Austria 1999, 100 min.
The town of Pripyat is home of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, a 30-kilometre restricted zone was set up, and 116,000 persons were evacuated to protect them from radiation. But the “Zone” is not completely empty. In this film, Nikolaus Geyrhalter attempts to portray the people still living or working in the contaminated area. They all have their own personal reasons for staying in the Zone.
Mr. and Mrs. Rudchenko were evacuated after the accident. But they are old and longed to return to the place they had lived all their life, and the authorities did not stop them. Seemingly ignorant of or indifferent to the hazards of radiation, they continue to live the way they have done for decades. They still eat mushrooms from the woods and their home-grown vegetables.
Others, like people working on the Chernobyl plant, are attracted to the Zone because it offers double pay and free lunch, even though this hardly seems to compensate for the risks they take, especially since they are never paid on a regular basis and therefore don’t have enough money to feed a family.
Geyrhalter does a good job of investigating the reasons his protagonist might have for staying in the Zone, but this film has more to offer than the obvious social critique of post-soviet Russia and Ukraine. Geyrhalter manages to portray the “Zone” as a symbol of looming ecological disaster ready to happen anywhere in the industrialized world. Like a guided tour of a bizarre tourist attraction, we are shown the different “sights” of Pripyat: the Chernobyl plant, the town of Pripyat, the beautiful surrounding countryside with farmland, woods and the Pripyat River. Everything is presented in beautiful black and white making The Zone look almost normal, since we are unable to register the hazardous radiation that drove people away.
Bordering on the surreal is a visit to the giant auto graveyard that is the home of all the vehicles that were used in clean-up operations after the Chernobyl accident. A lonely guard keeps watch over a collection of more than 1600 trucks, jeeps, cars, and helicopters. They appear to be in fine shape, but are all contaminated and can never be used again outside the Zone. “Pripyat” offers dozens of moments like these, and this is what makes it a film that successfully works on two levels. It can be seen both as a deeply moving account of the long term effects of the Chernobyl disaster, but also as a mysterious and apocalyptic fable of ecological disaster.