Last night my friend Ewan invited me to join him and his son at Zvizdal, a multi-media performance about a village in the “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. Or more specifically, it’s about the one remaining couple in the village, who are in their 80’s.
The story starts in a surprisingly humorous tone. The screen is blank, except for the English and Czech subtitles translating the Ukrainian conversation—as one of the filmmakers goes from office to office trying to get a permit to enter the exclusion zone. She’s told to go down the hall, 2nd door on the left, then you hear her walking and the screen says, “Down the hall”; a door opens, and the screen says, “2nd door on the left.”
In addition to the runaround of everyone telling her to go somewhere different, there’s one official who admits he doesn’t know whether the permit she’s looking for is within their work or not.
Someone else explains, “There’s nothing there. Well, there is that one couple, but the only way to talk to them is in person. There’s no phone.”
But obviously she eventually gets some sort of permission to proceed, and we are now looking out through a dash-cam as a guard opens a gate and we proceed into the exclusion zone.
After the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, the Soviet government created two exclusion zones. The zone have a few old people living in them, people who felt out of place after being evacuated to Kiev or other cities, and so preferred to return. If they were old enough, they were allowed back in, or they snuck in.
The outer zone is where the buses bring the folks out for some disaster tourism, as I experienced with my colleague Amy Forster Rothbart and our students in January, 2013. (Amy's husband Mike Forster Rothbart is a photographer who's done extensive work in the zone.)
On the standard tour you look at exhibits in the museum, see the firemen's memorial, and visit a former nursery school with dust lying thick on the beds and on the children’s books scattered across the floor (and a beer bottle placed on top of a bank of children’s cubbies, with a label showing it couldn’t have been there more than a year).
The inner zone has the plant itself, where you come within 400 meters of the “sarcophagus” that was built over the destroyed reactor, to prevent any further release of radiation. There’s the plant, and the workers there who maintain it, and the workers’ canteen (where the tourists also have lunch), and the former city of Pripyat, home in 1986 to 50,000 plant workers and their families, abandoned today and unknown to most of the world except for those who play Call of Duty.
Mike explains that there are actually a small but significant number of people still living in the zone, as described here. But the impression I got from last night's movie was that there was pretty much nothing there.
Except for one old couple on a farmstead in what was the village of Zvizdal.
A little ways beyond the gate, the dash-cam guides us down a one-lane road with trees growing in from the sides and down from above, and I was immediately gripped by a vision of a post-human world. And the first half of the movie does nothing to alter that.
We eventually reach the homestead of Baba and Dyeda (Granny and Grampy), whom we encounter sitting on a rough bench outside their fence, looking at the camera, looking around, saying nothing, occasionally swatting away flies, in a shot that seems to last a minute or more.
After that eternity, there's finally movement as we follow them on some of their chores. They are both somewhat hobbled by something like arthritis, she worse than he. He walks with a relatively erect gate, though a hunched back. She moves much more slowly, her right leg bending inward significantly at the knee.
Here are Baba, Dyeda, their one milk cow, their single plough horse, their field of potatoes, the oat crop that will be lost this year because of the weather, cutting hay by hand to feed the animals.
And other than the documentarians, absolutely nobody else.
Dyeda takes us on a tour of what was the village. Here was a farm, two big barns, 400 cows (you see a couple of long brick buildings with their roofs mostly gone). Here was the post office; packages came in, packages went out, not anymore. This is where so-and-so lived. There used to be electricity; there’s no electricity now.
It’s as if all of humanity somehow disappeared 30 years earlier and there’s nobody left except this pair of octogenarians. And, of course, somehow, the documentarians filming them. And us, watching the finished project.
And yet it really feels like they’re the last two people on Earth, fighting on against their aching joints to provide for themselves, but only to stay alive.
As long as human society exists and has a future, the individual’s struggle to survive has a larger meaning, because so long as you are alive there’s a chance—however small—that you might influence the shape of that future.
When you’re the last two people on Earth, and far too old to be a modern Adam and Eve, your struggle becomes in some sense pointless. Whether you die this year or 10 years from now, the future beyond that is identically nonhuman.
To be the last of our species is to live a unique kind of futility.
Through the magic of film, you may be able to experience a sense of that futility seeping into your soul, all while sitting in a theater with 150 other people, before you head home to your very-much-alive family and return to your daily work which, you hope, has a purpose.