Chernobyl: Paradise Regained
On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m. (Moscow time) Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. During the ensuing days approximately 200,000 people from within a 30-kilometer radius were evacuated from the territory. This 30-kilometer zone became known as the Zone of Alienation, or simply the Zone.
Location and Time Frame
The Zone is made up of forests, fields, rivers, the ghost town of Pripyat, a dozen uninhabited villages, and the ordinary provincial town of Chernobyl, which gave its name to the tragedy, and the inactive nuclear power station itself. The station was closed down in 2000 in compliance with an agreement with the EU.
Everything that the viewer will see in the film will be shot in the Zone during the course of a single year from spring to spring.
Why another Film about Chernobyl?
A number of films have already been made about Chernobyl.
About the tragedy of thousands and thousands of people, about the magnitude of the catastrophe and its consequences.
Perhaps only now, more than twenty five years later, has the time come for a completely different sort of film.
“Chernobyl: Paradise Regained” explores how nature takes over the “emptiness” when man exits. It’s about how the man who once lived in the house that now stands abandoned and the weed that now occupies that house are equal on nature’s evolutionary scales.
Man has done everything to tip the scales in his favor and continues to do so.
In the Zone these scales are regaining equilibrium.
Man has lost.
“Chernobyl: Paradise Regained” offers the viewer a personal connection to the Zone, where mankind is rehearsing for a possible future.
The film’s first scene is shot from a low-flying helicopter.
The evening sun, forests, fields, where several wild horses roam,
and then an endless row of electric power lines,
a canal with a concrete bank,
the gray hull of the sarcophagus on Reactor No. 4.
We fly over the city, late at night, but there are no lights in the city,
and then the sparkling band of the river and several half-sunken ships,
a departing train rushing away from us.
And the thundering wheels rend the absolute silence.
There are people in the train.
They sleep, read, daydream, look out the window.
Even an inactive nuclear power station requires constant maintenance.
The people in the train have already worked their shift at the station.
The train barrels away from us and we hover over an expanse, where soon there will be no people left.
People live in the Zone. Despite orders by the government and plain common sense they either preferred to remain in their homes or they returned after the mandatory evacuation.
Like peasants, they are possessed by a strong attachment to this poor land surrounded by swamps.
They are not bothered by the radioactive contamination in the area, nor by the lack of social services, nor by loneliness. Twenty years ago their numbers in the zone were put at approximately fifteen hundred.
Today there are less than three hundred.
Among these three hundred is a couple in their seventies, Ivan Vasilyevich and Yevdokiya Ignatievna Feshchenko, the only inhabitants of the village of Lubyanka.
With them live a cat, two cows and a horse.
Near their house stands a gigantic, forgotten dump-truck, here since the time of the accident, with an enormous arm stretched skyward and a rusty bucket.
Ivan and Yevdokiya’s peasant way of life remains exactly the same as before the accident: household chores, milking the cow, planting potatoes, harvesting the potatoes, laying in winter hay for the cow.
This routine—from spring to spring—will serve as the film’s time-frame. Episodes in the film will be taken from the big and small events in their lives.
Their birthdays, holidays—Easter and Christmas.
Their loneliness. And their quietude.
Ivan and Yevdokiya’s world is not one of many words. During the long years everything has been talked over.
Little events: once a month the postman comes with their pensions. The vendor with bread and salt drives by in his van every two weeks.
The arrival of their children, who live in Kiev, is a holiday—one of the emotional highlights of the film.
Saying goodbye to the children is a drama.
When Ivan and Yevdokiya are no more, nobody will plant potatoes on this land or milk cows.
The taciturn, elderly Adam and Eve are moving backwards in time.
Their house is the only inhabited one in the entire village. All the remaining ones in the village of Lubyanka, as in all the other villages in the Zone—are abandoned and are steadily dissolving and becoming part of the natural world, like the ships that have fallen to the bottom. (The most radioactive contaminated villages were razed to the ground.)
The roads are growing narrower—spruces grow amid the crumbling asphalt on the shoulder.
In the twenty odd years the courtyards have become overgrown with bushes, the roofs of the houses have caved in, and fox, raccoons and martens now live in many of the peasant huts.
A journey through these villages which are disappearing into the natural world doesn’t look as tragic as it did in the first months after the accident.
What was a tragedy in 1986, indifferent nature turns merely into the past.
The once ubiquitous Soviet monument to the soldier-liberator holding his machine-gun is falling to pieces and the layers of silver paint are peeling off like scales.
The green sign of the savings bank on the stripped, rickety building.
A wooden post and a door on iron hinges—all that is left of the gate.
The hunchbacked village cemetery, with its crosses, decorated with drooping embroidered cloths – rushnyky - and colored garlands.
The majority of the wooden churches in the Zone burned down during the fires in the 1990s.
One remains standing: The Church of Archangel Michael in the village of Krasna. Built in 1800, the church stands wide open and looted. The only thing to survive is the painting of Christ on the cupola and the bent chandelier.
