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‘Land of Oblivion’

Chernobyl film offers lessons for Japan

by Kaori Shoji

It’s 1996. Anya (Olga Kurylenko) works as a guide on a tour bus that takes people through Pripyat, a town located just 3 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The tourists, all of varying ages and nationalities, listen somewhat bored to Anya’s descriptions of April 26, 1986, a decade earlier, when the entire region was drenched in a cold, hard rain and sinister dense smoke rose out of the power plant chimneys.

“We were told to evacuate immediately. We were told not to take out a single personal item.” You can tell Anya has repeated this story so many times the meaning of it has worn thin. “Why are you still here?” asks a tourist, and Anya’s answer to that is automatic: “Because this place is home to me.”

That’s just one of the many wrenching moments in “Land of Oblivion,” which opens here hot on the heels of a new Cabinet, headed by a prime minister bent on reactivating Japan’s nuclear power plants. This first feature from documentary maker Michale Boganim brings on a painful and acute sense of deja vu: We’ve seen something very similar to this in the wake of 3/11, and nearly two years later, the cleanup operations in Fukushima are nowhere near finished.

What can we take away from this movie that we haven’t learned already? The short answer is: everything. Boganim traces with precise detail the lives of the Pripyat residents before the accident, and how the whole area was forcibly switched off after the meltdown, to be encased in a secretive shroud of darkness for a decade. “Land of Oblivion” tells us this is how it happens after a nuclear disaster. And the least we can do is to never stop learning from it.

About half of the film is set in 1996 and the other half in flashbacks to 1986. As the Chernobyl accident unfolds, Anya is enjoying a modest wedding with her new husband, Piotr (Nikita Emshanov), who works as a local firefighter. It is a beautiful spring day, drenched in sunshine that enhances the prettiness of Pripyat, surrounded by a lush forest with a pristine river where people fish or go boating.

The Chernobyl power plant, forever spewing smoke into the sky, is a jarring feature on the idyllic landscape, but Pripyat prospers because of it. The plant is a generator of economic stability, which is something Ukrainians didn’t always have under the ruthless political design of the USSR.

Anya herself comes off as bubbling and happy, atypical of media depictions of Soviet-era women. But in the afternoon a cold black rain batters down, and the wedding party is cut short when Piotr is called away to work on a “sudden forest fire.” After a hasty embrace (“I’ll be right back,” he tells her), Piotr leaves Anya to join his unit. She never sees him again.

Ten years later, Pripyat is virtually a ghost town and the Soviet Union has collapsed. Though the authorities have decreed no one is allowed within 30 km of the plant, the reality is that plenty of laborers are working on the cleanup operations, military policemen are out on patrol and a few restaurants are open for business right on the power plant site.

Anya spends half of every month in Pripyat, since her job as a Chernobyl tour guide is very demanding. But her hair is falling out, and her skin has taken on the color and texture of pumice. Anya also suffers from terrible bouts of fatigue, but even as her new boyfriend, Patrick (Nicolas Wanczycki), urges her to come away and live in France, she hesitates. The defunct, decaying nuclear plant has a hold over her that she can’t quite explain; To leave would be a betrayal to Piotr, her homeland and ultimately herself.

Anya’s way of dealing with the tragedy is in direct contrast to that of another pivotal character: Alexei (Andrzej Chyra), who in 1986 is an engineer at the plant, with a firm scientific belief in the future of nuclear energy. On the day of the meltdown, when the rain first starts to fall and no one in Pripyat is yet alert to the crisis, Alexei immediately gets his wife and son out of town, kills their pet cat so the creature won’t suffer from radiation poisoning and disappears. Alexei has to bear the burden of knowledge, while Anya bears the weight of ignorance and of staying behind.

There are no words to console either of them, no remedy to heal their land. The film’s original French title, “La Terre Outragee” (“The Outraged Land”), is an apt description of what goes on — and a reminder that nothing has been resolved, sweeping a hand toward a future filled with anxious foreboding.