1981-1990DocumentaryDramaMikhail BelikovPoliticsUkraine

Mikhail Belikov – Raspad AKA Decay (1990)

RASPAD is a hard-hitting Ukrainian film that details the horrors and aftermath of the Russian Chernobyl nuclear-reactor incident.

In April 1986, Soviet journalist Alexander Zhuralev (Sergei Shakurov) returns from assignment in Greece to his home in Kiev, only to discover, via an anonymous note, that his wife Ludmilla (Tatiana Kochesmasova) has been having an affair with his bureaucrat friend Shurik (Alexii Gorbunov). To consol himself, Alexander plans a visit with his friend Anatoli Stepanovich (Georgi Drozd), but before they can meet, a fiery explosion rips through one of the Chernobyl reactors, where Anatoli works, and he is one of the first victims. However, no announcements are made by the government, and life continues normally.

The New York Times wrote:

History galloped through Mikhail Belikov’s country last year. It gave Ukraine new life and trampled the detritus of the old totalitarian regime, which had brought it Chernobyl.

That was the good news.

The more problematic news, for a film maker like Mr. Belikov, is that the rush of history completely changed the landscape that was the setting for his art. He is one of the creative artists who rejoice in the triumph of democracy in the former Soviet Union but are unsure what political victory will do for art defined by defiance. What is a truth teller without a lie to confront? What is a dissenter without an Establishment to oppose?

The best testament to the awkwardness of the moment is Mr. Belikov’s 1990 film “Raspad,” about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Leaning on the known facts of the tragedy, Mr. Belikov traces out fictional accounts of victims and bystanders from just before the explosion to a period about six months later.

“Raspad” — literally “falling apart,” colloquially “collapse” or “disintegration” — is a classically Slavic, symbolic chronicle of moral betrayal. The film, which made its American debut last week in time for the sixth anniversary of the catastrophe, was described by Vincent Canby of The Times as “awkward but nearly always riveting.”

With angry scenes showing hypocrisies large and small, “Raspad” renders both the cataclysm of the explosion at the reactor and the conspiracy of silence that followed. While the inferno spewed poison across the land, Kiev television showed a bicycle race and the May Day parade. Sixty miles southeast of the nuclear volcano, beribboned children marched down Kiev’s central street under radioactive skies to honor Communism.

“It was my biggest fear that we might stray from the truth, that we might make a false film, so that a Chernobylite, seeing it, would say, ‘Aren’t you ashamed to show things that never happened?’ ” Mr. Belikov said. “But nobody who has seen it has said, ‘It’s not true.’ “

It is enough, Mr. Belikov said, to tell the truth. To do so, he said, underscores the official cover-up. And that cover-up, which increased the number of victims, also led to a heightened national consciousness among Ukrainians and Byelorussians. The film doesn’t join the current debate over how many have died as a result of Chernobyl — the official 32, or thousands more, as health authorities in the newly independent Ukraine now maintain. It is content to show a slaughter of innocents; it doesn’t feel the need to count.

What mattered more than any count, he said, was the deception itself. The fury over being lied to about poison that could kill them, he said, helped turn Ukrainians and Byelorussians, those most affected by the fallout, against the Soviet Government and engineer its collapse.

But that collapse makes “Raspad” already a period piece.

In 1989, when it was filmed, truth was hard to come by; most other commodities were cheap. Ukrainians were so disgusted by the stonewalling of the Soviet ministries of health and atomic energy — which still kept secret the maps of contaminated areas — that Mr. Belikov was allotted a million rubles (about $625,000 at the then artificially inflated exchange rate) by the Ukrainian Government film studio at a time when the ruble had some value within the country. He also had no trouble recruiting hundreds of bus drivers for one of the most powerful scenes, the evacuation of the high-rise town of Pripyat, four miles from the reactor.

In 1992, four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, truth is cheap, and everything else is dear. The most anachronistic scenes in the movie show Aleksandr Zhuravlev, the journalist protagonist played by Sergei Shakurov, and his unfaithful wife, Lyudmila (Tatyana Kochemasova), entertaining friends with a lavish spread of caviar, fish and meat — products unobtainable or prohibitively expensive these days.

The changes in the former Soviet Union go beyond the current scarcity of food. Movie theaters in Kiev, Lvov and Kharkov — and much of the rest of the formerly prudish, formerly Soviet Union — are full of American-made sexploitation films, Mr. Belikov said. Local film producers are happy to follow suit. “Your movies are nothing compared to ours these days. It’s all rapes and shootings. Nobody would go to see a movie unless there are a couple of rapes and shootings.

“For me, it would be impossible to shoot ‘Raspad’ now. That’s why I’m not doing anything now.” In the first place, there would not be enough money. The rapid devaluation of the ruble has made the current 250-million-ruble budget (perhaps $250,000) of the Ukrainian state studio a pittance and low-budget ventures a must. While producers would now be free to seek investors wherever they can find them, the central studio is still the first resort for funding. In addition, the distribution network that brings films to theaters in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus (the country that emerged from the Byelorussian republic) is tightly controlled by an Azerbaijani entrepreneur; serious movies, not terribly popular now, are not very welcome.

Even Ukrainian audiences were not enthusiastic about “Raspad.” Mr. Belikov said. “It’s difficult to see the movie. Those who lived through that don’t want to experience it again.”

Long before its release, the film was adopted by a group of Americans, including the independent producer Peter O. Almond, who met Mr. Belikov in Kiev in 1989. Mr. Almond helped him get the film to the Skywalker Ranch, a sophisticated sound-mixing facility that the film maker George Lucas has established in Marin County, Calif.

“Raspad” is now a joint venture, the Ukrainian rights owned by a charity called Chernobyl Aid and the American rights owned by Mr. Belikov, Mr. Almond and a group of investors known as the Pacific Film Fund.

Although not one of the best-known directors in the former Soviet Union, the 52-year-old Mr. Belikov, who was born in Ukraine and lives in Kiev, won a top prize for his earlier feature film “How Young We Were.” He himself lived through part of the Chernobyl nightmare — not the actual explosion of April 26, 1986, which occurred when he was in Spain showing “How Young We Were” at an international festival — but the days of deceit that followed.

“I came back on the 29th. My friends greeted me and congratulated me on the success of ‘How Young We Were.’ Everybody was smiling and laughing, and somewhere in the middle of it someone said, ‘Something happened at Chernobyl, and all the foreigners are leaving Kiev.’ Just that — an aside. Like Kafka.

“I understood the scope of the accident after about three days,” Mr. Belikov added. Around May 2, the smoldering reactor core, covered with tons of sand and boron, began to reheat alarmingly; radiation levels shot upward. “We knew that another explosion was possible, and if there was another explosion, there would be no more Kiev. There was panic in the city.” A scene in the movie of hysterical crowds at the railway station, which was filmed with volunteers from a circus audience, was a re-creation of what Mr. Belikov said he witnessed — and what Kiev television never showed.

Ukrainian audiences may not want to relive those days, but Mr. Belikov and his American collaborators are hoping the film will be more welcome here — particularly now that its metaphor of collapse applies not just to the moral decay of the former Soviet Union but to its political disintegration as well.

Those looking for a strong antinuclear diatribe, however, are unlikely to find it. For Mr. Belikov, the blame for what he calls Chernobyl’s “inevitability” goes back to an arrogant, “pathologically secretive” system that Stalin designed to keep control of military technology in as few hands as possible. Marrying that system to nuclear technology, he said, “was like putting a child on an unbroken horse. He can’t control it. Sooner or later he’ll be thrown.”

1.71GB | 1h 36min | 768×576 | mkv




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