Chernobyl Films: Half-life of the Soviet Imaginary

By Olga Bryukhovetska (Kyiv Mohyla Academy)

© Olga Bryukhovetska, 2009

The most famous film about Chernobyl[1] was made seven years before the catastrophe. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), loosely based on the novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, started to be interpreted as a prophesy after Chernobyl. There were also other prophetic films in Soviet cinema;[2] however, Stalker, which deals with the mysterious Zone, is by far the most influential. It is no surprise that its Imaginary is appropriated both by the people working at the Exclusion Zone in Chernobyl and by the cultural industry. In 2007 the Ukrainian company GSC Game World released the computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: The Shadow of Chernobyl, whose virtual universe photographically reproduces the real Exclusion Zone. The game, which is much closer to the cynical world of Roadside Picnic than to Tarkovsky’s spiritual drama, turned out to be very successful, giving rise to a number of sequels and prequels, as well as a literary series. The company is also planning to make a film adaptation of the game. Post-Chernobyl Stalker will be post-cinematically integrated into the totality of the new media. Meanwhile, before such a mutation will occur, the cinematic history of Chernobyl remains rather modest in terms of feature films.[3]

There have been only two films about Chernobyl made in Ukraine: Decay (Rozpad), directed by Mykhailo Belikov in 1990 (Dovzhenko Film Studios), and Aurora, directed by Oksana Bayrak in 2006 (Studio-Bayrak). The first film came out during late perestroika, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when censorship was abolished and the film industry, still enjoying state support, was booming. Decay was co-produced by the American producer Peter Almond and had an international release. The deep crisis of the Ukrainian film industry started a few years later and still continues today with the number of full-length feature films per year varying from five to none. The second film about Chernobyl was made on the twentieth anniversary of the accident. Initially the film was supposed to be financed by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ukraine, notorious for its obscure way of operation (typical for the ex-Soviet structures). This decision generated a lot of controversy regarding the professional abilities of the director, Oksana Bayrak, who had specialized in mediocre melodramas intended for the Russian TV market. The ministry withdrew its support from the production without any explanation. The film was made without state support, with a budget of 1.5 million dollars and with “almost a star,” Eric Roberts (the brother of Julia Roberts) in a supporting role. The film was promoted in Ukraine to be nominated for the Academy Award. This generated another wave of controversy,[4] although it was clear from the beginning that this film did not have much of a chance.
 
Curiously, the titles of both films (Decay and Aurora) have political connotations. The title of the first film refers to both the physical and political meaning of the word “decay,” short-circuiting between them. The film Aurora is named after the main character, a girl (a rather atypical name for the late-Soviet era), but it cannot escape the association with the symbol of the October Revolution, the cruiser Aurora. However, the political dispositions of the two films differ from each other significantly. In the first case, the political criticism is embedded in the film and addresses the questions of social responsibility and corruption inherent in the Soviet system. In the second case politics is totally abandoned: the film forms a hermetic fatalistic world typical of the ideology of culture industry, while the revolutionary association functions as an unintended surplus of meaning, or a return of the repressed.

Like most perestroika-era films, Decay makes an impression of being discontinuous and inconsequent. It is partly intentional, since the film is striving to convey social disintegration, both on the level of content and form. This is typical for a number of perestroika films that reject realistic conventions or dramatic narrative. They prefer the position without a final meaning secured by a unified subject. In particular, Decay compromises the coherence of the fictional story by the drive to document the historical circumstances. The film starts in April 1986 in Kyiv with the streets full of red posters prepared for the May Day celebration and of bicyclists training for the Peace Race. These are real settings. By some fatal coincidence in 1986 the Peace Race was planned for the first and the last time to start in the capital of Ukraine. Ten days before its beginning Chernobyl exploded. In spite of the dangerously high level of radiation in Kyiv, the Soviet officials did everything for the Peace Race to take place. Together with the May Day demonstration in Kyiv, it was meant to show that everything was fine and there were no reasons for panic. As one of the jokes of that time said, the Soviet radiation was the best radiation in the world, parodying the general irresponsibility. In Decay,the Peace Race, constantly broadcast on TV, becomes a visible manifestation of non-response, non-responsibility of the power system.