Inside the church it’s clean.
Owls live in the bell-tower and at night they noiselessly soar around the church in search of their prey.
Before the accident there were approximately ten churches on the land that makes up the Zone.
Now there remains one working church—in Chernobyl itself. The priest doesn’t live in the Zone; he travels in from outside. He celebrates mass on holidays, gives communion and, of course, buries the dead. The priest could become a “supporting” character in the film.
The mail functions in the Zone and there’s a mailman who delivers the pensions to those who live in the villages scattered throughout the Zone.
A mobile store makes the rounds of the Zone with the most essential items: bread, butter, sugar. The driver of this mobile store is another possible “supporting” character.
In the early eighteenth century Chernobyl had a large Jewish population, including the founders of Hassidim’s Chernobyl dynasty.
Two graves of tzaddiqim can still be seen in the town.
They look more like a village garage—brickwork and an iron door protect the graves from potential vandals. These two graves are a destination point for the Hassidim who make a pilgrimage of the graves of tzaddiqim in Ukraine.
When nobody lives in the town and nothing happens, the arrival of the Hassidim is an event.
After prayers the iron door is once again closed for a year.
In the Zone, about ten kilometers from the nuclear power station there is an unbelievably large spy station, which resembles more than anything the grid of an electric grill, the size of a high-rise building.
The grid is covered with rust; the military long ago abandoned this once top-secret device, which dates from the time of the Cold War.
In a dozen years there won’t be any people in the Zone, but there will be wolves, wild boar, elk and deer, roe and foxes, owls and cranes.
And the life of the animals will follow the same time cycle as the lives of Ivan and Yevdokiya: spring, summer, fall, winter.
In summer the wolves hunt alone; in winter they gather together in packs and hunting wild boar and roe becomes the chief means of survival.
In spring the leaders of the pack are presented with their offspring.
Foxes stand their ground living in the abandoned village huts…
A dozen years ago Przewalski’s wild horses were brought here. Their offspring now dance a kind of ballet in the Zone’s fields in small groups of five or six dancers.
In spring foals join these ballet dancers.
Black grouse sing their mating calls—an unforgettable sight. They sing where just recently there had been a peasant’s kitchen garden; the rickety wattle fence that once protected the plants from the livestock is still there.
In the station’s cooling pond, which is about twenty kilometers in length, live catfish that are two meters long. In spring, during spawning, they leave behind their favorite deep waters and patrol the banks in search of prey. They hunt for spawning chub and red carp.
Swarms of June bugs fall into the water from the branches of the trees. A delicacy for the chub and birds.
The black storks build their nests on posts. Falcons build theirs on the balconies of high-rise buildings in the ghost town of Pripyat.
Here, in this dead town wild boars roam in the night searching for food, and sometimes stags unhurriedly cross the road that leads from the town to the gray concrete sarcophagus of Nuclear Reactor No. 4.
A couple years ago a preliminary agreement was reached by Ukraine and the French firm Novarka in regard to the construction of a new sarcophagus around the Reactor No. 4.
The building of the iron construction, which will measure 190 x 200 meters, is scheduled to begin in the near future.
The authors of this proposal hope to secure permission to film from all parties involved in the construction. In that case, the more interesting stages of the erection of this unique arched construction will comprise yet another visual aspect of the film.
Grobki, or Day of the Dead
One day in spring hundreds of former inhabitants of these disappearing villages travel to the Zone.
According to Slavic custom, Grobki is the day when you look after the graves and honor the dead.
On this day Ivan and Yevdokiya, the protagonists of our film, visit the graves of their relatives.
This day, which breaks the silence in the Zone, will be the film’s climax.
People plant flowers and clean last year’s leaves from the grave mounds.
Then they drink vodka, eat, talk and reminisce, fall silent, weep, and drink again.
Without fail they will decorate the graves with rushnyky and colored garlands.
The holiday comes to an end and these cloths and garlands will remain on the graves for the whole year, until the next Day of the Dead.
Ivan and Yevdokiya will be filmed over the course of a year in a direct documentary style. As will the priest, the Hassidim and the mobile store driver—all the “supporting” characters.
The animal and plant worlds (including the time-lapse photography of the plants) will be filmed by several special groups who will work in conjunction with zoologists and biologists. Underwater robots and night vision lenses will be used for underwater and night shoots.
The disappearing man-made world in the Zone—buildings, villages, streets, village cemeteries, closed and disintegrating factories, monuments, spy stations, the cemetery in the village of Rassokha—will be filmed by using Steadycam rigs, jibs and cranes, helicopters with gyro-stabilized camera rigs and with the aid of small air balloons.
The cycle of spring to spring will be closely followed in all three of the film’s story lines.
©2007 Sergei Bukovsky and Andrei Zagdansky
Sergey Bukovsky & Andrei Zagdansky