Thanks to Russia and Putin’s expansionist ambitions, this is an interesting year to be Belarusian. 1986 was also an interesting year to be Belarusian, thanks to the Soviets and the radiation wafting from their Chernobyl meltdown. As a Belarusian today, Elena doesn’t think she has much to lose, so instead of looking for opportunities in her own nation, she seeks them in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. She might just find her destiny there, for better or worse, in Lothar Herzog’s 1986, which had its American premiere at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival.
These days, time spent in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is no longer necessarily fatal—just ask the wolves. However, you are still warned not to ingest anything originating there. Elena will do so anyway, because she is a millennial. However, she has a right to be bitter. Despite the phony Lukashenko propaganda her economics professor spouts in class, the economy is stagnant. Elena would like to pay-off her father’s tax-debt to get him out of jail, but $30,000 is a prohibitive sum to raise.
Her only chance is by taking over his former gig smuggling salvaged scrap metal out of the Exclusion Zone. Frankly, she rather likes it there, because she can visit her grandmother’s house. It also forces her to take a break from her unhealthy relationship with her unfaithful boyfriend Viktor.
The stakes are serious for Elena, but plot is not the film’s top priority. Rather, Herzog is more concerned with conveying a sense of place (that being the Exclusion Zone) and exploring the national Belarusian malaise. Although he wisely does not overplay the metaphor, we can pick up on Herzog’s analogy comparing the corruption permeating contemporary Belarusian society to the radiation that devastated Chernobyl.
Herzog and cinematographer Philipp Baben der Erde frame some vividly striking imagery. As a result, Elena’s trips into the Zone are often hypnotic, creating an almost immersive cinematic experience. This is one of the few examples of slow-ish cinema that might have gained something from 3D. Still, its ambiguous nature will certainly limit its popular audience.
Darina Mureeva is absolutely arresting as Elena. She definitely withstands Herzog’s intimate close-ups and says as much with facial expressions and body language as she does with the terse dialogue. As Viktor, Evgeniy Sangadzhiev has credible Lothario charm to be the object of Elena’s love and hate. They are good in the film, but don’t come to it expecting a conventional relationship drama.
With Putin openly exploring a takeover of Belarus, this is a good time for Belarus to address the question of what it means to be Belarusian—while they still can. Even though Herzog is German, 1986 is still definitely part of that discussion. It is a carefully crafted film, but even at a relatively succinct 77 minutes, it still can have a lulling effect on viewers. Recommended for fans of meditative feel-like-you’re-there-style films, 1986 screens again this Thursday (1/30), as part of Slamdance 2020.