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Stalking Chernobyl: Exploration After Apocalypse

Cinema | February 16th, 2021

By Greg Carlson

gregcarlson1@gmail.com

18 February 2021

Filmmaker and activist Iara Lee’s “Stalking Chernobyl: Exploration After Apocalypse” ventures into the sites and surroundings of the abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, introducing an assortment of “stalkers” drawn to the growing popularity of this upside-down variant on eco-tourism.

Lee incorporates excellent, pre-disaster archival footage that emphasizes a constructed, utopian, Soviet-era idealism. And she balances that perspective with contemporary accounts of the explorers who seek thrills picking through the ghostly remains of Pripyat. The result largely avoids the fate of so much media designed primarily to inspire action. Despite the stern warnings predicting future catastrophe, Lee’s film investigates the past by sharing stories of the present.

Lee listens to a wide range of voices: children who lost parents to radiation-related illness, Pripyat residents forced to leave behind nearly all their belongings, sanctioned and unsanctioned guides trying to make an income, fearless (clueless?) enthusiasts who camp in abandoned buildings and drink water retrieved from the plant itself. Others explain their connections to a place many would never agree to visit.

The historical content, especially the sections addressing the so-called “bio-robots” and liquidators who risked their lives in the aftermath of the disaster, is as harrowing as the ongoing concerns that forest fires will ignite radioactive material. 

Despite the movie’s clear position on the dangers of expanding nuclear power, Lee does not shrink from the otherworldly allure that draws so many to Chernobyl and Pripyat. Photographers love the haunting, decaying rooms that appear to have been designed directly for some post-apocalyptic horror film or video game. The latter, Lee reminds the viewer, overlaps with the digital simulacra in “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl,” the first-person shooter that draws from real-life geography as well as the sci-fi novella “Roadside Picnic” and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker,” the latter of which gets a closing credits shout-out from Lee for its inspiring lyricism.

The piles of books in classrooms, the empty swimming pools, the desolate apartment blocks, the iconic Ferris wheel, and the rows of hospital beds make for grim sets captured over and over by the cameras of amateur and professional alike. One subject points out a central conundrum: no measures are in place to prevent visitors from interacting with and disturbing these spaces. No matter how conscientious some stalkers claim to be, things are taken and things are left behind. Dozens of dolls, manufactured long after 1986 and positioned to enhance the eerie effect, seem to multiply like an invasive species.

Whether or not you have seen the work of Maryann DeLeo or “Voices from Chernobyl” or “The Russian Woodpecker” or the popular 2019 HBO series or any number of other fascinating films on the subject, one suspects that a large group of viewers will watch “Stalking Chernobyl” with a sense of morbid curiosity, stunned that so many young people are undaunted by the long-term impact of the disaster on the environment and on the human population. But one look at the massive structure of the Duga radar array -- dizzyingly captured by drone photography as well as by the daredevils who climb it -- and you realize that the Exclusion Zone, or “Zone of Alienation,” will continue to attract attention no matter the level of hazard.

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“Stalking Chernobyl: Exploration After Apocalypse” received the Best Documentary Feature Award from the 2021 Fargo Film Festival. The movie will screen as part of the virtual event from March 18 to 28.

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