Saturday, May 26, 2012

Extreme Tourism Through History: The Chernobyl Diaries & the Pulling Back Of the Iron Curtain

"You might actively root for their collective demise, if you could rouse yourself to care one way or the other. Go gallivanting in Chernobyl and you get what you pay for, nimrods," wrote one reviewer; reality, however, is not the point of The Chernobyl Diaries; reality is never the point, a deeper, greater truth is, and if that reviewer is upset for the kids "gallivanting in Chernobyl" we, as Americans, should be furious that our government is on the road to mimicking the same epic disasters, and that is the point of the film.
"Experience the Fallout." When the group arrives in Pripyat, Uri tells them that if any of them gets hungry, he has beef jerky; why is this important? Anyone who has ever watched Alton Brown knows that jerky was one of the first, hence, most primitive means of early humanity preserving food. This provides us with one example of the lack of progression made by the Russians because of the handicap of socialism and a thoroughly corrupt government. At one point, they go by the river bank and Uri plays a joke on them (seen in the trailer) but then there really is a dead... "fish" there that's even trying to breathe. The "fish" looks so strange, they aren't even sure it is a fish because it looks like the monsters about to be released in the newest Piranha film, and this prehistoric beastie is one of the examples fostering an understanding of the primitiveness created by socialism in the country (not to mention the pack of dogs running wild; dogs have been domesticated... forever, but not in the communist setting of Russia, they are still running free and savage hunters of men).
The "ghosts of Communism" lurking throughout Pripyat, the city inhabited by the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant are meant to remind us that some ghost stories are true; reactor number 4 failed a test and vaporized, putting extreme amounts of radiation into the air (it's still considered the worst nuclear disaster to date). After 25 years, the radiation levels have dropped sufficiently to allow people into the area for a couple of hours, but reactor number 4 is still so toxic, just seconds inside and radiation starts to kill you (reactor number 4 isn't part of the tour, they just see it from afar, but after two days there and being hunted, they accidentally stumble into it).
The group, minus the tour guide Uri (taking the photo) posing for a group shot in Pripyat. From left to right: Amanda, who had recently broken up with her boyfriend and didn't want to make the trip. Natalie, the blond, who is dating/engaged to Chris next to her who is the younger brother of Paul, the dark haired guy next to him; next to Paul is Michael, an Australian, with his wife of one month Zoe (Michael and Zoe didn't know the others before this tour). Amanda, Natalie and Chris have traveled to Kiev to meet up with Paul living there; apparently, he somewhat up and ran to Kiev, hardly letting anyone know where he was. The four of them plan to go onto Moscow, but Paul gets the idea of going to Chernobyl, instead. They all meet at Uri's shop and he takes them on a two-hour drive to the outskirts of Pripyat but they are denied access by check point guards because maintenance work is going on; Uri takes a short cut into the city. Uri is the first to die, supposedly from attacking dogs, but Chris had gone with him to "investigate" and while Uri died, Chris practically had his leg bitten off. They slowly get picked off, one by one.
Oren Peli, creator of Paranormal Activity, is quite clever, and intentionally mixes up traditional role models and stereotypes so things are more confusing as we try following the story: compare, for example, The Chernobyl Diaries to The Cabin In the Woods, when each person meets a certain requirement and has to die in a particular order; Peli intentionally frustrates this kind of structural logic in The Chernobyl Diaries so there is more of a chaotic feel to it: no one is really getting punished the way they would in a traditional horror film, and there's no real reason for one character to out survive another or any poetic justice to how character's do die (at least not that is accessible to me) but again, I think this is intentional because anyone who has studied the history of the Soviet Union knows that you could be given a medal for being an outstanding "Party member" (communist) one week, then the next week be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and sentenced to Siberia for the rest of your life on treason charges! (Similar situations have recently been discovered in communist North Korea where there have been executions and staged accidents to rid the Party of undesirable opposition to Party lines).