decay
decay

The film’s merit lies precisely in filling the background with such meaningful details as the Peace Race, or the crowds of panicking people at the Kyiv railway station trying to flee from the city, or the delayed evacuation of the town of Prypiat, situated 4 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant station and now a ghost town at the center of the Exclusion Zone. Sometimes the film resorts to visual allegories, such as in the introductory episode—the train stops because the rails are cut short, or the episode with the slogan “The nuclear power plant station named after Lenin is working for the benefit of communism!” burning after the explosion of the nuclear reactor. This political symbolism articulates Chernobyl as one of the main symptoms of decay of the Soviet system.

decay
decay

The film cuts between Kyiv and Prypiat. In Kyiv it follows the life of a newspaper journalist (Sergei Shkuratov) and his family: wife, child, and the journalist’s father. From the first look it is a happy family, but it quickly turns out than all relationships in it are built on lies: the journalist’s father, a former KGB officer, informs him by an anonymous letter that his wife cheats on him, the journalist himself always forgets about his father’s requests but pretends he remembers, and so on. The film does not attempt to justify or condemn its characters, but rather seeks to manifest the general “structure of feeling”: the inadequacy of what’s going on. It exposes the corruption of both the public and the private life, and this thoroughgoing falsehood leads to the general impotence. Any action just turns into a grotesque ideological spectacle.

The part of the film which takes place in Prypiat differs in the intonation; it is supposed to show the unsuppressed truth of the disaster, the real suffering. However, when it attempts to become more serious, the film slips into overtly contrived melodramatic exaggeration. This is symptomatic: the film so plausibly represents the paralyzed and corrupted reality because it is the only accessible variant of it. The “authentic” reality turns out to be fake when compared to the falsified one.

Decay reveals the absurdity at the core of reality when it gets closest to it. The most striking episode of the film is the one which includes documentary footage. The journalist goes to the Exclusion Zone where he eventually joins the group of so-called bio-robots on the mission. These were Soviet Army conscripts who were cleaning the roof of the reactor from the fragments of highly radioactive graphite rods and other materials that had been thrown out by the explosion. These people were nicknamed bio-robots because the initial plan was to use robots to do the job, but after the robots failed (their electronics burned by the radiation) it was decided to use people instead. This was one of the most dangerous jobs; the level of radiation was estimated at around 15,000 roentgens per hour. The cleanup of the roof was finished by 2 October 1986. The date had been established in advance by the decree from Moscow, because this was the day Gorbachev planned to visit Chernobyl with an official delegation. The cleanup effort was finished on time with massive human casualties, but Gorbachev did not show up (he visited Chernobyl only in 1989). However, there was an official delegation and to celebrate the event three volunteers were ordered to hoist a huge red flag on the highest spot of the station. After the accomplishment of the operation each volunteer was given one day off and a bottle of Pepsi, then a scarce commodity.[5]

In Decay the episode with the red flag is transformed to fully reveal its phantasmatic status: after getting on the roof of the reactor, a group of bio-robots stay still, watching one of them waving the flag while the journalist is posing in front of it. This perplexing episode functions as an allegory for the abuse of people that took place during the so-called “liquidation of the consequences” of the meltdown, but even more so it exposes the obscene enjoyment of the Big Other observing this mindless heroism. The shot cuts to the monitor with the actual documentary footage, and then to the journalist styled like a typical representative of Soviet power apparatus, the Big Other himself, watching it from the safety of the chef editor’s office.

decay decay decay
decay decay decay

It remains unclear whether the journalist is actually promoted after this “heroic achievement” or he “always already” was a part of the system, but that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the implication of social responsibility that questions the notion of the innocence of “the people.”

