Chernobyl and FABulous cinematographic mission of FABijoniškės in Vilnius

Chernobyl Photo Sister Pictures

After the first three (of five) episodes of the Chernobyl show, that stunned viewers and critics, a slew of interviews with the film’s actors, scenario writers and producers emerged online, writes arts critic Ernestas Parulskis.

One of them recounted to the publication Variety that at the start of the project, it was planned to film everything in Ukraine for maximum authenticity, but the income tax exemptions for cinematographers there are still at an infantile state and the group did not wish to become an experimental case. Thus, they chose Lithuania, which has not only a twin of Chernobyl in Visaginas, but also a well-functioning 20% exemption for cinematographers. By the way, this year it rose to 30%. And this way, the HBO giant arrived on our doorstep and spent fifteen million euro.

But Chernobyl isn’t just a financial success story. Several hundred Lithuanians worked for the series, mostly in the film’s artistic department. Friends from the cinema industry have said that work producing decorations, effects and make-up for Chernobyl has become a priceless course of professional mastery, if you look from one side. On the other hand, our teams’ ability to perfectly recreate the soviet 1986 was put on display – the clothing, home life and various everyday experiences from military related ones to scientific, healthcare, street life, to the atmosphere.

Authenticity of the Chernobyl

The first reactions after seeing Chernobyl are typically what the aim was – everyone speaks of its incredible authenticity. Of course, there are always nit-picks to be had. Brits and Americans mock the actors’ accents – in the film, the members of the nomenclature, power plant staff and scientists all speak in impeccable English, while in the proletariat’s speak, you find North English intonations. Observant viewers from the East, who themselves still remember 1986 well, may notice plastic windows, which did not exist back then or the overly used and oft misplaced salutation “comrade.”

I was personally surprised when in one tense scene (the reactor is leaking radiation already, but the people continue with their usual lives), I saw a roughly sixteen year old leaving school with a first grader’s backpack on. But all of this is nothing because overall, the film’s details are incredibly accurate. Perhaps for the first time in an American film you get to see Soviet troops and militsiya (Soviet police force) wearing the correct uniforms, even vehicle license plates are recreated correctly – black letters with numbers on a white background.

I can bet that in autumn, the show will be nominated for a number of Emmy awards and will several of them. I would be very surprised if the film’s designers do not receive a Creative Arts Emmy Award. And when they do, it will be the very first Emmy awarded to Lithuanian artists.

Upsets about ‘Chernobyl’

In the East, I saw more dramatic reactions. For example, the Belarussians were upset that Lithuanians stole history once again because such a film, according to them, should have been filmed in Belarus, which suffered greatly from Chernobyl radiation and retained a more organic soviet environment than Vilnius’ Fabijoniškės. As for Russian cinematographers, let me quote one, are in deep depression: the Americans have arrogantly robbed an organically Russian topic, making a documentary drama with thriller and melodrama elements about the heroism of common soviet people in the face of a global catastrophe. It was done so well that surpassing it may be impossible.

But my most peculiar experience is also linked to the show’s authenticity or rather, to Western and Eastern reactions to it. Americans and Brits watch soviet poverty recreated in the film with horror, while in a Russian forum, a person commented quite the opposite on the experience of authenticity: “Here we go, the Americans finally made a film, where they show how everything was fine in the Soviet Union.”

Fabijoniškės – Pripyat in Chernobyl

And at this moment, I recalled Fabijoniškės, which so convincingly portrayed Pripyat, the Soviet Ukrainian power plant’s servicing city from 1986. Or let me reword it – Vilnius residents still live in a suburb of the capital which even without any major, perhaps even without any, investment immediately turns into a Soviet Union city from thirty years ago. Or to put it in another way – in 2019, Vilnius residents still live in Pripyat, just as it awaits the Chernobyl explosion.

I intentionally no longer use the name of Fabijoniškės in the latter metaphor of urbanist surprise. If the Americans and Brits, Norwegians and Swedes will want to continue filming about the non-parade, real Soviet Union, they can find filming locations outside of Fabijoniškės.  Identical and equally grey, paint peeling off block housing standing in windswept wildernesses in Vilnius can be found aplenty. There’s no lack of them in Kaunas either. You can find them across Lithuania. This is no doubt a massive benefit to cinematographers, I would even say an act of heroism performed by the country’s cinema lovers in municipalities, environmental regulation ministries and institutions that secured the original soviet landscape.

The playground for the Soviet style films is waiting

The good news doesn’t end. As if they knew that their work will finally be recognised, over thirty years city planners and architects prepared for future directors and producers, expressive landscapes for films about the plastic 1990s early capitalism Russia. Decent places could be found for a couple of series about Russian oligarchs from the 2000s – you can find suburbs that have seemingly intentionally pre-made for filming neo-Slavic palaces with their characteristic opaque fences.

The future, in at least Vilnius, is also bright – real estate developers have come to the aid of the municipality regarding Western cinema, being prepared to even further expand Eastern supply – soon several massive buildings of illustrative architecture will rise in the capital. They will provide the opportunity to film scenes from even the former Soviet Union Central Asian countries’ life and several baroque imitation parks will become an excellent accent of soviet Asian luxury.

The dancing and lit up fountain with music that can be ordered via SMS is a crucial attribute of any self-respecting Central Asian city and we already have it. Several even. All these decisions are, no doubt, an excellent strategic move in terms of the cinematographic arts. After all, Westerners will not go to countries ruled by unpredictable dictators. They will go to Vilnius: a cosy, safe, inexpensive and maximally authentic replacement.

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