Chernobyl is a place of loss and abandonment. The Zone is radioactive. So why do people flock there today? Iara Lee’s fascinating documentary goes with them to find out, and reminds us about life there before the April 26, 1986 nuclear disaster.
For most of us, Pripyat — the Ukrainian city that has become an iconic symbol of forced abandonment — summons images of drab, Soviet decay. Pripyat is a place of ghastly tower blocks, rusting playgrounds, a deserted Ferris wheel and peeling paint, its workforce trudging like automata to toil at the doomed Chernobyl nuclear power plant just 2.5km away.
But in the opening sequence of Iara Lee’s new documentary — Stalking Chernobyl; exploration after the apocalypse — we see a very different Pripyat, before the April 26, 1986 nuclear disaster. It is a place of singing and roses, swimming pools and picnics, and dancing babushkas.
And then, as someone in the film says, “On April 26, what had once been our pride became our grief.”
As we now know, and as the film reminds us, the residents of Pripyat did not fully understand the scope of the accident. They were told over an official loudspeaker announcement, with classic Soviet obfuscation, that “an unfavorable radiation environment is forming.” They packed up a few possessions and some food and left, forced into an evacuation that would endure not only for their own lifetimes, but for those of their descendants as well.
At the heart of Lee’s vivid and compelling film is a firsthand look not at those who fled, but at those who feel compelled to journey into the Chernobyl Zone — whether officially as tourists, or illegally as “stalkers” or aficionados of extreme sports. They are an eccentric, often misinformed bunch, in particular the stalkers, most of whom are young men and some of whom appear to be embarked on a kind of vodka-fueled macho right of passage.
But there are others who are appalled at the desecration of what they see as a mausoleum. As one young man notes, visitors to Chernobyl are staging scenes, bringing in their own props, and posing for gleeful selfies in a place that represents profound loss to those forced to abandon their homes and to those whose family members died during their heroic sacrifice as liquidators.
“They are destroying something that should be untouched,” he says.
But Chernobyl has become big business, bringing in more tourist dollars to the state than any other source. Tour guides tell us that they typically see 300 visitors a day, sometimes as many as 1,000. Some of those visitors are there to relive an on-line video game called Stalker, excited to visit in person the locations they have only hitherto trampled virtually.
Consequently, some of the tour guides — who have a vested interest in keeping the tourist dollars flowing — as well as the stalkers — who prize breaking into the Zone as a challenge — spout a good deal of nonsense in the film.
This includes unfounded assertions, contradicted by scientific and medical research, that “nature managed to overcome radiation”; that roaming wolves and boars pose more of a threat to the safety of visitors than the radiation levels; and that “radiation kills only those who are afraid of it,” as one stalker alleges, eerily echoing the widely condemned allegation made by Professor Sunichi Yamashita after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, that happy people would not be affected by the radiation exposure. Keep smiling and carry on.
Lee’s camera goes deep inside the lives of the stalkers in particular — along with the Urbexers, extreme cyclists and scalers of empty industrial buildings. They squat in abandoned apartments in Pripyat or decaying cottages in the Red Forest (many now destroyed in the recent fires), and relish the challenge of wandering the Zone without detection from security guards. It makes them feel, one says, “like a hero.”
They guzzle wild blackberries and calmly drink the water, even from the basement of the Chernobyl nuclear plant itself, brandishing a Geiger counter, which is hardly an adequate instrument to fully analyze what they are ingesting.
As one older, wiser man states in the film, “they will get cancer in ten years, god forbid.”
The most climactic scene in the film is the scaling of the soaring Duga radar structure. We experience this terrifying ascent first hand, filmed by a climber. The reward is the panoramic view, but it is a heart-stopping sequence. Then we see people sky-diving off the top. “You get a certain dose of adrenaline,” says one participant, without a hint of irony. The radiation doses are simply not on their, well, radar.
The film allows these characters to speak for themselves without the need to fact check them. We can draw our own conclusions. However, when one tourist guide asserts that “more liquidators died from suicide than from acute radiation sickness,” his comment is followed by a liquidator’s daughter recalling her father’s rapid decline, and by a liquidator himself who reveals the extent of the cover-up about their true exposures. While they may not have died from “acute radiation sickness,” countless liquidators certainly died prematurely of radiation exposure-induced illnesses.
“Pripyat and Chernobyl is a drug” say the stalkers. But although they are clearly the focus of the film’s story, it is not to them that Lee dedicates her film.
Instead, the first line in the credits reads:
“This film is dedicated to those workers who were used as bio-robots, as well as the liquidators and fire fighters who sacrificed their lives to save the world from a wider meltdown.”
Lee’s epilogue continues:
“And to the memory of Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) whose film Stalker foreshadowed the events of Chernobyl and whose lyricism inspired me to become a filmmaker.”
Concludes Lee, who has filmed her share of catastrophes including during the massacre of civilians aboard one of the ships in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla attacked by Israel in May 2010:
“Chernobyl was neither the first nor the most recent nuclear disaster to endanger human life, and it is unlikely that we have seen the last.”
Stalking Chernobyl is a production of Cultures of Resistance Films. The film is available to view free through April 26, on YouTube and Vimeo. There will be a Q&A with Iara Lee on April 26 at 1pm EDT (5pm GMT). Register here. Beyond Nuclear’s radiation and health specialist, Cindy Folkers, will also take part in the discussion.
Headline photo courtesy Serega Strange and Cultures of Resistance Films.