Decay can be read as a reply to the famous American TV film The Day After (1983,ABC, directed by Nicholas Meyer) that depicts in detail the devastating effects of hypothetical nuclear attack[6] on the USA as experienced by the population of Kansas City and Lawrence, the nearby university town. The film was shown on Soviet TV in 1987 and was widely discussed in the Soviet Union. There are a number of structural similarities between the two films: in both the ramified narrative is family-centered and follows the life of average citizens caught in the machine of destruction; the events are shown in a semi-documentary style, indicating the time and place of the action.

The key difference between the films lies in the scale of destruction. From the physical point of view it is by far greater in the American film. The ideological trick of the film, however, is that in spite of the irreversible destruction of entire civilization, the “American values” mysteriously withstand the nuclear attack and command the actions of survivors. The Day After obeys the rule of Hollywood cinema that the evil should be balanced by the good. Since all the evil is overtaken by the bomb, there are no “bad guys” left in the film, except for an insignificant blurry background. In the foreground there are the suffering but responsible and honest “good guys” who do their best to help the others. It is important that the main scene of action is a hospital and the main character is a doctor. The ending of the film is significant for the affirmation of the family values. The main character, Dr. Oaks, who for a number of days was treating the countless victims of the nuclear attack, collapses. Realizing that he is going to die soon, he wants to come back to his destroyed home in Kansas. In the ruins of his house he finds a family of survivors, with which he symbolically reunites. In Decay, on the contrary, the family is not a shelter to retreat to from the unbearable reality; it is itself an subject of general disintegration, a “cell of society” which mirrors its sores.[7]

Aurora, the second Ukrainian film about Chernobyl, also recreates the events of the disaster, but from a much different angle. It comfortably chooses to show Chernobyl disaster through the eyes of a child who dies from radiation sickness, the ultimate victim that bears no responsibility for what is going on. The film is a mutation of the capitalist fairy-tale and of what in the Soviet genre system was called an “optimistic tragedy,” literally enacting a “Hollywood-Mosfilm” alliance. The film cuts between the two main characters, a girl named Aurora from an orphanage in Prypiat (in reality there were no orphanage there) who dreams of being a ballet dancer and her idol, a famous Russian choreographer living in the USA, who suffers from an existential crisis and a creative block. What are the chances of them meeting? It is totally improbable from the point of view of reality, and it is totally necessary from the point of view of melodramatic conventions. Resulting from the compromise between reality and ideological fantasy is a primitively dull construction that singles out the girl from the other children to make her the worst victim of radiation. For this the girl is taken close to the Chernobyl power plant station on the very fatal night of 26 of April, where she supposedly visits her friend, a local fireman who is on duty during the night shift. This ridiculously improbable set of events is amplified by the ignorant conviction of the creators of the film that Chernobyl nuclear power plant station is situated in Chernobyl, the town that is 20 km away from the station, while the station is actually situated near Pypiat. In the film it is shown how the girl goes from Prypiat to Chernobyl where she is to get her mortal dose of radiation. There are a number of other factual mistakes in the film that cannot be explained by anything other than a regrettable indifference to the subject matter.

Cinematically the singling out of Aurora is accomplished via the figure shot—reverse shot that visualizes the confrontation of the girl with the blast. Aurora wakes up from the sound of broken window glass and sees what is supposed to be the meltdown. There are no records of the very event so it is not immediately visualized in public memory the way, say, the nuclear mushroom cloud is, although the witnesses of the Chernobyl meltdown reported something like a fire column as high as one kilometer rising above the station, which in the film looks just like a typical sunrise.

aurora
aurora

However, this cinematic figure refers not to reality (we saw that such an encounter is impossible) but to the cinematic cliché. Aurora mobilizes the Soviet cinematic imaginary to package the Chernobyl disaster in the most easily digestible form. Two Soviet nuclear films contain the same cinematic figure: Hello, children! (Zdravstvuite, deti!, 1962), directed by Mark Donskoi at the Gorky Film Studios, and Letters from a Dead Man (Pis'ma Mertvogo Cheloveka) by Konstantin Lopushanskii (Lenfilm, 1986).

