In 1986, a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, Soviet Union, exploded, catalyzing the world’s worst nuclear accident.
In 1997, Belarusian writer and historian Svetlana Alexievich published “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster,” based on her interviews with survivors of the nuclear meltdown. The book won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award.
The disaster and book were revisited in 2014 by Luxembourg director Pol Crutchen and his crew, who, using unconventional, experimental cinematic techniques, sought to bring to life the voices of those who remain in a country still in turmoil.
“Voices from Chernobyl,” the resulting 2016 documentary film based on Alexievich’s book, will be presented in a free public screening at East Tennessee State University on Monday, April 9. This Earth Month event, sponsored by ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, will take place at 7 p.m. in the Ball Hall auditorium (room 127) and will be followed by a reception.
“This film is not talking about Chernobyl but of a world which we know almost nothing,” said the Luxembourg committee that selected “Voices” to represent the country’s films at the Oscars. “Some people from everyday life are raising their voices to testify. Through their supplication, the film takes us on a journey into the human soul.”
The film, like the book, is a collection of eyewitness accounts. Scientists, teachers, journalists, couples and children speak of their daily lives, the catastrophe, their losses and how they have survived. They express the suffering of men, women and children exposed to lethal levels of radiation and misinformed by Soviet authorities as to the true danger of their surroundings.
Rather than filming the actual eyewitnesses from the book, Crutchen cast actors to read the accounts, creating what he calls “a cinematographic essay.” The actors recount the stories in French, with English subtitles. “I could not contemplate filming the real witnesses,” Crutchen says. “[But] I needed men and women. That human fabric is crucial to the film. In her book, Svetlana speaks more about humanity than about the catastrophe itself.”
“Voices” was entirely shot in Pripyat. “We had a moral obligation to shoot on the premises,” he adds.
“The voices which combine to form ‘Voices from Chernobyl’ are multitudinous,” says Crutchen, who graduated from Paris’ École Supérieure d’Études Cinématographiques. “Voices that bear witness of a catastrophe of global proportions speaking directly to us. They touch us with their veracity, their intelligence, their courage and their humanity. And they also touch us because they are of such relevance now.”
“Voices from Chernobyl” was selected for the Martin School of the Arts spring 2018 season for a number of reasons, says Anita DeAngelis, director of the school.
“We wanted to bring an event as part of Earth Month on campus,” she says, “but the documentary also has been screening in venues like the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and dovetails with literature classes at ETSU that are studying Alexievich’s writing. Plus ‘Voices’ is truly an eerily beautiful film that we all can learn from.”
The film “Voices” won Best Documentary honors at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and the Grand Prix award at the Festival International du Film d’Environment in 2016.
“We have a tendency to banish Chernobyl to the past and to a remote corner of Ukraine, as if it were part of history,” says Crutchen. “But Chernobyl is undeniably our present. A present which bears the stigmata of the past and also fears for the future.”
The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. Founded in 1975, South Arts is a nonprofit regional arts organization building on the South’s unique heritage and enhancing the public value of the arts.
For more information, call the Martin School of the Arts at 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit www.etsu.edu/martin. For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346. Additional information on the film is available at www.lasupplication-lefilm.com.