Architecture on Film: Pripyat

An exploration of Chernobyl’s ‘zone of alienation’ through a portrait of the ghost town of Pripyat.


07:00pm, Tuesday, 12 May 2015


11:23am, Tuesday, 12 May 2015


Cinema 1, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS



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This award-winning early work from leading documentarian Geyrhalter (Our Daily Bread) explores Chernobyl’s ‘zone of alienation’ through a portrait of the ghost town of Pripyat – abandoned since the 1986 nuclear disaster – and the people who live and work there.

"Never mind The Road: Geyrhalter's inspection of the 20-mile restricted zone around the Chernobyl nuclear accident site in the Ukraine comes closer than any other film to portraying what the post-apocalyptic world might look like."
- Rob Nelson, The Village Voice

In striking black and white cinematography Geyrhalter surveys the wilderness, guided by the few farmers, guards, reactor controllers and ‘autonomous returnees’, who operate within this architecture of exclusion.

My main interest is to preserve and archive history on the basis of individual cases. I see my films as a type of reference work for coming generations. Above all the individuals are important, though these portraits are obviously bonded by the common fate, a life behind barbed wire.”
- Nikolaus Geyrhalter 

Avoiding a pedagogy of the disaster or a treatise on nuclear threat, Geyrhalter’s film follows its protagonists to capture a normally invisible and occasionally absurd world, where everyday life plays out on an extraordinary terrain.

We are delighted to present this film for its London premiere.

Austria, 1999, Dir. Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 100 mins
In Russian and Ukrainian with English subtitles


Programme notes by Joana Rafael

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place”, writes Susan Sontag to open her seminal text on illness as metaphor. Through it she attempts to unravel the punitive and sentimental fantasies concocted within the kingdom of the ill. She describes the ruthless and morally contagious means by which deadly diseases are mystified, and combats the fatalism associated with them. One can say that Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s film Pripyat follows a similar intentional path, through a real yet absurd geography. 

Geyrhalter is a leading filmmaker and documentarian who frequently examines the lives of the marginal and hidden, dwelling in so-called ‘ill’ locations. Known for the existentially beautiful travelogues Our Daily Bread (2005), Elsewhere (2001), The Year After Dayton (1997) and Washed Ashore (1992), he is no stranger to adventure. Like Sontag, he is ready to leave his comfort zone to survey withered and extraordinary terrains: territories which we do not know (and fear to learn) much about, spectrally shrouded as sites where the means of life and living have been lost. 

Geyrhalter’s films depict outlooks on life, outcomes of millennial turning points, and observations of melancholic isolation. Frequently relying upon interviews conducted with the subjects sitting or standing facing the camera, or followed by the camera team, his films foreground a wealth of details - both intimately personal and observationally detached. Pripyat offers an eloquent proof of his approach and methods. The film, details lives lived in the decaying remnants and desolate centerpiece of a 18.75 mile restricted zone in the Ukraine; a place encapsulated by clear boundaries and restricted access since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown. Shot in black and white, its cinematography, devoid of stylistic flourishes, accentuates the otherworldy illness of the Chernobyl site to make it appear somewhat mundane, and enable the tales of the film’s ‘characters’ to take centre stage. Coloured by their despair, denial, fatalism and resilience, the film’s unflinching and unsettling vision combines with a tragicomic and self-effacing humor that serves to accentuate myriad points of devastation in order to make us look at things in a new way. 

The film’s title is taken from the names of its subjects: Pripyat, the flagship Soviet city (turned “ghost town”) built to house the Chernobyl workers and demonstrate the safety of nuclear energy, itself named after Pripyat, the 862 km long river that provided cooling water for the disaster-struck reactor. This river flows east through the Ukraine and Belarus to the Dnieper River and on to the Black Sea. It is highly contaminated with radioactive substances, expanding the spatial scale of the accident to substantial distances beyond the barbed wire fence of Chernobyl’s nuclear Exclusion Zone. However, Geyrhalter’s film avoids an anti-nuclear treatise to capture the circumstances, attitudes and living conditions of those who live off the poisoned land and fish in the contaminated waters within the Zone, amidst a reverberating sense of catastrophe.

To enter this fenced territory, Geyrhalter agreed on a deal by which the European Commission and the Belarussian, Russian and Ukrainian ministries responsible for Chernobyl Affairs could use his footage for their internal assessment works. This granted his team the rare rights to move freely for a three-month period and follow the lives of those evicted from the kingdom of the well to remain in – living or commuting to – an apparently functional wasteland, enclosed by a complex architecture of exclusion and saturated in lethal levels of radioactivity. Such people include, amongst others, the Rudchenkos, a couple of elderly residents that returned to the zone shortly after the meltdown, Mr. Suvorov, a cheerful plant manager coping with the conditions, Mrs. Krasnozhon, a technician monitoring the nuclear devastation, and a forlorn woman complaining about the state’s helplessness in the face of a disaster it helped to create. “They should install gas and telephone lines so that I can live here as I did”, exclaims the latter to the camera, seeking to pragmatise her everyday in the troubled land.

This exclamation is an affirmation of isolation, but also one of the major pivots and registers of the film. At the film’s closure, the camera returns to visit the Rudchenkos, whose phone indeed rings. But instead of answering they march across the snow to the river, preoccupied by the task of filling their water buckets. It shows us that the dramatic confrontation of the film is not found in the exoticism of the levels of radiation and irrevocably altered landscape surrounding the nuclear reactor, but rather with the making of Chernobyl an isolated, ‘end-of-days’ place – a terrain where the practice of existence itself is made more acute.

In the end, Pripyat reminds that in the midst of life, there is awful death, and that on the path to death, life still flourishes. The film is above all a self-reflective device that addresses what it is to live and be human, residing in the hinterland between the kingdoms of the well and ill simultaneously. What one sees in the Zone and in the film are the remains of some former civilization on a ground contaminated by radiation, and our eeriness in having to deal with such a reality. It offers a portrait of a world at odds with the logical organization containing the consequences of a nuclear accident, and an acerbic reminder of the limits of control. Here the role of architecture is one of protectionist subtraction, seeking to preserve wellness by placing illness in isolation. Yet the effects and aspirations of placing the world in order and in service to man, on the contrary, here only illuminate the moral, if not literal, contagions such actions inevitably incubate.

What is supposed to be a dead and isolated zone, devoid of life, is shown to be a porous reserve of wilderness – albeit a radiated one – where the ones who choose to submit to fate have, indeed, their phone lines intact. Life and death, sickness and health, order and chaos, are perhaps forever in conversation at opposing ends of the line.