‘We have to start from Saturday 26, April 1986, 1.23 in the morning. The reactor roof was blown right off, more than fifty tonnes of nuclear fuel it was thrown into the air, the smoke it was three miles up; the territory became very contaminated, very polluted...'
The film Heavy Water is based on Mario Petrucci's poem of the same name, derived from eyewitness accounts of the Chernobyl disaster collected by journalist Svetlana Alexievich in her book Voices from Chernobyl. Using the poem as narration, the film takes us inside the ‘Zone of Exclusion’ around the Chernobyl power plant, into Pripyat, the now deserted town built for workers at the plant, and the surrounding countryside, where incredibly, a few people still live and farm.
Borders, both real and invisible, are a repeated feature throughout the film, and their every mention brings a reminder that contamination through radiation respects none. One of the first images we see is a metal barrier descending below the bright surface of a lake. Later, a red and white painted pole bars road access to the exclusion zone. And then there is the corrugated fence that borders the land of local farmers.
This side of the fence is clean, that side is dirty. Understand?
You must forget that soil is like skin.
At the end of this sequence, a dog pisses, as if to show the insulting stupidity of the advice. A flycatcher rests on the fence, respecting no such niceties; a cat peers over, ready to leap.
Radiation here is the unseen and undeniable constant. It erases divisions between inside and outside, as when we are told of a dying man coughing out his guts, unable to digest his food, and his wife kissing him as if he could digest the touch of my lips. It travels between people, whether neighbours – it moved from your son to mine – or lovers, do not kiss him…each time you hold his hand is a year off your life.
Others it takes to the border between death and life; a woman learns to breathe again after radiation sickness, each breath a pang to draw me back from the brink. When you go to sleep mama, do not forget to breathe, says her child.
Above all though, there is the border between before and after the catastrophe at Chernobyl. There was life, a life before…
Nature is abundant here and beguiles with the appearance of health. The blue lake water sparkles in the sun and reflects the colours of trees in early autumn. There are rosehips and apples, and farmers harvest beets. All appears healthy. And yet
bees drop short of the hive
whose queen turns circles no worker can decipher
More conventionally sinister are the scenes of abandonment and detritus from Pripyat, ‘the town of the future’ that is now a town of the past, where children play only in faded amateur cine-footage. Chernobyl is a place where even the robots refuse, bewildered by the interference that scrambles the ones and zeros of their instruction. Thus it was that thousands upon thousands of ‘liquidators’ were called in to do their work, to bury and cover the town and plant. To ‘make it safe’. Heavy Water is a film made in agreement with the dead, the poem’s dedication is for all the bereaved.
The gallows humour of those involved in the clean-up is present. In the poem Grey Men, Petrucci writes of a man who taks of the benefits of radiation,
But think, he says
of our genius children. They will be called
out of bed by their friends. Just to see them stand
there in nightclothes, a pale blue ember. A splinter
In the film, as these words are spoken, we watch a child at a drawing book. Then, with the words’ end, the thinnest paring of a crescent moon rises through the sky. The film is good at this, hanging back when the spoken words are so strong that they do not need competition, but only a fitting background that complements the poetry, and then providing a striking image of its own.
This happens in an earlier sequence, where the words
it's the dreams, nothing prepares you for those dreams
me, as a boy, breaking up through liquid black
is accompanied by footage of workers shown ascending through twisted wreckage to the light of the sky.
It is good too at providing images that straddle lines of verse. When we are told of a man whose eyelids swelled so tight with water they could not see for skin, we see an abandoned cuddly toy rabbit, new moons of white eyes rising out of dark orbs, the crescent shape picking up on the mention of the lightest edge of thumbnail that follows.
Likewise, the image that accompanies these words from the poem Soldier,
A ginger kitten
stretched in a kitchen window, its head a dried
apricot. One old man was weeding, the very
day he had to leave. Why do you do that? I asked
Because he said, that is the work you do
in the summer.
an image that would be grotesque if literally shown, is that of one orange marigold among dried and dying foliage, an image that delicately links the two word pictures.
The film finds its own rhythms of poetic resonance too. A moon seen behind scudding clouds recalls the light of the bulb through a black lampshade seen a few moments earlier; the mention of an accordion that sets a geiger counter clicking recalls the shot of a man playing an accordion minutes before.
Pripyat was evacuated in just a few hours after the disaster; many people initially thought they would return after a week or so. No-one returned except for the looters. And now
Chernobyl has left, gone from the map
to flea-markets, second-hand stores, dachas
everywhere, looking for new borders to erase.
The final words go to Mario Petrucci, who, in an Interview for Writewords in April 2005, commented that ‘few civilisations can have had more covert dark to process than ours; and yet, we seem more concerned with turning up the lights than we are with enlightenment.’ More succintly, he also says ‘I’m concerned for the past’s future’. This is brought home when we see the archive footage throughout the film – 1970s footage of white-coated scientists leaning over boards of dials and switches, staring intently at screens as buttons flash red around them, and of rudimentry diagrams showing the plant’s systems and processes. These images are now the stuff of kitsch, plundered at will for a collective ‘memory’ of such times. Not least of the film’s achievements is to ally such images to real-life consequences. With the number of deaths, mutations and health problems related to the Chernobyl disaster still unknown and under debate, with areas of land across Europe still contaminated from the accident and unable to support safely edible produce, and with contaminated villages in the area reduced to rubble that has been buried close to the water table, these are consequences that will continue to defy the physical and linguistic barriers erected to contain them.
Italics denote Mario Petrucci’s words, used as narration in the film, from Heavy Water, published by Enitharmon Press in 2004.