Pripyat

"Excellent"

Pripyat Review


The word Chernobyl has become a metaphor not only for the horror of uncontrolled nuclear power but also for the secrecy and deception of a collapsing Soviet system, with its disregard for the safety and welfare of its workers and their families. When the reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, the explosion instantly killed 30 people. More than 15,000 died in the emergency cleanup afterwards. But the real scale of the catastrophe, which displaced hundreds of thousands of people and converted villages into ghost towns, turned out to be far greater.

Today, progressive scientists say the effects of that radiation are more serious than ever predicted. However, 15 years later, uncertainty still hangs over the planned closure of the nuclear plant this year, despite warnings that it is a time bomb. Of its four Soviet-built reactors, only number three is still in operation.

For the people who still live in Pripyat, a small town situated next to Chernobyl, it is both a contamination zone (or a "Zone of Alienation," its official title) and a place where they lived, dreamt, created families, and raised kids. Prior to 1986, the population of Pripyat was roughly 48,000. In 1999, 13 years after the nuclear explosion, the Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyhalter examines a human face of this "Alienation Zone" -- the lives of people who returned to town after the disaster and those who are still waiting to be relocated.

The mood of the remaining elders is grim, but nobody seems to be particularly shocked. Although some of them, in the course of several interviews, clearly understand the initial Soviet cover-up in acknowledging the tragedy, the majority don't exhibit much knowledge and choose simply to submit to fate. One elderly couple shares their family story -- how they left, got homesick, and returned to Pripyat, where they live in nearly primitive conditions. Having nobody to share their lives with, their days are spent by gathering mushrooms, cooking, and doing housework. "The barbwire doesn't stop the radiation, so why be scared?" they wonder.

Pripyat used to be a lively little town, both a powerful nuclear center and a conveniently planned city with schools and urban apartments. It is now a dead, lifeless stretch of land littered with scraps of the past: Decaying buildings, gnarled benches of the former sport stadium, glaring empty spaces. A solitary lab scientist is the only one in the film who, when discussing the aftermath of nuclear tragedy, openly deplores the system for taking measures without also taking social responsibility and assuring safety.

Other official workers -- the chief operator of the plant's switchboard, a parking lot foreman, and the checkpoint militiamen -- all appear to be re-playing half-scared, half-informed pieces of information. Technically, the filmmaker's agenda remains objective, if not anonymous: No voice over or narrator acts as mediator, except when questions are asked, and no editing juxtapositions are presented.

The film eloquently differentiates the official version of nuclear tragedy and the meaning of the tragedy for Pripyat inhabitants. There is an accidental play on words, a trick I take as a metaphor for the film's meaning. One of the interviewees is asked if it makes sense to guard a huge parking lot containing radioactively contaminated vehicles. Perhaps those who surround Pripyat, calling for a "theoretical renewal of Chernobyl's earth" would know the answer? Pripyat is a documentary about a place that officially has ceased to exist. It does, however, exist as a living proof of a never-changing corruption of the Soviet regime, a corrupt legacy which, despite the fall of USSR, remains omnipresent in this carefully crafted and deliberately slow-paced documentary.

Running as part of the 2001 Human Rights Watch Film Festival.

The war room.



Pripyat

Facts and Figures

Run time: 100 mins

In Theaters: Saturday 3rd July 1999

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5

IMDB: 7.4 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Nikolaus Geyhalter

Producer: Nikolaus Geyhalter

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