During the Berlinale, I wasn’t expecting the films to have such an impact on me as in previous years. But now, looking back, the selection of films was actually prescient, giving an insight of things to come in countries which face extremely difficult times. Both the Middle East and Japan are looking down a long road of reconstruction and the leaders must make decisions for the future and their people.
The 1952 Japanese drama, Gendai-jin (Modern People), by director Shibuya Minoru shows a traditional Japanese world confronted with a modern way of life. At that time Shibuya Minoru recognized the dilemma of his country, which was modernizing very quickly and suffering loss of moral integrity due to corruption and economic challenges. This black-and-white film depicts a construction company which bribes government officials in order to win contracts. One such official is Ogino; he needs the extra money to pay bills for his sick wife. Things get out of hand when a young and honest colleague, Odagiri, gets involved; at the same time he falls in love with Ogino’s daughter, who has remained traditional and honest. As a result there are disastrous conflicts, murder, and the loss of a chance for a healthy community. Now, looking at these modern nuclear power plants, we, worldwide, can only ask ourselves if this was the right direction. Is this good for mankind? It is a known fact that Japan has a long history of tsunamis in this region; also it has designed and built one of the most sophisticated walls against such tsunamis in order to protect its people. But, add an earthquake and a few nuclear plants and soon we have the biggest catastrophe in history. So the question is: how safe can these nuclear reactors be?
Twenty five years ago the Soviet Union faced a similar dilemma about which there have been a number of documentaries. One of the biggest problems was, and still is, lack of information. We know that hundreds of thousands of people suffered and even died from radiation. Director and script writer Alexander Mindadze wanted to show the fate of human life as a result of this disaster. He portrays true stories of people who lived in the neighboring town of Pripyat. He wanted to expose the Big Lie by bring an authentic view from ghosts who lost their lives. The film V Subbottu (Innocent Saturday) begins early on Saturday, April 26, 1986. A reactor tower at the Chernobyl power station exploded as a result of a flawed reactor design. Immediately, a façade of lies implies that everything is under control. No information was given out. It took more than 24 hours to evacuate Pripyat, a city of 50,000 people. A young man, Valery Kabysh (Anton Shagin), witnesses and understands the problem, but is unable to flee since his life holds him back. It is a Saturday and people shop, children play, and life is carefree. Valery tries to escape with his girlfriend Vera (Svetlana Smirnaova-Marcinkevich) who can’t find her passport and breaks her shoe while running to catch the last train. In the end, she buys another shoe, they play in a band until late at night, and, despite his panic, he just carries on with his life. The images are surreal and, knowing that each second counts, it is hard to watch these innocent people being exposed to an invisible enemy radiation which will reduce their chances of survival. Recently, I saw a documentary on “extreme tourism” where tourists with their Geiger counters headed off to Pripyat, a sinister location still uninhabited. They were fascinated and enjoyed this macabre location, but lacked the compassion and understanding of the fate of those people who lived and died since that disaster occurred. It seems natural that the victims, in a state of shock, would continue their daily routines. But, in a wider sense, are we all not also still in a state of shock, moving forward through our everyday lives, not acknowledging that something terrible has happened and we need to change our paths?
One of my last films was Dance Town by South Korean director Jeon Kyuhawn. His main character is not certain people but a city. This was a new and interesting observation for me, since, normally, I connect to individual people, rather than look at the bigger picture. Kyuhawn takes us to North Korea where a couple must leave the country due to possession of contraband, nothing political as one would suspect, but perfumes, lotions and pornographic videos. The wife, Rhee Jung-Nim (Ra Miran), survives but her husband has disappeared. The South Korean government monitors her to rule out that she is not a spy; they also see that she is integrated into society and has a place to live. Through a meals-on-wheels program and a dry cleaning service, she begins to interact with many people, who all have equally difficult lives and attempt to network. But we soon realize that Rhee Jung-Nim is in a state of shell shock. She goes through life but isn’t really present. Only months later, when she learns that her husband has been assassinated, does she finally break down and cry over her loss. Perhaps that is the beginning of a new start: hope.
The 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog, makes me think there is hope. In 1994 some of the world’s oldest cave paintings and drawings were discovered in Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave in the Ardèche valley in southern France. Herzog, using his amazing technical camera expertise, brings to light a vision of the past: cave paintings which include some 400 murals believed to be 30,000 years old. This remarkable documentary takes us into a world of vast corridors and three-dimensional painting which includes color and remarkable themes such as animals and symbols such as a fertility goddess. It is not open to the public since our breath alone would destroy the paintings. Even scientists have access only according to strict schedules.
Herzog often speaks of the limited time he has to make this film and how hard he has to work to capture its beauty. He explores the art form and asks questions dealing with human existence. What could have inspired the artist to make such drawings? This film captures something precious about humanity and it is a wonder that mankind has made it this far. I found it a strange coincidence that, while France protects these fragile cave paintings, it has 58 nuclear power plants, three times more than any other nation in Europe and about equal to Japanese with 54 plants. The only other country with more nuclear power plants is America with 104. So how many more thousands of years will we manage to go? I think its time we rethink our path. How fast do we need to race into the future while risking our lives with all this technology?