Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 27, 2012 7:09 am 
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The pull of Chernobyl

Desolation and sadness are the feelings communicated by the French documentary filmmaker Michale Boganim's impressive, moody first feature about the Chernobyl disaster then, and ten years later, which focuses on the event's lingering psychological effects on survivors, their sense of dislocation and loss. Spending forty minutes on the 1986 disaster's unfolding, Boganim uses a haunting, crabwise approach and paints on a broad canvas. There are four people, whose lives crisscross in the longer second part a decade after, when Ukraine is independent. They all lived in or around Pripyat, the "model city" of around 50,000 founded in 1970 to house workers for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, declared a city in 1979, abandoned in 1986.

We remember a bride, tall, thin, beautiful, long-haired, anxious. In the middle of the wedding celebration, held out of doors, Piotr (Nikita Emshanov), the groom, a fireman, receives a phone call and tells Anya (Olga Kurylenko of Quantum of Solace) that he must go to fight a forest fire. It's urgent. But on their wedding day? Must he go? She never sees him again. An engineer, Alexei (Andrzej Chyra), gets a phone call at home and finds his radiation meter. He will wear it for the hours to come. He packs off his family at once, but stays to warn and protect people. He will be remembered as a hero. Commanded to maintain secrecy, he instead disappears, and later is still around, like a ghost.

The weather is weird. There are repeated, heavy rains. It's a Saturday in April. At first, the event is kept secret, and those evacuated aren't told why they must go and why they can't take anything, even their pets. Ten years later, the engineer's son Valery (Illya Iosivof) ) is sixteen. He returns to the "forbidden zone" on a tour, and runs off into the zone on his own. He has a queer notion that his father is still alive.

During the evacuations, some refuse to go. This includes a farmer, Nikolai (Vyacheslav Slanko). And he survives, and Anya takes her French tours to meet him. He offers them local apples, but they decline. The near chain-smoker Anya bites into one.

The way the first section is shot, the elaborate mise-en-scene, well conveys both a vast event and the innocence and confusion of the inhabitants. Anya has had a sense of doom. The trauma of being essentially abandoned at her moment of happiness numbs her emotionally for the duration. And she cannot really ever leave. She stays attached to Pripyat by being a French-speaking leader of Chernobyl bus tours.

Sixteen-year-old Valery's walkabout in the zone, which Leslie Felperin in Variety says "self-consciously recalls the otherworldly sci-fi 'zona' of Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 Stalker," and Anya's repeated bus tours in French back to the area, both convey a sense of a lethal "home" that still becons and thereby poisons the survivors' futures. Valery is repeatedly summoned back by a loudspeaker, but hides. Anya has a Ukrainian boyfriend who insists she must stay and be with him and she resists. Meanwhile she has a French boyfriend, Patrick (Nicolas Wanczycki) who wants to marry her and take her away, and she can't go.

Land of Oblivion captures a convincing Slavic gloom. The director, who is of Jewish, Moroccan, English, French background, seems to have injected her own sense of alienation, disinheritance and exile and a mysterious past into the film. Felperin also notes that, being able to revert to her native Ukrainian "with a meaty role has clearly spurred star Kurylenko to raise her game here, and she's consistently affecting." I liked the uneasiness and unpredictability of this film, which has nothing of American blockbuster disaster spectaculars and really provides a unique experience even though some moments are a bit pushed and things by intention end inconclusively.

Boganim is an Israeli who was educated at the Sorbonne, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and the National Film and Television School in London. Land of Oblivion, a French-Polish-Ukrainian-German co-production, co-scripted with Antoine Lacomblez and Anne Weil, debuted at Venice (Sept. 2011) and has shown at over a dozen other festivals, receiving 15 nominations, one award. It was released in France March 28, 2012 as La terre outragée, to apparently excellent reviews (Allociné 3.7). It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Mon, Apr 23, 2012 1:00 pm
Fri, Apr 27 9:30 pm
Sun, Apr 29 3:15 pm

There is, I've learned, another feature film released earlier in 2011 focused on the day of the Chernobyl disaster, Aleksandr Mindadze's Innocent Saturday, which debuted in the February 2011 Berlinale.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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