This review is a part of our Visions Du Réel 2020 summer coverage.

In 1986, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. It was a global catastrophe that threatened to wipe out life as we know it on a previously unimaginable scale. By throwing human suffering and endless finances at the problem, Russia eventually salvaged the situation and the reactor was sealed under a giant sarcophagus. But the surrounding areas, including the town of Pripyat, became inhospitable for human life. Now known as the exclusion zone, Pripyat has slowly over the years become a tourist attraction for those inclined to risk their health to see what remains of the once great feat of Russian engineering. 

PRIPYAT PIANO, directed by Eliška Cílková, gives a voice not just to the people who had to leave their homes behind, but to nature and ruin itself. Over the course of three years, her documentary crew travels to the exclusion zone to document the ghost city, as well as the artifacts of the lives interrupted. 

Amidst crumbling buildings and overgrown passageways, Cílkovás camera glides ethereally through the devastation, capturing moments of unnerving silence and beauty. Poems, recitations, and songs from survivors pepper the mood piece, each in some way revealing their still lingering trauma of what happened over three decades ago. 

There is longing, regret, and even tender melancholy in these stories. There is no background to them. They just exist, cried out into the void that will not answer back. 

Cílková, a musician herself, finds abandoned and decrepit pianos in the wilderness. There’s a ghostly melody that echoes from them as she plays, emphasizing the haunting mood. Her compositions, like her directing, are minimalist and efficient. They say more by doing less. 

At just under 20 minutes, PRIPYAT PIANO leaves an indelible mark on the viewer. It gives the wound on the planet a voice, and a way for those who are still affected by it a method of crying out over the ages. It’s a remarkable short film about a topic that will never age.