Still from Decay/Rozpad
In this interview with Peter Almond, the co-producer of the Ukrainian classic Decay/Rozpad, guest writer Stanislav Menzelevskyi learns what the political landscape was like during the film’s production, how Almond came to the project, and more.
In 1989, Peter Almond, an American scriptwriter and producer, was visiting his parents in Kyiv. His father, a Stanford professor named Gabriel Almond, had come to the Ukrainian capital as a Fulbright scholar to teach democratic political theory at Taras Shevchenko University.
By coincidence, prominent Ukrainian cinematographer and director Mykhaylo Belikov was beginning to produce a vast dramatic depiction of the greatest scientific and technological accidents of modern history.
This visit led to Peter co-producing the first feature film about Chornobyl, titled “Rozpad.” This collaboration involving Almond and American film investors in partnership with Belikov’s team from Dovzhenko Studio marked one of the earliest instances of Ukrainian-American coproductions, enhancing the chances of the movie’s significant international exposure.
Peter, you came to Ukraine during a remarkably turbulent time, five years after perestroika was launched and four years after the Chornobyl accident. How would you briefly describe the social and cultural climate you suddenly found yourself in?
Kyiv was alive with folks singing on street corners and with what we in the US would call a democratic impulse. I remember that there was a campaign for mayor of the city, and there were eight candidates. There was a kind of flowering of participation among the citizens of Kyiv. I don’t want to make it simplistic, but it felt like what we had experienced in the US in the 1960s, that kind of activism, participation, change, reform, rebellion, even revolt against “the system.” And behind all of that, perhaps, was the strong impulse for independence from the former Soviet Union. Moscow was setting the rules via the Communist Party officials there and in Kyiv and throughout Ukraine.
I arrived, first in 1989, coming for three more visits, maybe a total of two months. During that time I stayed mostly in Kyiv but also visited Yalta, St. Petersburg, and Moscow (the Belikov team even sent me to the “rest house” of the Cinematographers Union near the Finnish border). Speaking of coincidences, one of the trips was scheduled for the night of the great California earthquake of October 1989. I remember the uncommon expressions of sympathy and concern expressed to me and my US colleagues concerning the effects of our natural disaster.
Do you remember under what circumstances you got in touch with Ukrainian filmmakers?
I was staying at Hotel Dnipro on Khreshchatyk Street in Kyiv. Several packages arrived at my room with movie project proposals and information about current Ukrainian film projects.
I don’t know how they knew I was in town, but they found me. So, they were presenting proposals for one kind of participation or another, with interest in collaborating with them on their film projects. Perestroika and Glasnost were driving these collaboration ideas. And I happily joined in.
The one script that I began to read that surprised me enormously from the first was the screenplay of Rozpad by Mykhaylo Belikov and Oleh Prykhodko.
They were in early production still planning some of the bigger scenes and they had received financing from Moscow’s Goskino (State Film Agency). However, they were looking for additional financing for sound post-production, namely for introducing Dolby Sound technology.
Peter Almond, writer/director Mykhailo Belikov, and co-producer Susan O’Connell
What aspects of the Rozpad project have inspired and driven your decision to get involved in it? What set it apart from other scripts you encountered at that time?
I think the narrative of Rozpad — the conception, the premise, and the actual screenplay — was deeply surprising to me, insofar as its portrayal of a feeling of deep betrayal by the engineering and political leadership, both in Kyiv but more significantly by the Communist Party and therefore by Moscow. The screenplay, as we say, pulled no punches about the government and Party officials who were basically denying that the Chornobyl accident had resulted in any potential damage to human life. And the screenplay clearly suggests that there was in fact potentially serious damage going on, but the Party and scientific leadership — official leadership — were denying it. Not only denied it but urged people to go on with normal life. You see it in the film: despite the danger, people are enjoying the Easter weekend, wedding ceremonies, and the great holiday bicycle race. There are a lot of children on the playground. Meanwhile, in the film’s scenario, a doctor, knowing the truth, is doing his best to warn people, to get them off the streets, and encourage them to flee the city.
This tension and danger conveyed in the film’s storytelling were deeply surprising that they would go so directly at the facts of the situation and portray it just four years after Chornobyl. The nuclear radiation dust hadn’t settled by this point. The Party was still in charge of the Ukrainian government at local and national levels. And while the facts were still being argued about, as the screenplay shows (mainly showing confusion and a growing terror among the populace at the scope of the danger), there was no question that the scenario shows the Moscow leadership betrayed the people in Ukraine. That was one thing about the screenplay that just came off the page to me as something that I wanted to support — getting that story told.
As the New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote at the time of Rozpad’s US theatrical release: “In the days that followed, the Communist Party denied any major problems. Kyiv television devotes its coverage to more sports events. Preparations for May Day celebrations continue. At the airport, though, a long line of black limousines deposits the families of party officials seeking to leave the area.”
How would you outline your idea of a collective portrait of a Ukrainian artist/civilian during the late 1980s?
