and Sunday (12/11) at the Anthology Film Archives.