March 28, 2023

No Place Like Home

In the hybrid documentary-installation "Zvizdal," the ineffable meaning of belonging to a place


Belgian theater artists Bart Baele and Yves Degryse spent five years following and filming Pétro and Nadia, a Ukranian pair of octogenarians who refused to leave their small town in the Chernobyl evacuation zone after the 1986 catastrophic nuclear accident.

The couple live in isolation off-the-grid with no modern utilities or communication. The nearest check point — the only contact with the outside world — is a 20 kilometer walk away. Their survivalist existence depends on growing vegetables in the still-radioactive soil. Pétro and Nadia subsist primarily on potato soup, a skinny horse of no practical use their only companion, as it were.

And yet, over the course of that five years, the filmmakers only spent 10 days in total with Pétro and Nadia. Never mind the bureaucratic hurdles of getting a special permit to enter the exclusion zone each time. With nature left unchecked in the abandoned area, roads become overgrown, impassable and unplowed in winter.

“Sometimes, we were not even able to reach them,” says Baele.

When they did manage the journey, Baele and Degryse were able to capture a startling yet quiet portrait of the strange solitude, poverty, ageing and love that defines the world of Pétro and Nadia.

The result is “Zvizdal (Chernobyl – so far so close),” a hybrid documentary-installation is made by the Antwerp-based creative duo who operate as the theater company called Berlin. “Zvizdal” comes to Texas as part of Berlin’s North American tour, playing in Austin at the Long Center, in collaboration with Fusebox, and at Houston’s DiverseWorks.

Baele and Degryse devised a presentation for their film that has the theatre space set up with two banks of seating facing a double-sided screen. Underneath the screen are three large round dioramas of the couple’s farm in different seasons; summer, autumn and winter. As the film screens, live footage of the dioramas blends with the documentary footage.

“Time is totally defined by the season for them,” says Baele. “They are living as people did hundreds of years ago, they’ve slipped back in time.”

Photo © Frederik Buyckx

Baele describes the round dioramas as something like Petri dishes from which an audience can observe a micro world, the bleacher-seating arrangement reminiscent of old style scientific or medical theaters.

Pétro and Nadia say little to each other (“They’ve lost all social skills,” Baele explains), and they don’t offer any real explanations as to why they’ve stayed, beyond wanting to protect their small farm. “What makes you think the grass is greener somewhere else?,” Petro asks. “It is the same everywhere.”

The theatrical framing of the film emphasizes the archetypal nature of the couple’s existence, says Baele. And indeed the filmmakers do a remarkable job at staying out of the picture, as it were.

“(Their’s) is a universal story, really,” says Baele. “Maybe we don’t always know why a place is home, why it is that it’s so important to us, just that it is.”

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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