Pripyat as the tourists see it. To be fair to the city, it has been abandoned and did not have any improvements beyond the year the reactor blew. When the group arrives, the first thing they see are bumper-cars and a Ferris wheel, Uri tells the tourists they were getting ready for the May Day celebrations in the city but never got to enjoy it. This "celebration of the arrival of spring" might have been a spring time for Russia, even a springtime for socialism but because of the terrible disaster, it spelled the beginning of the end and the government's inability to overcome its own inner-corruption sufficiently to develop technologies that were safe for the people and monitor its own monitoring of the situation revealed what was truly inside the USSR as the radiation began eating away at the "Iron Curtain."  Murray Feshbach's terrifying book Ecocide In the USSR demonstrates the terrors that the Soviet government wrecked on the environment. My Russian history professor was there on her sabbatical and told me about visiting with another Russian professor on the train. As they passed the countryside (no where near Chernobyl, but the heartland of Russia) the native professor said, "Look, you don't see any animals, you don't hear any birds. The government has killed nature." My professor got proof within the same week (again, no where near Chernobyl) because she was bitten by a bug (she still doesn't even know what kind) and she got so sick that she would have died within hours had penicillin not been an over-the-counter medicine. The Soviet doctors wouldn't help her because she was an American, so she had to wait a month to be flown out (because of the bureaucracy, the government was afraid the story would get out so they weren't going to let her out to keep it secret, rather like Amanda in The Chernobyl Diaries) and then spent three months in critical condition in hospitals in the US, then several more months just being nursed back to health, then she couldn't even return to teaching for a year because her system was so shocked; from a bug bite. They believe it was mutated from toxic waste in the area where she was at the time because the government didn't monitor dumping of waste. Not to mention that every time she turned the water on in her hotel room, the water was rust-colored, and she couldn't leave her hotel room without hiding everything because hotel rooms were regularly ransacked by the employees looking for money and valuables.
There are several well-constructed scenes, one of which is the group looking out the window of an apartment building, reactor number 4 in the distance, and Uri, in another room, sees where someone had been in there and built a small fire; kicking the remains of the fire off to the side (literally pushing the fact of someones existence into the margins) they then hear something. The audience thinks it's the people who built the fire, but instead, it ends up being a great bear, the traditional symbol of Russia itself, running through the halls of the abandoned apartment building where thousands of families once lived. What does this scene mean?
Uri, in the blue on the left, and Natalie in the brown jacket with Chris standing on the extreme left, looking at the nuclear reactor number 4 in the distance; in just a moment within this scene, Chris will have his picture taken holding Natalie (to whom he plans on proposing the next day in Moscow, he has the ring in his pocket) and as the picture is being taken, he says, "There's a metaphor going on here, our love exploding," and there is a metaphor, and their love will explode just as their future will if Americans don't realize that reactor 4 is the supreme symbol of socialism and what it does (and doesn't do) is trying to be introduced into America.
There is a metaphor going on here, the Soviet government, charging through the lives of its people and posing a threat to them rather than protecting them (the same happens in the end with Amanda being "saved" by the Russian guards only to be locked up). As Uri tells the tourists, the people had only five minutes to get out, no time to collect anything; looters came afterwards and sold items on the black market, not realizing they were contaminated; all those who came in contact with the stolen items became sick and died. This is one of those great inverted lessons, because if we the audience don't take something from The Chernobyl Diaries, we will become sick and contaminated and die.