hello
hello
dead man
dead man

The other Soviet nuclear film Moscow, My Love (Moskva, liubov' moia, 1974) directed by Aleksandr Mitta and co-produced by Mosfilm and Toho Eiga Film imprinted in the mind of some people that the victim of radiation should definitely be related to ballet. Although paraphrasing the title of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959), this film is deprived of any of sophistication of the latter. It tells the story of a young Japanese ballet dancer Yuriko, who is selected to be trained with the Bolshoi Theatre. In Moscow she falls in love with a Russian sculptor, Volodia, and abandons her Japanese friend Tatsu. Eventually she also falls ill with leukemia and dies. The film is limited exclusively to the space of emotions; however its “political unconscious” has very clear colonial and patriarchic implications: Yuriko’s personal sympathies symbolize a geopolitical choice. The same unconscious structure is evident in Aurora, with an obvious geopolitical shift (Aurora is obsessed with a Russian choreographer; however, he lives in America).

The glamorizing of suffering gets in Aurora another ideological twist, implying that every suffering will be paid off. The girl in the film is rewarded for her night expedition by getting a chance to meet her idol, the Russian choreographer. Because of getting a very high dose of radiation she is sent to a private American hospital, the same one where the choreographer, who coincidently broke his leg, is treated. In the hospital the girl is not isolated but lives a normal life without revealing one bit of the dramatic diagnoses made by her doctors. The rest of the film (about a half) is just a boring sublimated love story between the two, resulting in another “genius” production of the maestro, this time dedicated to the “Russian girl,” as he called her. The problem lies not only in the disavowal of the reality of radiation sickness or of the historical reality of the Cold War: the victims of Chernobyl, of course, were sent not to the USA but to the local hospitals or, in the most serious cases, to the specialized hospital in Moscow and their treatment, obviously, lacked any romantic overtones. The problem of the film lies also in the ideological trick that inscribes victimization into the economy of desire: you will get what you want (meet your ballet idol) if you become a victim (get a mortal dose of radiation), but that’s precisely what will prevent you from getting what you want, which would otherwise be totally attainable. In such an economy of victimization not only does Chernobyl become a kind of deus ex machina rather than a real disaster, but social marginality is also disguised and mystified.

Comparing two Chernobyl films, we see a deplorable transformation of the reception of Chernobyl: from political criticism—however rudimentary—to the total disengagement from and commodification of the trauma.[8] Decay was a condemnation of the Soviet system; however, it turned out to be not so easy to deactivate. In Aurora the Soviet past and the post-Soviet present form a mutually possessive alliance. On the manifest level the present possesses the past, not only anthropologically (concerning the characters’ motivations and the values behind them) but also geopolitically, indicating the shift in the notion of the center (America instead of Moscow). However, on the level of “deep structure,” it is the post-Soviet present that is possessed by the Soviet past, or rather, to use Christian Metz’s expression, by its “imaginary signifier.” It seems that creators of Aurora did not know about existence of Decay (or expected their viewers not to know about it), because they conceitedly announced Aurora to be the first feature film about Chernobyl. This oblivion extends not only onto its cinematic predecessor but also onto history itself. Aurora naïvely, or rather cynically, tries to pass off for reality a conglomerate of a highly improbable chain of events. This is exactly the opposite of Decay, which exposes the situation when the very reality had lost its verisimilitude.


Notes

1] The Chernobyl disaster (symptomatically in Russian spelling, the original Ukrainian name of the town is written with ‘o’: Chornobyl) is probably the most known fact about Ukraine. The radioactive cloud from Chernobyl was the first to transgress the Iron Curtain. The meltdown on Unit 4 of Chernobyl nuclear power plant station on 26 April 1986 was the biggest nuclear catastrophe with the radioactive release exceeding that produced by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by four hundred times. More than 300,000 people were evacuated from the contaminated territories of Ukraine, Russia, and Belorussia and an Exclusion Zone, covering 2800 square kilometers, was established. However, Chernobyl is repressed to the “exclusion zones” of public memory (museums, monuments, and commemorative rituals).

