(originally written as a review in 2007, this revised version appeared in Artesian 2: Water (2010). Phil Grabsky and David Bickerstaff’s 2007 film Heavy Water is based on Mario Petrucci's 2004 Heavy Water: A Poem for Chernobyl (Enitharmon Press, 2004), published to mark the 18th anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion, which occurred on Saturday 26, April 1986, at 1.23am. The poem was 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 a few people still live and farm. Italics denote Mario Petrucci’s words from Heavy Water, used as narration in the film.)
White-coated scientists lean over boards of dials and switches, staring intently at screens as buttons flash red around them; rudimentry diagrams show the plant’s systems and processes: these images are now familiar as the stuff of kitsch, plundered at will for a collective ‘memory’ from which any act of memorial has been erased. Petrucci has said that he is ‘concerned for the past’s future’1. His poem, dedicated for all the bereaved, and this film, were made in tacit agreement with Chernobyl’s dead to ensure their remembrance. There was life, a life before…
A metal barrier descends below the bright surface of a lake; a red and white painted pole bars road access to the exclusion zone; a corrugated fence borders the land of local farmers. Borders, both real and invisible, occur repeatedly throughout Heavy Water, and their every mention brings a reminder that contamination through radiation respects none. This side of the fence is clean, that side is dirty. Understand? You must forget that soil is like skin, after which 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, readying 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 neighbours – it moved from your child to mine – and between 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, as with the woman who has to be taught to inhale again after radiation sickness. Mama, when you go to sleep tonight, please don’t forget to breathe, says her son.
Nature is abundant here and beguiles with its 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. Yet bees drop short of the hive, whose queen turns circles no worker can decipher.
Confusion is more evident in Pripyat, ‘the town of the future’ whose detritus of hurried abandonment is now a subject for video archaeology. Its children now play only in faded amateur cine-footage, from before it became a place where where even the robots refuse, bewildered by the interference that scrambles their instruction. Thus it was that thousands of ‘liquidators’ were called in to do their work, to bury and cover the town and plant, to ‘make it safe’.
The gallows humour of those involved in the clean-up is present. In the poem Grey Men, Petrucci writes of a man who commends the benefits of radiation to his colleagues:
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
As these words are spoken in the film, 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 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 are accompanied by footage of workers shown ascending through twisted wreckage to the light of the sky.
At their best, the images feed lightly on the lines of verse. We are told of a man whose eyelids swelled so tight with water they could not see for skin, and we see an abandoned cuddly toy rabbit, new moons of white eyes rising out of dark orbs, their crescent shape picking up on the mention of the lightest edge of thumbnail that follows. Likewise, a brief shot of one orange marigold among dried and dying foliage delicately links these word pictures, the first too grotesque to be literally depicted, 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
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 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. Except for the looters, no-one returned, and now, Chernobyl has left, gone from the map, to flea-markets, second-hand stores, dachas. And everywhere, its radiation finds new borders to erase. The general says, ‘don’t worry, this world is one vast laboratory’.
Postscript: As of 2008, figures of deaths, mutations and health problems related to the Chernobyl disaster remain contested. 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, the consequences of the explosion at Chernobyl will continue to defy the physical and linguistic barriers erected to contain them, the most recent of which is ‘New Safe Confinement’. This is the name given to the final phase of the Chernobyl Shelter Implementation Plan, which seeks to ‘contain the radioactive inventory’ of the increasingly unstable temporary Shelter over Unit 4 at Chernobyl, prevent the intrusion of water and snow and provide equipment for the eventual ‘deconstruction’ of the destroyed reactor and the Shelter. As yet the exact methods for disposing of the radioactive waste are still to be determined and no long term solutions have yet been found. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development report on the project states that, ‘International experts conclude that identifying and constructing a final depository will take several decades.’
A related EBRD Fact Sheet gives the 'Confinement Fast Facts' in a box. The lifetime for the Confinement structure is ‘100 years min’, a lifetime suited to contractual human scale but wholly inadequate for the depradations of time and the danger of radioactive seep.