The little girl... we never see her face; after someone in the stairwell has grabbed Natalie--after she's been rescued--and the group looks the other way, when they look back, the girl is gone. What does she mean, why is she there and why is she important? She's the embodiment of the Russian people just as the bear is the embodiment of the Soviet government. Without a face (because she never turns around) she has no identity of her own and she's stuck in childhood, not having attained adulthood (like Uri's beef jerky being a primitive means of cooking that hasn't advanced, the prehistoric looking fish and the wild pack of dogs) the little girl hasn't advanced into maturity because of the limitations of communism upon the people. I have a minor in Russian history, so there's quite a bit I am drawing on, stories specifically from my Russian history professor from when she would go and spend the summer there. For example, during communism, different factories and areas of towns would be responsible for making one thing and once or twice a month, they would release whatever product they had made to the people standing in line and whether an old woman needed diapers or not, she would get them (standing in line for hours) then barter for whatever someone else had that she needed (just like in the different districts in The Hunger Games and Katniss bartering with the game she had killed). My professor got behind a woman standing in line one day, because wherever there was a line, that meant there were products/goods, and she asked the woman in front of her, "What are we standing in line for (to get)?" and the woman said, "I don't know." This is the reason why, in The Chernobyl Diaries, the group never makes it to Moscow (like the group in The Darkest Hour starts out in Moscow and then tries to get out) because Moscow has been capitalized, at least to a degree, far more so than Kiev or some of the other places, because The Chernobyl Diaries doesn't want to confuse us with what capitalism has accomplished in the country (even though it's still heavily restricted by the government and corrupt oligarchies) even though Uri owns his own business and Paul calls Uri's tourism office "very professional." (Uri's level of customer service is questionable, however, because of his "working alone" and shows that there is a far greater degree of savvy-ness required in capitalism than just making money and getting customers). 
The audience I watched the film with were the most obnoxious audience I have ever had to deal with; in a way, however, that gave me an insight into what I would have missed otherwise. That guy with the dingy T-shirt yelling out, "Don't pull back the curtain!" drew my attention to the standard devices of horror films and how film makers made a conscious decision to stick with those devices, but dropped others. Why does Paul pull back the curtain? Why does Michael open the door? Because we as a country are doing the same thing to socialism, and the stupidity we see being exhibited by the tourists in the film reflects our own stupidity as voters "taking a tour" through the Democrat Party's brand of socialism when they keep pulling back horror after horror that can only jump out and kill us, sooner or later, in this political horror show. Paul is pulling back "the Iron Curtain" to see the deterioration that has taken place and to be reminded of why communism failed and fell.
This is one of the photos taken by Amanda of a doll left in the evacuation. In many ways, she is the exact opposite of the little girl in the scene discussed just above, but this doll also reveals a terrifying reality of life in the Soviet Union: during the 1970s, due to rampant alcoholism, infant mortality began to rise and throughout the 1980s the abortion rate climbed each year, women believing it a mercy to kill their children in their womb rather than bring them into life in the USSR (this was especially true in regions around Chernobyl after the disaster because women saw so many children being born with birth defects from radiation drift that would-be mothers decided to "spare" their children the misery of life). With easy access to abortion, however, sexual norms became exceedingly lax and the doll not wearing any pants/covering over what would be the genitalia of a woman literally "reveals" the increasing prostitution and promiscuity of women in Soviet society.
Something the film makers cleverly employ is that the audience never sees the faces of the "inhabitants" of Pripyat, even as they attack the group of tourists.Why is this appropriate? We could simply say it makes the "monster" scarier if we never see the face, and while that is true, it also invokes that we don't see the true face of what is attacking us here in the US.  Like the tourists, we are "touring" the intimate diary (the homes and memories of the families) of what communism did to its people and we will face the same fate as the tourists in the film if we allow "Chernobyl" to become a part of the United States.
In every way, Uri's van is like socialism: dead. The "vehicle" of Chernobyl, socialism, not only had the "leads" been ripped out (the leaders being corrupt--and I am not making a blanket statement about all socialist leaders being corrupt... it just happens that it happened that way in the Soviet Union) but when good leads were found, the van was "turned upside down" and all the windows busted out. When a leader such as Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the vehicle (the government) was perverted (literally turned upside down) and could no longer be salvaged. According to my Russian history professor, this happened a lot in the Soviet Union: because there was a gap in communications between factories, one factory would make ten thousand guns but the bullet factory would only make a couple of hundred bullets because resources weren't properly allocated by corrupt officials (the gun maker wanted to look good to the local officials so he would pay someone to not deliver materials to the bullet maker) so then there were a whole lot of guns but no bullets. And one never ever bought anything that had been produced close to the end of the month because of production quotas having to be fulfilled, they would hurry out and do poor quality work just to get stuff packed in boxes so it looked like they had done their job (this was caused in some areas by a lack of supervision over the workers, or corruption in other areas; the CIA and MI6 discovery, for example, that even though the Soviets might have said they had 10,000 warheads, only a small percentage of those actually would have been of high-enough quality to actually survive the launch, travel and detonate).  The group of tourists being so far away from the checkpoints and not being able to get signals out for help accurately reflects the Soviet Union which had isolated itself internationally and really had few options for getting help once Gorbachev started perestroika and glasnost.