2] The other set of “prophetic” films about Chernobyl can be found in the genre of “production drama.” There are two films that take place at nuclear power plants and explore the questions of their security (the Soviet variant of The China Syndrome), as well as the more general questions of socialist production. Both The Investigation Commission (Komissiia po rassledovaniiu, 1978) by Vladimir Bortko and The Active Zone (Aktivnaia zona, 1979) by Leonid Pchelkin were shot at the Lenfilm Studios, and this is not a coincidence, since in 1975 there was an accident at the nuclear power plant near Leningrad.

3] There are also a number of documentary films made in Ukraine. The first documentation of the catastrophe was done by amateurs or nameless KGB officers; professional documentary filmmakers were allowed to film only the operation of “liquidation of the consequences,” and they were expected to show the heroic efforts of Soviet people and not the catastrophe. From May 1986 on there were a few professional film crews working at the zone. Among them was the film crew of Volodymyr Shevchenko, who died shortly after his film Chornobyl, the Chronicle of Difficult Weeks (Chornobyl', khroniky vazhkyh tyzhniv, 1987) was completed, and Rolan Serhiienko, who after his first documentary The Bell of Chernobyl (Dzvin Chornobylia, 1987) stayed with the topic until 2001 and made a Chernobyl cycle of eight films. The most famous film in this the cycle is the second one, The Threshold (Porih, 1988), which harshly criticized the actions of Soviet power. The film was shelved for two years and released only with the help of the international community.

4] Ukraine does not have an official Oscar committee, and Aurora was promoted by some obscure and marginal organization that was not representative of the filmmaking community.

5] This peculiar detail was recounted by Viktor Kostin, the photographer who was working in the Exclusion Zone. His memoirs and some of his most famous photographs can be found online.

6] The same year (1983) another film about a nuclear attack was produced for the American TV, Testament directed by Lynne Littman. Although both The Day After and Testament take place in the USA and refer to the current threats of the nuclear arm race (the confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union) there are ethnically Japanese characters present in both of films. In The Day After it is Dr. Sam Hachiya, who overtakes the duty from Dr. Oaks, in Testament it is the owner of gas station Mike and his handicapped son Hiroshi, who subsequently joins the family of the main characters. Taken that the authors of the film didn’t know about the details of each other’s projects these significant presences, which are not explained or justified within the films, favor the reading of the films not only as a representation of hypothetical future but also as pointing to the real, although repressed, past of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

7] There is an analogous difference between two nuclear films that were released in the year of Chernobyl, The Sacrifice by Andrei Tarkovsky (Swedish Film Institute, 1986) and Letters from a Dead Man (Pis'ma mertvogo cheloveka) by Konstantin Lopushanskii (Lenfilm, 1986). Letters from a Dead Man constructs the fantasy of a post-apocalyptic world after the nuclear war exterminated the civilization, while Tarkovsky exposes this fantasy of the total destruction of the world as just a projection of personal fear. Of course, this is a somewhat simplified interpretation, since in Tarkovsky’s film there is always an uncertainty about the ontological status of the events; however, Tarkovsky gives a clue to this by comparing Adelaide, the wife of Alexander, the main character, with a nuclear bomb. In this respect Tarkovsky reveals the phantasmatic economy of “anticipatory mourning.”

8] A similar shift can be seen in Belarusian cinema, with some local peculiarities. There are two Belorussian films about Chernobyl which were made almost simultaneously with the Ukrainian ones: the dark and violent action film Wolfs in a Zone (Volki v zone) directed by newcomer Viktor Deriugin in 1990, and a sugary commemorative film I Remember (Ia pomniu) directed by the veteran Soviet filmmaker Sergei Sychev in 2005. Both were produced by the State film studious Belarusfilm but are totally opposite in their assessment of the Zone, on the interaction with witch both films develop their dramatic conflicts. The first film is highly critical of the new business that commercializes the Zone and the official power that keeps people on the polluted territories. Such criticism seems unattainable in contemporary Belorussia under Lukashenka, who officially demands the Zone to be repopulated and its utilization renewed. The newer film about Chernobyl supports this official direction, cynically trying to persuade that the Zone cures instead of killing.


Updated: 09 Jan 10