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Les villages disparus

Fiona Meadows

Chernobyl, after: voices from abandoned places.

In 2015 Svetlana Alexievich won a much-earned Nobel Prize for Literature. In the literary world, this event was a cause of great excitement: it is one of the few cases in which the greatest recognition for authors has been given to a non-fiction writer. Svetlana Alexievich’s work in the Post-Soviet Russia and around the Chernobyl's disaster has been greatly crucial for the building of a new narration of contemporary Eastern Europe and to the way we speak and think about it. "Les Villages Disparus", the film by Fiona Meadows and Frédéric Nantois, it's based on her "Voices from Chernobyl".

Filmed in 2005, the video is an investigation of the vanished towns of the Byerlorussian area where Chernobyl was nearly located. The catastrophic event led to a forced dismission of the villages nearby and the complete transformation (i.e., destruction) of the lives of the population.
23% of the Byelorussian territory, 4,8% of the Ukranian and 0,5% of the Russian one were contaminated. 1.8 million hectares of agricultural land were poisoned and cultivations were banned in 264K hectares, 26% of the Byelorussian (a country rich in greenery) were contaminated. The number of abandoned villages raised to 485 in Byelorussia only. Some of them were buried entirely. It affected the lives of millions of people.
What was left? What happened to these ghost towns? It is interesting to see how florid and fecund this land seems to have become: Meadows and Nantois film the greenery, in the attempt to make a meditation on the aftermath and the consequences of the nuclear disaster and the forced evacuation.

With footage from those forests and the names of the villages screened one after the other, the voice-over repeats some of the accounts of the population (excerpts from Alexievich' s milestone book) which seems not to grasp the total catastrophe of Chernobyl in the immediate aftermath. "We lived on potatoes," one says. "Now they say it’s forbidden." One argues the water looks clean, not dirty as they insist to say, one that what kind of radiation could infiltrate behind glass. 12 minutes of these stories give us the chill, the materiality of the destruction, the tragedy that affected people's lives, the emptiness of the villages populated only by birds, cats, and dogs.

In the year in which HBO's series Chernobyl was released, earning many praises and a more than warm welcoming from the international audience, rewatching "Les Villages Disparus" is a much-needed exercise.


Author: Frédéric Nantois
Part of the iniziative of: "Patrimoine sans frontières" association
Project location: Byelorussia
Text: Svetlana Alexievich "Voices from Chernobyl"
Voice-over: Annabel Meadows
Photography: Fiona Meadows (IFA/PSF)
Editing: archi media (Fiona Meadows + Frédéric Nantois)

Byelorussia 2005
Duration: 12'49"