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Filming in Chernobyl, the 'Land of Oblivion'

31 march 2012, 14:15
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Franco-Israeli director Michale Boganim. ©AFP
Franco-Israeli director Michale Boganim. ©AFP
The film had to be shot in Chernobyl. That was the sizeable challenge Michale Boganim set herself for her first feature film, the story of a young bride robbed of a husband by the 1986 nuclear disaster, AFP reports.

Five years in the making, the French-Israeli director's "Land of Oblivion", just released in France, was shot entirely in the so-called exclusion zone, reaching 30 kilometres (18 miles) around the defunct Ukrainian nuclear power plant.

Starring "Bond girl" Olga Kurylenko in the lead role, the film opens with a joyous wedding party, on April 26, 1986, cut short when the groom is called to attend to a fire at the nearby power plant -- from which he will not return.

Boganim's film is set in Pripiat, a ghost town just three kilometres from the plant, whose 50,000 inhabitants were evacuated at a moment's notice, leaving only the poisoned vegetation behind.

"It is a town frozen on the day of the disaster," Boganim told AFP. "Time hangs between past and present, with the libraries and school classrooms exactly as they were."

Shooting on site was an absolute necessity, said the director, who wanted to show the human cost of the disaster, and how it was ignored by the authorities, who ordered the evacuation without a word of explanation.

The shoot itself "was a bit of rollercoaster," admits Boganim, saying she had to tweak the script to win a green light to film inside the zone -- first in midsummer for the "before" sequence, and in the winter snow for the rest.

The movie is split into two parts, one sequence building up to the disaster, and a second, set a decade later.

In the latter half, the widowed Anya cannot bring herself to leave her hometown, taking work as a guide in the "zone" two weeks per month, the maximum time people are allowed to spend in the still-contaminated area.

In parallel, we follow the story of Alexei, an engineer seen planting an appletree with his young son Valery on the fateful day of April 26, 1986. Forced to lie about the gravity of the accident, Alexei chooses to disappear.

His son refuses to accept his father's death, returning to the zone after the disaster to scrawl messages for him on his old bedroom walls.

"It's a film about exile, about the impossibility of letting go of your land of origin," explained Boganim, who carried out long interviews with Chernobyl refugees while researching the script.

"The evacuees never managed to rebuild their lives elsewhere," she said.

"The most traumatic part -- more than the disaster -- was the evacuation," she said. "Being forced to up and leave without the slightest explanation. They sent in troops and tanks to deal with the radioactivity, and left people in complete ignorance."

Boganim's film drew violent reactions when it was shown at the Kiev Film Festival in the autumn -- "a torrent of hatred", in the words of the director who said she regretted having screened it there.

"It wasn't an angle the authorities wanted to focus on. They prefer films that glorify the liquidators," the name given to crews sent in to clean up the site at the cost of their own lives.

"Being a woman, and a foreigner too, on such a sensitive subject, meant I faced prejudice from the start."

Boganim hit back at the Ukrainian attacks, however, saying critics could not find fault with the substance of her film.

"I spent five years making it, it was researched like a documentary, with the same concern for accuracy and precision."

Boganim's film hits screens just over a year after the tsunami-triggered meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan -- which unfolded as she was editing her film.

It also coincides with the start of work on a new sarcophagus to cover the Chernobyl plant, whose construction will start on the anniversary of the disaster next month.

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