By Afra Nariman
Mother of Chernobyl (2019)
***Made by Film students at the University of California – Santa Barbara***
Directed by: Alexander Shuryepov
Stars: Natasha Goubskaya, Alyona Khmara, Pasha Sol, Polina Sokolskiy
A short film made by students at UC Santa Barbara. It follows the story of Masha (played by Natasha Goubskaya), a woman who, post-Chernobyl disaster, remained in the radiation zone. She and her newborn baby must fight to survive.
This is one of the most visually stylized and absorbing short films that I’ve had the pleasure of watching. The film elegantly places you in a time and space; Pripyat, Ukraine, 1987 — shortly after the Chernobyl disaster. Before explicitly confirming those details, we are provided with a beautiful, powerful, and tone-setting monologue by the film’s protagonist, who provides us with a very intimate and insightful perspective of the disastrous event; what it felt like when it occurred, how it affected her and her family, and the existential thoughts that naturally arise in the human mind following such an experience.
The very first thing that we experience is her description of the fire. —
We all know the Chernobyl disaster as one of the most horrific events to decimate a community and extinguish their life as they knew it. What we usually don’t think about is how it must have seemed to the people in the community, before they realized how dangerous the situation really was. In the opening here, we are given an account of the destructive event, described as beautiful. “Destruction can be beautiful?,” you might ask. When all you are processing is what you witness in the moment, without any second thoughts, concerns or predictions about potential consequences; anything can seem beautiful. By starting off the film with these words, we are immediately ushered into the story with a level of insightful intimacy that prevails throughout the entire film, but that owes its effectiveness to the opening monologue, which goes on to add:
Very quickly, we notice the distinction between how the destructive event seemed in the moment, on first sight — without any knowledge of the danger it would pose — verses what Masha, and everyone else, would come to realize later on. Masha goes on to detail the existential confusion that an experience, like this one, causes in the human mind; when your initial perceptions based on your natural senses tells you that you are watching something beautiful take place, but you soon come to realize that this is a sort of focused extinction event of your small community and the surrounding environment. She explains her thought process by offering us questions to consider:
“Do I talk about Death or Love? Or are they the same?
…”my life has woven love and death together. No one experiences one without the other…”– Masha
The Chernobyl disaster represented death for so many people, animals — for practically an entire ecosystem — so death is naturally what we would think about, and obviously what we would talk about. What this film explores though, is an individual, Masha, and her personal experience of the event, which for her centered around family, and in short time led to the birth of her second child. For death to feel like the existential threat that it inherently is for anything that represents life, something needs to be at stake. In other words, no one experiences one without the other. Masha feels alone, as we all are in this world at the end of the day, but it is her love for her family and her child that keeps her focused on survival in midst of a life-threatening circumstance. A fear of death — or an urge to avoid it, at the very least — arises out of a love; a love for life, family and everything else that makes life worth holding on to. At the same time, we love because our time on this Earth is short. For Masha, her short time has been threatened to shorten at a dangerously accelerated pace. With that existential threat and a heightened potential of death infesting her life; her level of love naturally increases to combat it. Her ache for the survival of her own life, along with the life of her newborn child, keeps her focused on one thing: To survive, and to find her family and reunite with them in reality, rather than only in her dreams — to stand alone staring death in the face, walk past it, and move forward towards life, with her family by her side.
I don’t want to get further into the story itself, because it’s truly a special experience to watch it, so when it becomes available, everyone should do so. Mother of Chernobyl follows Masha as she fights with and for her newborn baby, to survive in a world that does not foster any hope for life. Shot in soft black and white, this short film is incredibly immersive for the viewer. Its visual style and use of light, yet meaningful music when needed, coupled with a hypnotically beautiful pace, as well as methodically selected dialogue that feeds into the emotional, dramatic and commanding story, allows Mother of Chernobyl to do more in 30 minutes, than many full feature films are able to accomplish. It is a complete story that turns out to be both heartwarming and heart wrenching, just as it warns us from the start: “my life has woven love and death together.” The film features an incredibly powerful and meaningful ending to a story that oozes both of those qualities in every minute, and combines them with a thrilling element, to create a film that elegantly and quietly forces you to engage with it for the entire 30 minutes.
The short film is aesthetically brilliant in every way imaginable. It is calm, yet gradually, at what seems a perfect pace, builds up a thrilling side. Its use of silence, only interrupted by its flawlessly placed music and delicately chosen dialogue, leads the film to take on a level of intimacy and an aura of the loneliness of life at the time, that adds a lot to the story and the way in which it’s told. Offering us a short, yet meaningful glance into the life and thoughts of someone living through one of the most dangerous events in recent memory, Mother of Chernobyl is a masterful example of how to use simplicity to create true art — both from a production standpoint, and a story standpoint.
Made by film students at UC Santa Barbara; writer, director and cinematographer Alexander Shuryepov, producer Mitchka Saberi, and the brilliant actors and actresses who carried out their vision so elegantly, Mother of Chernobyl is an unbelievably incredible debut film. They have already won well-deserved awards for this film at various film festivals. Everyone involved should be beyond proud, and confident in themselves as they move forward towards their future cinematic endeavors.