Brighton Festival 2016
Zvizdal tells the life of Pétro and Nadia. After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, they were the only ones of their village to refuse evacuation from the forbidden zone. During 29 years, they led an isolated existence without electricity, running water or communication with the outside world. For five years Berlin could follow them.
Zvizdal is a town in Ukraine, within the exclusion zone around Chernobyl – the nuclear power plant that exploded 30 years ago. After the disaster hundreds of square miles around the reactor were evacuated, and became ghost towns, taken over by vegetation and wild animals. Except in Zvizdal, where two elderly people remained, clinging on to their farm and their lost community.
The couple, Olga and Dido, are weather-beaten, and the film begins with a long, unbroken shot of them sitting slightly awkwardly, slapping at midges and giving mistrustful glances towards the camera. The film is without commentary (and does not need it), and it becomes clear from the increasing intimacy of the filming how much the pair grew to trust the company who were making the piece.
This is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, but in some ways it is also a piece of performance. The theatre space is set up in a Traverse arrangement, with the two banks of seating facing a double-sided screen, with three large round models beneath it. These are of the smallholding in Zvizdal at various times of the year; summer, autumn and winter.
Most of the time we are just watching the film on the screen in a traditional manner, but sometimes, almost seamlessly, a very sophisticated mounted camera begins filming these models, and this live footage becomes blended with the documentary footage on the screen. It is very skilfully done, and gives the effect of liveness, bringing these Ukrainian octogenarians onto the stage in front of you.
This film touches on many themes, but for me the one that stood out the most was how well it captured both frailty and strength simultaneously. The life of Olga and Dido is unimaginably hard – living miles from anyone and any public services, without electricity or water, having to be self-sufficient through the harshest of winters. A challenge for someone fit and in the prime of life, yet these people are at the end of their lives – with a bandy leg and skinny arms, but so tough and determined to remain in the place to which they have become accustomed.
It is clear that the filmmakers mainly just documented the outside life of the couple, and didn’t interview them intensively, so the footage is mainly fly on the wall, with some vox pops interspersing it. My only regret is that we didn’t learn a bit more about how the couple managed to survive off the land, and why they had stayed.
This was a very beautiful and moving piece of film-theatre, with an enormous amount of access to the intimacy of this couple’s life, yet it never felt intrusive. It was a portrait of love, strength, and unfathomable isolation in beautiful countryside that it is hard to believe is covered in toxic levels of radiation – so verdant and bucolic are the summer scenes.