This is your second film (the first being the Oscar®-winning Chernobyl Heart) related to the disaster at Chernobyl. What brought you to this subject in the first place?
I was shocked and horrified at what I saw. Because I hadn't thought about Chernobyl or what happened there in many years.
I like to say it was the road I'm meant to walk, because I had two people tell me about a photo exhibit at the UN about Chernobyl. That was, I think, in 2000. I had no intention of seeing this exhibit, but when the second person pushed me to go, I went. And I was shocked and horrified at what I saw. Because I hadn't thought about Chernobyl or what happened there in many years. And then doors started opening. I contacted an organization that had put together the photo show. And they just happened to be going to Chernobyl and the director of that organization, Amy Roach, invited me to go.
And I went to HBO thinking that it was at the bottom of my list of ideas, thinking that (head of HBO Documentary Films) Sheila Nevins would never be interested. And when I told her the idea she said "yeah, what ever happened over there? Go see what happened." And that began the adventure.
What was it about the images that struck you?
I think I had put away what happened over there. But when I saw the pictures of kids with deformities, and seeing the devastation of the people there - the evacuation, people moving their homes; it's just a no-man's land, now - it kind of overwhelmed me. I wasn't prepared to see this.
Why did you approach Maryann about collaborating on the film?
Maryann and I met in 2006 in a conference on Chernobyl in Budapest. She had a screening of her film Chernobyl heart and I had an exhibition of my photographic wall "you will be given one minute" related to the Chernobyl liquidators. I was struck by her film even if her approach of the catastrophe was the opposite of mine. She chose to show the horror of Chernobyl through deformed children that she filmed in a confronting way. In my photographs I referred to the Chernobyl catastrophe through disappearing traces and blurred images. In a way we represent two extremes I went to her and I told her that we should make a film on Pripyat. It was more or less a joke at that time. One year latter we made that film. I think White Horse has the print of our both personalities: we feel close to the character and at the same time there is a distance made of silence.
Where did you meet Maxim (the subject of White Horse), and what inspired you to make a film about him?
I met Maxim at a film festival where Chernobyl Heart was screening. Most of the other filmmakers who watched the film either didn't comment on it or said they didn't believe it. There was only one person, who didn't speak English, but came to the table where I was having lunch and said, in Russian (which I had translated) "Your film was the truth. Thank you for making it." And that was Maxim Surkov, who was also a filmmaker.
And it happened that while I was on my way to Kiev, Maxim was on the same train and we ended up riding together in the same car of the train all night. And through an interpreter, we kinda got to know each other. And Maxim said two things that I remember: one was that someday we should make a movie together about Prypiat, which is the city where he was from. And the other was that he didn't believe he would live long.
He was a young man when I met him. He was probably thirty. And I went to Kiev and didn't see Maxim most of that trip. I was writing an article for Discover Magazine, and I went with a group of former residents of Prypiat. They made this journey back to see the places they had lived. And on that trip was also Christophe Bisson who had wanted to go on this trip with them and had invited me to go.
Christophe said that he wanted to make a film about Prypiat. He's a painter who hadn't made any films at that time. And so we decided to make this film together and I asked Maxim if he wanted to take me to Prypiat. At the time, he didn't think he could ever go back there. And then he decided to go back with me and Christophe. And so that's sort of the way it started.
We didn't know much about him when we went to Pripyat, his hometown, with him. His story revealed itself on the way. We just had the general frame: a guy who was evacuated from Pripyat is going back there twenty years after. We did not have a script and we did not know what would happen. I think this is the strengh of the film: nothing was planed and yet something essential happened. It is rare and precious! Jacques Lacan said " reality is what one does not expect".
What struck you when you arrived in Pripyat?
When the day started off Maxim was very funny. He was making jokes and decided that on the trip he would film all the bridges. So every time we came across a little bridge, he would get out and film it. He didn't seem nervous about going back until we got into his courtyard. And then he just kind of sat there and couldn't move. The rest of the trip was very mixed. There were parts where Maxim was happy seeing, and other times he became very quiet and couldn't speak. And at the end of the trip, we went to have lunch and he went outside, sat on a bench, and I went and sat with him. And it was clear he was devastated.
He felt like he wasn't happy in his life. He had lost so many people. And he thought it was all from radiation. He pretty much couldn't speak the rest of the day. I think it was very, very emotional for him. And I don't think I was prepared for that. I knew it would probably elicit different memories from him. But I didn't think about how devastated he could be from that trip.
Maxim said two things that I remember: one was that someday we should make a movie together about Prypiat, which is the city where he was from. And the other was that he didn't believe he would live long.
Through your work on Chernobyl Heart and now White Horse, what have you discovered about these kinds of horrific accidents in terms of how they impact a person?
In Pripyat, I was unaware at the time I made Chernobyl Heart of just the kind of community this city was. Its population was around forty-eight thousand, sixteen-thousand of which were kids. Now just imagine a small town in the United States that one day gets evacuated and there's never anybody going back there again. It will be like that for thousands and thousands of years. It's really eerie and very unsettling that you could have this accident and then everyone's life would be changed forever. I didn't quite grasp that when I did the first Chernobyl film, about the evacuation, about the lives of children.
Maxim was ten years old at the time of accident. He was taken out of his home and his life basically fell apart after that. His mother died from cancer, and other relatives died. And in his mind (whether it's true or not we don't know for sure) he believes it was from the radiation. And I don't think he could ever really move on from that. I think he kinda got stuck in that place. And as far as we know, from his wife, he did die. He suffered some kind of heart seizure, and he died last year. And he was only thirty-two.
So, I think we'll never know the far-reaching effects of the accident, because people were dispersed all over the Soviet Union, and they haven't kept records, and it's very hard to say what's from radiation and what's not. We know that thyroid cancer is directly related, but there are other cancers there, and there's just no way to know. And being uprooted and just having the psychological mindset that you've been exposed to this radiation and that it will have devastating effects on your health is quite traumatizing.
This was your first film, Christophe. What did you learn in making it?
I am so glad that Maryann trusted me. I learned a lot from her. It was great and unique experience to work with her. The process was very difficult. We knew we had something in the footage but it was hard to agree on the right form. Our vision of the film was different and we don't have the same sensibility. But we found the right form beyond our differences. I really believe that we did something together that exists between us.
There are no easy answers, no happy ending in this film, only your observation of Maxim. Is that your preferred style of storytelling?
I guess I feel like what people take away from the film is their business. But it's a person's life. It's a story that many people wouldn't have known about, that there was this city, and it was called Pripyat, and it was the most modern city in the Soviet Union. And almost fifty-thousand people were living there and one day all that changed. And just to be aware that these things have happened in the world, and to think about our own lives, our own memories, our own childhoods. That's what matters to me.
People are free to think what they want of the film. There is no intentional meaning already thought. I just hope that people will share this journey. Nevertheless, I think the Chernobyl zone gives a right image of a possible future of our world. With Chernobyl what we thought that was impossible became possible. This is the most pessimistic part of my thought. I also think like Holderlin, "where the danger is there is also what will save us."