How to cope when home is where the radiation is?

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

When she hears the phrase “a sense of home,” filmmaker Michale Boganim always endures a wave of sadness. “Home can mean a whole lot of things, but to me it has connotations of displacement and loss,” she tells The Japan Times. “I come from a family that was always moving around, and even as we were moving, I’d be wondering what a real home was, and about laying down roots. It’s a theme I’ll always be exploring.”

Just as Boganim’s last film, the 2004 documentary “Odessa … Odessa!,” had been about Jewish communities and their values becoming obsolete, her latest, “Land of Oblivion,” is about an entire region shutting down, gathering dust and sinking into decay. It’s also a memorial testament to life in Pripyat, drenched in golden sunshine with a lush forest spreading right into the horizon and people going about their normal existences, before the disaster at Chernobyl changed that picture forever and the word “meltdown” became part of the global vocabulary.

When Boganim started the project, 3/11 had not yet happened, and she was aware that “most people in the world didn’t even know where Chernobyl is located on the map.” But her mother was from Ukraine, and Boganim was familiar with Pripyat, host town to the nuclear plant. “I wanted to show what Pripyat is like (now), which is a real ghost town. Otherwise no one will know what happened, or even care.”

According to Boganim, countries formerly under the Soviet flag had a “let’s forget” mentality. “Ukraine is especially like that,” she says. “The whole country is in denial about Chernobyl, mainly because they don’t want to deal with what happened during Soviet times. It’s still a fresh country that wants to look forward, not back into a dark past. And they want to believe they’re not responsible for Chernobyl. I can understand all that so well.

“You know, a long time ago a film critic asked me why the Ukrainians never made a film about the tragedy and I was like, ‘Well, it’s never that simple, especially because it happened in the Soviet Era.’ People who say things like that have never had to deal with the stigma of history, or seen an entire region cut off from existence. They just have no idea.”

This is precisely why Boganim was impressed by the way the Japanese handled their own nuclear tragedy: “Just like Chernobyl, Fukushima has become a global household word. But the Japanese already have that cycle of disaster and recovery, because they have Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I got the feeling that as a nation, Japan wants to pull through this thing together.

“Of course, there were a lot of coverups and withholding information. I can see that there is a lot of anxiety. But at least it’s not like Chernobyl, where the people were told nothing — zero! — and for years and years they lived in constant fear and worry.”

Much of Boganim’s own childhood was spent moving from one city to another. “I longed for a sense of permanence, and belonging. But when the nuclear disaster happened in Chernobyl, I understood that my own personal loneliness was absolutely nothing compared to what the residents in there were going through.

“The same thing of course, happened in Fukushima. I was in the process of editing the film during 3/11 and it was strange and very, very terrible to see the exact same things happening all over again. It was a triple-fold experience — the TV footage I remembered seeing when Chernobyl happened, this film and then Fukushima.”

For the people of Ukraine, explains Boganim, Chernobyl symbolized the fate of the Soviet Union. “First the disaster, and then the collapse of the USSR. I know many Ukrainians feel that they paid for their independence with that disaster. I’d be very curious to know how people in Fukushima feel. Was there a payoff?”

Still, Boganim knows that nothing can compensate for having to leave home, and for having your homeland contaminated forever. “In the film, I identify with Anya,” she says. “She’s stuck in the pre-Chernobyl days, when she was happy in her own little world and had a strong sense of home and belonging. She can’t leave now, because somehow she believes there’s a chance she’ll have that again.

“I wanted to draw on that emotion, just as much as I wanted to draw on the destructive powers of a nuclear disaster. Its poison is invisible. And it will destroy everything for generations to come.”