The recent HBO mini-series Chernobyl has garnered critical acclaim for its meticulous reconstruction of Soviet material culture. A flurry of articles that followed in the series’ wake sought to corroborate the details: the correct make of the gadgets, the uniforms, the songs overheard in passing. One of the few that did not match up was the color of the smoke that streamed up from the ruined reactor: witnesses remembered it as colorless; the series had painted it black. The series similarly sped up the effects of radiation on the body. This detail points to the difficulty of giving material form to radiation—and the constitutive role its invisibility and inaudibility play in its horrors.
This paper contrasts the strategies adopted by the series with those employed in two Soviet documentaries produced immediately in the wake of the disaster, The Bells of Chernobyl and A Chronicle of Difficult Weeks (both 1987). Specifically, it examines the role that the works’ format and temporal distance to the event, as well as the materiality of cinema as a medium (including the distinction between digital and analog), play in the way they approach this question. It argues that radiation presents a limit case in some ways, revealing both cinema’s unique affordances and its limitations in retraining our perception of, and relationship to, the natural environment.
Masha Shpolberg is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of North Carolina—Wilmington, where she teaches courses on global documentary and Russian and Eastern European cinema. Together with Lukas Brasiskis, she is co-editor of Cinema and the Environment in Eastern Europe, forthcoming from Berghahn Books. She holds a PhD in Film and Media Studies from Yale University.
Recent documentary experiments by Eastern European video artists construct novel narratives that draw attention to atmospheric forces that are hard to sense, let alone represent on screen, and how they might be configured into tools of socio-political critique. This paper explores this writing of the atmospheric as it takes place in Ilona Németh’s The Fog (Slovakia, 2013) and Ana Hušman’s Almost Nothing (Croatia, 2016).
At first sight, one can interpret these films’ focus on the elemental as a longing for connection with “pure” nature. However, I argue that it can also be seen as a critical gesture that comments on socio-political realities. The eco-critical dimension of these works can be seen in how the films interrogate, employ and even create the elements through reflection on a particular geopolitical location. Approaching these works as art documentaries that take over where contemporary eco-theories leave off, I argue that they activate elemental relations in order to reveal the aftermath of both human activity and activism.
Lukas Brasiskis is a PhD candidate at New York University in the Department of Cinema Studies. His research explores the history and theory of how the non-human is represented in film and media. He is also deeply invested in contemporary debates on World Cinema (with an emphasis on Eastern European cinema) and the intersection of philosophy, cinema and contemporary art. He is currently completing his graduate work as a Graduate Dissertation Fellow at NYU Shanghai.
This paper explores the visual representation of the “road on Ladoga Lake”–a life-line that allowed at least some supplies to enter the besieged city of St. Petersburg during World War II. Built literally on the ice in 1941-1942, the road the result of numerous calculations carried out by specialized institutions and highly-skilled experts. The cinematic representation of this road began with the documentary The Battle for Leningrad (1942), and introduced the image of the “Road of Life” as a miracle of both nature and human will.
Since this propaganda film, the “Road of Life” has continued to be represented in different film modes and genres (documentary, feature films, animated films, and a TV series), all of which present it as a naturalized power structure, or a literally “frozen” political myth as Roland Barthes would put it. This paper examines the canonic iconography of the Ice Road and its adaptations in the digital age, primarily in VR products for museums.
Natalija Arlauskaite is a scholar of film, literature, and visual studies, and a Professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University. Her current academic interests include forms of historical imagination, reflections on war atrocities in film and the arts, and medical imagery. She serves as editor-in-chief of the book series Writings on Film, published by the Lithuanian “Mintis” press and is the translator of Sergei Eisenstein into Lithuanian. Her most recent book is Severe Peace: Photographs of Collapsed Regimes in Documentary Film (2020, Vilnius University Press).
Ohad Landesman is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University. He holds a PhD from the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University (2013). He co-edited the anthology Truth or Dare: Essays on Documentary Cinema (Am Oved Publishing House, 2021) and is currently writing a book on travelogues in Israel (forthcoming in SUNY Press). He has published broadly on documentary, digital cinema and animation in several anthologies and in peer-reviewed journals such as Visual Anthropology Review, Studies in Documentary Film, Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, and Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal.