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Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2002

Life trudges on in the shadow of Chernobyl

Alexei to Izumi

Rating: * * * *
Director: Seiichi Motohashi
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: Russian
Opens Feb. 2 Box Higashi Nakano

Documentaries get no commercial respect. As Robert Redford recently commented: "Nobody wants to fund them. Nobody wants to show them, but almost all the people who don't want to fund or show will tell [documentary filmmakers], 'You've got to make them. It's so important to get this film made. It's a noble idea.' Well, nobility doesn't have a huge place in an industry that's just about business."

News photo
A scene from Seiichi Motohashi's documentary "Alexei to Izumi"

Backed by investor George Soros, Redford is putting his time and money where his mouth is by starting a new fund for underwriting documentaries and a new cable network for broadcasting them. A noble deed if there ever was one.

Redfords are in short supply in Japan, unfortunately, although the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival is one of the best of its type in the world, and a few brave Tokyo theaters do screen documentaries. One is Box Higashi Nakano, where the latest documentary by Seiichi Motohashi, "Alexei to Izumi (Alexei's Spring)," will open Feb. 2. The film is a compelling argument for Redford's cause.

In 1998 Motohashi released "Nadja no Mura (Nadja's Village)," about a girl and her family who lived in a village near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant -- in a region of Belarus declared uninhabitable because of radiation pollution. Most villagers had long ago left, but a few, mainly older people, were too attached to the land to leave. Motohashi and his crew made several trips to the village over a period of months, getting to know the villagers and filming their lives with few of the usual journalistic slants and cultural filters.

His subjects had endured a terrible disaster and were scratching out a subsistence existence. Nonetheless, they had a toughness, vitality and humor that shone through his camera, while their land, despite the poisons in its soil, had the look of a rural paradise. Watching "Nadja's Village" was like stepping into the world of the classic Russian novel: the horse, plow and well still in common use, the telephone, television and private automobile in little evidence. Though the film pointed at the devastation wrought by Chernobyl -- the abandoned homes and ruined lives -- it was also a poetic evocation of a nearly forgotten past, a quietly moving celebration of the human spirit.

Early in 2000, Motohashi and cameraman Masafumi Ichinose returned to Belarus to film another village in the same region. The result, "Alexei to Izumi (Alexei's Spring)," is not a sequel -- none of the people from the first film appear in the second -- but its central story is, if anything, stronger.

Located 180 km from Chernobyl, the village of Budische lies deep in a pine forest -- but not deep enough to protect it from the radiation that fell from the skies on April 26, 1986. Alexei, a 34-year-old disabled man who lives in Budische with his elderly parents and who narrates the film, remembers that time in a way similar to Japanese descriptions of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings: The wind blew, the sky turned orange, the rain briefly fell and then stopped -- and everything changed.

What kept 56 villagers from leaving with the rest? "We stayed because of the spring," says Alexei. The spring, which serves the entire community, has remained miraculously free of radiation, refreshed by what the villagers claim is "100-year-old rain water." Without it, the people would have no pure water for drinking or cooking. They regard the spring as a lifeline, replacing the timbers that line it and worshipping the icon that safeguards it.

The film follows the lives of Alexei, his parents and other villagers through the seasons; beginning with the harvest, for which the villagers use an ancient combine and, in the case of the potatoes that are the staple food, their bare hands. They receive small government pensions, which the women use to buy household necessities and the men use for vodka, but given sky-high inflation rates, no one bothers to save. Instead, at the Apple Festival in mid-August, they celebrate, holding a feast at which the women dance and the men look on. It is a happy time, but a sad one as well; nearly everyone is old -- and their numbers, as Alexei notes, decrease every year.

Nonetheless, they do the work that needs to be done; five men, all over 70, cut and shape the logs that will be used to repair the spring -- the big job of the summer. They cut notches and smooth the wood, using only hand axes and skills gained from decades of experience.

When they finish their arduous labors, for what will probably be the last time, they share a bottle and a laugh, until an elderly woman complains: The frame is too small to do the laundry comfortably. "Don't listen to her," her husband -- one of the workers -- tells the others. "She's always sounding off that way." Some things, we see, never change. (Later, we see women washing clothes on the crossbars the men have provided, talking and smiling, glad to have the spring renewed.)

An Orthodox priest comes from the city to bless the spring. Younger than all the worshippers, he flings purifying spring water at them with his whisk. It is as though seven decades of communism never happened.

The film records these and other moments in the life of the village unobtrusively, sympathetically, with a close eye for the revealing detail or comment. The villagers speak to the camera freely and naturally, with little of the stiffness or self-consciousness of the typical talking-head interview. Meanwhile, the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is a model of elegance and restraint, underscoring without intruding.

Some might argue that Motohashi is prettifying a grim reality. Where are the shots of the smoking reactor, the children dying in the hospital? But the film belongs less to the director -- and his agenda -- than the people of Budische. They have, I think, much to tell us about not only coping with adversity, but what we need to live in the world.

The wonders of technology, it turns out, are less important than the strength of family and community. But even Budische cannot indefinitely overcome technology's horrors.

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