Bearing Witness: A Story of Life in Chernobyl's Aftermath
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Out There 2019

Bearing Witness: A Story of Life in Chernobyl's Aftermath

Berlin’s Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far—so close] Photo: Frederik Buyckx

“The grass is not greener on the other side. It’s all the same everywhere.”
—Nadia Lubenoc

Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far—so close]an immersive hybrid of documentary film and theatrical installation by the Antwerp-based ensemble BERLIN, bears witness—to that which is present but unseen or forgotten. A post-apocalyptic world—radioactive; no electricity, communication, running water; abandoned buildings—signaling a life that existed. This is not a futuristic rendition of science fiction but a documentation of present-day reality for an octogenarian couple, Nadia and Pétro Lubenoc, who refused to leave their rural Ukrainian village inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Across media, we can view the cultural trend of people preparing for the end of the world. Imagining the end of society is easier, it seems, than imagining peace, community, and harmony with our natural world. But in Zvizdal we do not have to imagine: the end of the world as we know it already exists.

Zvizdal is haunting for its resonance across boundaries. It is a story of a community that was on the front line of modern civilization’s thirst for energy and march toward “progress.” It is part of a larger web of present-day realities of communities across the world and here in the United States: tens of thousands of largely Latino and African Americans living in proximity of Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond, California, which processes 250,000 barrels of crude oil every day, producing motor gasoline, jet fuel, diesel fuel, and lubricants; indigenous communities, like the Navajo Nation in the Southwest and communities in North Dakota and the Black Hills of South Dakota that have been contaminated by uranium mining waste for generations; and, of course, closer to home, indigenous communities and people of color in the Phillips and North Minneapolis neighborhoods of Minneapolis who breathe in diesel and other toxic fumes due to close proximity to highways and concentrated industrial economic activities. The list is long, with examples in practically every low-income, indigenous, or community of color in the country. Legacies of pollution as part of institutionalized racism. Government sanctioned sacrifice zones.

Large-scale environmental disasters, toxicity, and community and cultural devastation are a seemingly accepted norm toward “progress,” codified in environmental risk assessments and policy. Underwater, in the soil, in the stories and bodies of indigenous and communities of color today—unseen but ever-present. We never see the radiation in the lush green landscape of Zvizdal, but the soundscape choices by BERLIN reminds us that just because we do not see it, does not mean that it is not there.

BERLIN’s Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far—so close]

Nadia and Pétro’s farm invokes the imagery of forgotten communities. The imagery is reminiscent of a drive across the rural Midwest and historically disinvested neighborhoods in many cities, devastated by colonialism, industrial-scale agriculture, growing economic and racial injustice, and debt. As I watch Zvizdal unfold, I cannot help but link these disparate communities as they, in parallel, experience the impacts of plans and policies that are not in their control.

With this loss of community fabric comes an isolation—whether one is surrounded by people or not. It is the sense of aloneness that comes from a lack of relationship to the people and the natural world around you. Zvizdal prompts us, its audiences, to confront the assumption that mobility and leaving a place does not have ramifications on our psyche and the people we leave behind. Committing to place brings its own questions. Aging in place, without community, is a reality Nadia and Pétro invite us to confront as we look at our own elders as they age. The film doesn’t go back to when the couple was younger but catches Nadia and Pétro during a certain phase in their life, where we almost get a sense of the Waiting Place. As a viewer, we are also just waiting. Waiting for them to die—since the evacuation. They were not supposed to live. They were not supposed to survive.

As the film brings us into their daily life, I am presented with the notion that there is “nothing” there, yet there is something very intimate—resiliency, the land—that help sustain Nadia and Pétro.  According to the BBC, of the approximately 150 people that live in the Chernobyl exclusion zone illegally, many are women, still farming their ancestral land. As I watch the scene of Nadia harvesting greens, I feel her intimacy with the land, understanding it in a way an outsider cannot. She cries as we see loss unfold—this presence of loss implies there was a presence of joy, of fullness. There is life, loyalty, and commitment.

While the science of Chernobyl counts radiation, cancer, and physical death, the use of art makes us realize that the devastation of Chernobyl, and the government evacuation policies that followed, was bigger than just the radioactivity: it was the decimation of a people and a way of life. As a longtime collaborator on linking the data of environmental justice with the arts, having worked with numerous dance companies and visual arts spaces to that end, I see their interplay as critical. Art allows us to look behind the verifiable and the statistics of counting—counting the radiation, half-life, or how many people gotten cancer or died—to understanding the fuller impact. Art fills in the blanks that science will never be able to definitively tell us. Nadia and Pétro may never be logged as official deaths related to the nuclear disaster, but BERLIN invites us to see that their lives and community did have a certain, uncountable, life after Chernobyl.

The harsh winter we see them experience is familiar to the harsh winter of Minnesota, but we are mitigated from the seasons that Nadia and Pétro are so governed by. Mitigated by our energy—oil and natural gas for heating and staying warm, coal and nuclear for electricity, gasoline and diesel for our cars and trucks to get around. It is our privilege to access energy, oblivious of its broader, historical and global impact.

What does it mean for us to bear witness to Nadia and Pétro, waiting with them, sitting in the theater? We are external observers, viewing the exquisite models of Nadia and Pétro’s seasonal terrain. Warm in our seat, witnessing discomfort, how might we take action beyond the performance? As time passes, seasons pass, life passes—but the radioactive pollution stays. It is said that the area by Chernobyl won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years. Modern economies are built on the need for large volumes of energy—largely fossil fuels and nuclear.  So, who (or what) will, ultimately, be left bearing witness, and to whom?

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