Which brings us to the very beginning of the film.
Amanda, Natalie and Chris take home movies of the travels they are making to London, Rome, France, Venice, Germany, Prague and Kiev (reminding us of how easily and freely we can travel, and how limited and suspicious travel was in the Soviet Union, the government keeping track of anyone wanting to escape to the "free world") but we are also reminded of the success of capitalism in the places where the three tourists start out, and their willingness to be lead astray by Paul to "the center of communism" is what destroys them all. Why Paul? Symbolically, Paul "left home," and had no intention of returning (defecting in a sense) and, as Paul himself says, "Chris has always had to pay for my bad ideas," and so Chris has to pay this time around, too, with his life, because he didn't want to be called a pussy. This is the challenge being thrown down to us: are we going to be called "cowards" by Democrats and cave in to their socialist agendas or stand firm and learn the lesson from The Chernobyl Diaries?
Amanda and Natalie in the home video on their way into Russia... doesn't look like there are very many other passengers wanting to go with them...
What happens at the end?
Why is Paul shot?
Paul being shot summarizes everything I learned in Russian history: even if you managed to survive the day-to-day struggles of just living, the Soviet system could decide to kill you just to keep everyone else on their toes and living in fear so Paul is basically shot "for no reason" other than to remind us that once the government starts to take over your life, it owns your life and can do with it what it wants.
Why do the film makers "save" Amanda?
So they can demonstrate that even had the tourists gotten help, there is no help. A joke earlier in the film when the van first dies is, "I guess there is no Triple A out here, huh?" and "out here" isn't just in Chernobyl, but in the land of socialism, because to Triple A, people matter, but to socialism, you are no better than an animal the government has to pay to keep alive, so you are better off being dead to the government. It matters more by far to keep "contained" the fact that there are "people" still living in Chernobyl than to rehabilitate Amanda and help her (to say nothing of reclaiming the bodies still inside Pripyat).
Throughout the film, I couldn't help but be reminded time and again about the Will Smith film, I Am Legend. In this shot, at the river bank when they have found the prehistoric looking fish, there's a shot of the water as the tourists leave of albino like fish swimming unnaturally fast (we see this again when Amanda, Michael and Paul go looking for Uri's body) and the unnaturalness of something as low on the food chain (in intelligence level) as fish being so profoundly effected (even 25 years afterwards) drives home how unnatural Chernobyl was and the system that created it like the unnatural virus released into the air that "turned" so many people into those zombies in I Am Legend.
When Uri takes the group to Pripyat, he tells them that the city has been "Reclaimed by nature," but that's far from the truth, because there is nothing "natural" about Pripyat or the system that gave rise to it.  When they have been running, but find the engagement ring Chris was giving to Natalie when they were attacked, and Paul hopes he has found his brother, they discover some child-like "merman" instead, because that's what the "engagement" of Chris and Natalie would have born in such a system: a freak of nature as unnatural as the system begetting it. In the United States right now, we are with the group at the table taking a vote (in November's elections) of whether we want to go the way of Chernobyl or the way of capitalism, and the makers of The Chernobyl Diaries want to make sure we fully understand how history repeats itself.
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner
Reactor number 4. Paul and Amanda stumble in here as they are being chased by the inhabitants of Papiyat and they immediately lose their eyesight (Paul is unable to "see" what is happening to them) and Amanda's face begins burning (like the little girl who stands with her back to them, Amanda loses her identity, the face is the location of our most basic identity).  Reactor number 4 wasn't just a science experiment that went bad, it was a political experiment that went rotten.