Natural disasters or man-made conflicts have long captured viewers’ attention. When news breaks, journalists, stringers, and live streamers – all rush to the new subject of interest. The name of a place ravaged by a disaster dominates headlines for weeks or even months on end, enthralling our minds and stirring our fantasies. We all have witnessed the immediate aftermath of an earthquake or a shelling, be it via numerous video packages that we conveniently consume from the comfort of our homes or via live streams that feed into our desire to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
Media interest toward sights of devastation are rather short-lived – cameras keep rolling as long as a story makes a headline – but what happens once a calamity is over and our appetite for dramatic content is sated? The 2019 documentary Once the Dust Settles by Dutch filmmaker John Appel brings us back to devastated cities after cameras have withdrawn and interest in them has petered out. The film confronts vast destruction left by disasters – the Italian town of Amatrice that was nearly decimated by the 2016 earthquake, Pripyat in northern Ukraine that turned into a ghost town following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, and the ancient city of Aleppo that was shattered by Syria’s protracted civil war.
Perhaps, in an attempt to do justice to each, the director reserves each city its own chapter. This choice informs the structure of the film and impacts its editing decisions, as well as pacing. And while such chapters certainly work in some films – here the chapters marry the seemingly disparate stories from three different locations into one – I could not help but wonder if that choice, in the end, worked to the benefit of the film.
«You have got a great documentary if you feel like there was no other way to tell that story,» I once heard. Two-thirds into the film, I found myself deliberating if I felt this way about Appel’s documentary. As I entertained an idea that more depth and less breadth would have made it a better film, there came a realisation that perhaps such a dramaturgical choice allows us not only to revisit cities hit by disasters and explore what propels tourism in these places but also expose our fundamental human need for a place to call home, no matter the geography.
As the film takes us on a journey across borders, we rediscover the disaster-struck cities through the eyes of those who call themselves tourist guides – in one way or another – who are greatly attached to their homeland, who saw them being razed to the ground and are still in the process of coming to peace with it.
After the deadly earthquake struck Amatrice, wreaking havoc in several towns throughout the region, a vicar who also served as a tour guide had to quit his tours. Seeing his hometown in ruins amounted to losing «a family member or a friend or a place or a memory.» However, despite the great loss, a sense of acceptance is felt in his words. Unlike destruction caused by man, «here it was a natural event,» he says. An earthquake is «part of the progress of the earth. The Creation is not yet finished.»
The act of acceptance is not tantamount to an admission of defeat or a failure to remember its victims. It is rather an act of faith, a celebration of life and its resilience. After all, the earthquake may have changed the way streets look, but life seems to have found its way, as we see flowers protruding through the wreckage.
The act of acceptance is not tantamount to an admission of defeat or a failure to remember its victims.
«Life goes on», tour guide Gina from Aleppo says. There is an undeniable truth in her words. However, years after the onset of Syria’s civil war, which has displaced over half the country’s pre-war population, the nagging question that always seems to escape an answer is: Is there room for life amid war, and what kind of life is it if it could suddenly end «while buying a bunch of parsley»?
Welcoming first tourists in Aleppo and resuming her work as a tour guide seems to be an emotional moment for Gina, it feels like «coming back to life», she says, and also her way «of being patriotic.» Perhaps, seeing a tourist in a city devastated by war gives one a sense of normalcy, solace that what has been lost can be restored, that life can be what he/she once knew. However, as Gina reminisces on the perished grand beauty of Aleppo’s souk during her first tour through the post-war city, she seems overcome by sorrow.
In 2011, tourism entered Ukraine’s Chernobyl, declaring it an official tourist destination. The film’s story about Chernobyl opens with images of a bright yellow tourist info center on a deserted street near the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, readying to receive yet another batch of tourists. There are some seemingly run-of-the-mill tourist items on display – T-Shirts, mugs, what have you. However, a closer look at them reveals an eerie reality of the abandoned nuclear city that has become a popular tourist destination. T-Shirts featuring skulls read «Danger» and «Chernobyl Tour», mugs emblazoned with «radioactive» signs sit casually alongside Pringles, and a mannequin donning a gas mask is placed just outside the kiosk.
Three decades on, Chernobyl and the nearby town of Pripyat remain desolate and devoid of people, albeit the deafening silence that once consumed the abandoned cities is now disturbed by occasional sightseers and the ilk who hold special awe for the aftermath of destruction.
Alexei Breus, a former Unit 4 operator at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant now turned a tour guide, confides that he sees his work with tourists as a «chance to tell the story [his] dead colleagues can’t tell.» Chernobyl tourism may have been born out of the same urge – to recount the nuclear tragedy that affected the lives of thousands of people. But beyond the noble ambition of some of those who run such tours, there lies an ugly truth about the recreational aspect to it all.
As the film takes us along on a tour through the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe, we are affronted with images of some tourists snapping selfies as they are about to enter «The Zone», while several others clad in hazmat suits nonchalantly take pictures of each other at Pripyat’s abandoned amusement park.
beyond the noble ambition of some of those who run such tours, there lies an ugly truth about the recreational aspect to it all.
The documentary probes many facets of tourism in cities hit by disasters. It lays bare our deeply rooted desires that draw us to sites of destruction, unveiling callousness, and a lack of gravitas that mark our conduct there. But most importantly, it forces us to ask ourselves some honest questions in the aftermath of destruction: What is left after the dust settles? How do we move forward when all we are left with are ruins? And what stories do we tell ourselves when our homeland becomes a mere «memory»?
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