When we first meet Nadya and Petro, they sit silently on a bench outside their ramshackle home in a deserted Ukranian village, staring out at the world, occasionally swatting at a fly. This entirely unremarkable moment is projected on both sides of a large screen, to be scrutinized by an audience in tiered seating units on either side, part of an installation created to hold this documentary film. From the beginning, Berlin plays with the contrast between the technological magic of the presentation and the base simplicity of their subjects’ lives.
Petro and Nadya are the last two holdouts living in their part of the exclusion zone, a 1000 square mile square around the Chernobyl power plant whose residents were issued a mandatory evacuation order after the reactor meltdown in 1986 left the area with dangerous levels of radiation. They live alone, tending their potato field, milking their cow, and occasionally grumbling or teasing each other as they work, or sit, or reminisce.
Under the screen on which their story is projected stand three giant petri dishes, each holding a detailed miniature representing Nadya and Petro’s home in a different season. A camera rig glides over the setup, capturing angles on the models as they rotate, shots which are interspersed with documentary footage. Occasionally the projection switches to documentary footage displayed on tiny screens inside the model, allowing a view of the couple set inside the miniature world. The line between the models and the footage warps and blurs, as when we see footage of Petro talking by his barn sharing a frame with the model barn so cleverly that it is difficult to tell where the one reality ends and the other begins.
There is no narrative to follow here, but only the grinding subsistence of an isolated life ruled by the seasons. Petro and Nadya, in their eighties, move slowly, each step an effort. The cow dies, and then the horse, and still life goes on. The vegetables must be tended, water hauled, and firewood chopped.
But be it ever so humble, there is no place like home for these two. While cutting hay, Nadiya asks, “What could possibly be wrong here? Can’t we breathe easily here? You tell us, since you’re visiting. What could be wrong here?” They talk of writing the president to ask when their village will be repopulated. When old neighbors visit the local ceremony on a yearly pilgrimage, Nadya encourages them to move back. Her hope that things can once again be as they were never flags, despite the mounting hardships she faces.
Each piece of Berlin’s Holocene Cycle is a portrait of a city created from a combination of interviews, video, and performance installation. Zvizdal is a village of two. All of Petro and Nadya’s universe can be represented in a three foot diameter model contained in an oversized petri dish. Throughout the piece, the difference between the documentary footage and shots of the model grows more pronounced, drawing attention to the artificiality of the world created on stage and underlining the contrast between the well-oiled, sophisticated machine of the installation and the simplest possible unit of community, a dying remnant seeping in radiation.
For those that must know what happens next, Berlin provides a link to a supplementary video, showing a bit of what happens to their subjects after the documentary ends. But it’s easy to picture the model Petro and Nadya sitting on a model bench, up to their knees in artificial snow, listening to a model radio that has long since gone silent, and imagine that the miniature is the truer picture.
Zvizdal continues its US and European tour through the summer.