Russian Chernobyl drama echoes Japan fears


MOSCOW – A new drama film set in Chernobyl opens in Russian cinemas this week, recalling the trauma of the world’s worst nuclear accident just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the catastrophe. The Russian film’s release comes after the quake-damage to a nuclear power plant in Japan brought fears of a nuclear explosion on the scale of Chernobyl and suspicions of another Soviet-style cover-up by officials. The film, ‘Innocent Saturday,’ shows a junior party worker, Valera, learning of the explosion by chance and initially trying to escape from the town of Pripyat just outside the Chernobyl zone. But he misses the last passenger train out of the town because his girlfriend cannot run fast enough and finds himself drawn into a drunken wedding party, where he plays drums for a rock band and downs bottles of wine.
His friends brush off warnings of the dangers with macabre jokes, even when they finally view the flaming power station, in scenes that recall the near anarchic atmosphere in the days after the April 26, 1986 explosion. “You create an image or a metaphor born from your own life and then that metaphor returns to you in your life or world events,” director Alexander Mindadze said in an interview. “What I was trying to talk about was not only relevant yesterday but is unfortunately relevant today.”
When reactor number four at the Chernobyl power plant blew up during a planned test in April 1986, it took several days for the Soviet authorities to officially admit the accident and evacuate residents in the fall-out zone. The archival subject matter of ‘Innocent Saturday’ unintentionally overlaps with the accident at the power plant in Japan, hit by the tsunami and quake. Mindadze told that the hero’s gradual fatalistic decision to stay, despite knowing the radiation risks, mirrored his own experience, as he was filming in Belarus, whose border runs close to Chernobyl, at the time.
“The rumours were growing but we did not take them at all seriously. It was just another excuse to ‘deactivate’ with red wine,” Mindadze said, referring to a popular belief that red wine helps prevent radiation poisoning. In the film, he showed young men swigging bottles of red wine until they fall down drunk. The film shows officials sluggishly refusing to recognise the scale of the disaster. “The reactor is failure-proof, it is 100 percent reliable, it’s failure-proof, I’m telling you,” one official shouts hysterically.
He then insists on driving closer and closer to the power plant, despite mounting readings on a geiger counter. Some, realising the dangers, leap onto a passing freight train after passenger trains no longer stop at Pripyat. But most people in the film inertly continue everyday activities. “Some people knew what had happened, some did not. But no one ran away, except the party high-ups,” Mindadze told. The film was shot in Svetlodarsk, eastern Ukraine, around a non-nuclear power station, which was made to resemble Chernobyl using computer graphics.
SArt-house director Mindadze is best-known for his collaborations with director Vadim Abdrashitov. Their film ‘Plumbum or a Dangerous Game’ was shot in Minsk during the Chernobyl disaster. The film was set to open March 24 in Belarus, which suffered most from Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout, but has been unexpectedly pulled from schedules, an official responsible told, blaming a problem with distribution rights. Mindadze told that no one in Belarus had applied to his studio for distribution rights, however.