The documentary style of BERLIN's Zvizdal [Chernobyl, so far — so close] isn't quite as Out There as other shows in the Walker Art Center's annual performing arts festival, but the man and woman who are documented are about as Out There as it gets.
The show introduces us to Pétro and Nadia, a Ukrainian couple who seem as old as time. Like a lot of senior couples, they don't get as many visitors as they'd hope, but in their case, there's a very specific reason for that. They make their home in the village of Zvizdal, which is located in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. After the 1986 nuclear disaster, officials deemed that lingering radioactivity meant the area wouldn't be safe to inhabit for the next 20,000 years.
That makes an exclusion zone address the ultimate in secluded living, but Nadia and Pétro don't evince any grand philosophy or political motives. They just seem like a slightly more extreme version of any older couple who refuse to move from their longtime home, even when their kids plead with them to try assisted living or at least something with an attached garage.
Conceived and directed by the Belgium-based group's Bart Baele and Yves Degryse with Cathy Blisson, Zvizdal is a study in humanity. Pétro and Nadia seem like people out of time, but in fact they're precisely of a very specific time. Pétro mutters ironically about how he remembers being told to fight for the glory of Stalin, and the couple report looters rifling through the exclusion zone. Their village has been abandoned, but that doesn't mean it remains unchanged.
Audience members are seated on risers on either side of a wide screen showing clips of the couple's life. In real time, the documentary footage is edited together with live shots of three models positioned on rotating platforms beneath the screen. A pair of cameras slide with precision from one model to the next as the onscreen seasons change; the models depict the couple's compound in summer, winter, and fall.
Ina Peeters's models, which reveal subtle touches of animation, lend Zvizdal a different texture than a conventional documentary. They draw attention to the contrivances of documentary filmmaking, they engage the audience in ways typical films don't, and they evoke a museum setting, emphasizing the story's historicity.
Perhaps most poignantly, the models' pristine detail elevates this story of a simple couple who decided not to move, even when that put their lives at risk. Simply by continuing to exist — to farm, to cook, to scythe the grass — while life changed profoundly all around them, Nadia and Pétro became heroic figures.
The show's title nods to the name of Wim Wenders' 1993 movie about angels who become human (Faraway, So Close!). It also reminds us of how close we all are to this stubborn aging couple who refuse to abandon their strange, beautiful, and precarious lives.