"Land of Oblivion"
As we see in Michale Boganim’s film Land of Oblivion (La terre outragée), all of our lives were different 25 years ago. I remember this very well, because my personal life was affected by the catastrophe of Chernobyl. We were unconsciously naive in our thinking that nothing can happen if, as I did, you walk with your child of only six months old in the park. Having been out for such a walk, I returned home to see on the television that a great catastrophe had occurred at Chernobyl. And after that the hysteria of the officials began. We received all kinds of different official orders: close the windows, don’t eat vegetables, don’t stay outside the house too long (because the radioactive cloud up in the sky will affect your health), give the children iodine! We all lived as if in an absurd war in which we never knew who the enemies were. In the ten years that followed I lost so many dear friends and relatives. Each time somebody disappeared, the doctors would say: “It’s the effect of Chernobyl!”
Michale Boganim has distilled with great sensitivity a few of the thousand tragic stories caused by the catastrophe of Chernobyl. First is the story of Anya. On that beautiful, quiet day of April 26 in Prypiat, a little town near the power plant, she celebrates her wedding with her beloved Piotr. Everybody sings and dances… Nobody observes that near them, in the water, which paradoxically is considered the symbol of life, death has come: a lot of dead fish annonce that the tragedy has already begun. In the middle of the wedding Piotr, because of being a firefighter, is obliged to attend to his duty: stopping a would-be fire in the forest. Nobody knows, that, in reality, hisforemen have condemned him to death. He is sent to the site of the nuclear reactor explosion. Another story is that of Valery and his father Alexei, who was working as an engineer at the nuclear plant. Valery and his father together planted a tree (paradoxically, another symbol of life) and he is upset because his ‘friend’ the tree is not looking well. But the adults don’t have time to listen to him. This is another sign given to people by nature. Like little Valery, the forester Nikolai observes, in his turn, that the forest seems to be burning without fire. Suddenly a strong black rain has begun, covering everything. It’s a radioactive rain. The same water which, in a normal way, gives life to nature, has this time brought death. But the inhabitants don’t know. In a short time, life has disappeared in this little town. A lot of men covered in white overalls are lifted in by helicopter. Nobody can see their faces. They order the people living in the area to set everything alike, mainly the animals. The people don’t understand what is happening. The population are obliged to leave everything and flee Prypiat.
This first part of the film is recreated very well by the director. The gentle light used in thebeginning is as gentle as the wonderful love story of Anya or as gentle as the wind that makes her white marriage dress flutter. The warm and stable atmosphere in which the people of Prypiat live is created with fine attention to every detail, as are the elements of danger, which can’t be seen by everybody but which little by little tell of the pending disaster, and are unforgettable. This part about a life that has already disappeared is stronger, from an artistic point of view, than the last part of the film, which takes place ten years after the tragedy of Chernobyl.
Prypiat is now only ruins, covered by wild vegetation; a place where nobody lives anymore. Anya is a guide for some crazy tourists who have come to see this strange and dangerous ghost town, which seems like the set of a horror movie. She’s not happy, even if she’s loved by two men, because she considers that, even if she’s alive, she’s as dead as the land of Prypiat. Valery and his mother come back to Prypiat to commemorate the death of Alexei — but Valery doesn’t believe his father is dead, and continues to look for him. Alexei, in turn, runs all over the country looking for them and obssesively making a lot of lists of people’s names. This post-apocalyptic, tragic world is not recreated with the same force as the first part. The director seems to be hurrying to finish the story, and doesn’t commit the same attention to her fancywork that she afforded the first part.
For all of that, Boganim’s film remains a strong film about the force of survival in a community of people that became victims of one of our modern, stupid tragedies. Because the authorities didn’t help people at that time, she chooses to not have authorities present in her story, and that’s why the force of the tragedy of the simple people is so intense. The tension of the story builds in a gradual way and the absence of exaggerated pathos contributes to the quality of the artistic expression. If in the first part the camera moves like dancing and caresses the people, in the second part the camera zooms in on the desolate images of the ruins in an obsessive way. The director also visually conveys the difference between before and after the catastrophe. While the first part of the story is bathed in warm light, for the second part the absence from the frame of brightness is permanent, suggesting the absence of hope. Even so, people’s lives go on… And because, as T. S. Eliot said: “Time present and time past. Are both perhaps present in time future”, let’s hope that Chernobyl shall remain only an old tragic story to recall to our children, and shall never repeat.
© FIPRESCI 2012