It was very clear to me that the Rozpad team was very much in support of environmental anti-nuclear power protests. They were concerned with what we call green issues, and those were kind of blending into or merging with an independence movement, a movement that would participate in the great ultimate unraveling of the former Soviet Union.
What impressed me further is that what we saw during production were acts of real courage, physical courage, involving the filming of the areas around Prypiat and Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant itself. The potential exposure to radiation was still extremely high within that three-year period after the actual accident in 1986. And then the kind of spirit of cooperation among the citizens of Kyiv, the extras whom they recruited to play the citizens of Pripyat, during the Great Bus exodus from Pripyat in the attempt to escape the actual damage from nuclear radiation. All these people were working for free and as part of their commitment to help make a public statement about the situation they had experienced.
So, the citizens of Kyiv were engaged by the production and its “message,” and the filmmakers were determined to make a public testimony to bring the truth to the public. These women and men were putting their lives on the line to get the truth told and known.
In Kyiv, they joined in the spirit of independent film, artistic work, that had this very strong political content and message at that time, and it was a very impressive kind of feeling of working very closely together to form and become the basis of momentum as part of a movement for independence in Ukraine.
What happened after you joined the project and returned back to the US? Walk us through the key milestones.
One of the great steps the filmmakers took was in 1990 to join in with the Green Party independence movement and participate in the 71st anniversary of the signing of the Act Zluky. I joined with the Ukrainian filmmakers as they stood in solidarity with other Ukrainian citizens in an arm-in-arm line of people stretching from Kyiv to Lviv.
[Ed. note: The Day of Unity of Ukraine on 22 January commemorates the signing of the Akt Zluky (Unification Act) in 1919, unifying the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic. In 1990, on the 71st anniversary, over 300,000 Ukrainians formed a human chain spanning approximately 482 km from Kyiv to Lviv, marking the occasion as the largest public demonstration in Ukraine since the onset of Glasnost.]
Act Zluky in Kyiv in 1990
After principal photography of the film — made in Dovzhenko Studio and locations throughout Kyiv and in the countryside surrounding the capital — there was post-production main picture editing done in Kyiv, at Dovzhenko Studio. By then, we created an American company that could work in coproduction status with the Dovzhenko Studio to carry out the more refined sound work that included the Dolby treatment, as well as the elaborate sound mix engineering that was carried out in the United States. A Ukrainian team came to America and carried out a month-long sound post-production and engineering mix process and completed the film. All this took place at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch with some of their great sound engineering specialists, including two-time Academy Award-winning sound specialist Tom Johnson, as well as Garry Summers and Richard Hymns. From Lavra Monastery and the busy streets of Kyiv to the sound engineering facilities of rural Marin County, California, Rozpad made its own history in its bold and challenging story, its evocative film settings and aesthetic, and in a co-production reflecting reforms presaging rebellion and collapse within the Soviet Union.
And democracy stood as an impulse underlying the effort. The ultimate coincidence was in the fact that Gabriel Almond’s presence in Kyiv had prompted a son’s visit, which led to forming international film co-productions and so forth. What was at stake in all of this was the scholar of the nature and propensities of democracy, and the filmmakers of the collapse of an icon of modern engineering technology, and physical crisis and a moral eroding of the air with a corrosive radiation of corruption of political ideals and public safety. And all of this came together with those of us who wanted to join in and be part of it.
What was it about the film that had captivated American audiences in the 1990s, and what elements might still surprise viewers today?
I’ll say that Rozpad is an eye-opening film in its production and aesthetic. It’s a dazzling film with scenes of epic proportions. The retreat from Pripyat with 5,000 people and 500 buses fleeing across the Ukrainian countryside, with scenes with the re-creation of the Chornobyl accident itself, with acting performances and all aspects of production at a very high artistic level. The film stars Sergei Shakurov (then known as the Robert Redford of Soviet cinema) and many notable former Soviet Union actors. The cinematography employs some novel camera and shot-making techniques, including a jib arm for the several-minute sequence, tracking from the evacuation of the interior of Prypiat engineering city housing to the exterior loading the hundreds of buses, complete with marching bands and then following the caravan of buses through the wooded countryside. And the astonishing helicopter shots above Pripyat finding the little lost boy who has written in vast chalk block letters “MAMA, I AM WAITING FOR YOU.”
And in this act of filmmaking courage, the director Belikov found his own fate when he succumbed to the radiation in the Prypiat district in order to reload the film magazines and return to the helicopter overview shots.
It was eye-opening when Rozpad appeared in international screenings. We had special screenings in the US for organizations like the environmental group, Sierra Club; Physicians for Social Responsibility; and a major UNICEF screening event. Rozpad played at Cannes for market sales primarily in Europe and North America. The film was distributed in the USA with the French company MK2, and it gained distribution in Italy, France, Germany, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and various Asian territories. Rozpad earned strong responses at the Sundance Festival; Venice, where it won a special Jury Prize of the Italian Senate; Toronto; Mill Valley; Telluride; and the like.
I think Rozpad is very exceptional, if not unique, for its very independent attitude towards the Communist system and towards Moscow and the Soviet Union. Rozpad‘s team represented a kind of artistic independence and expression of political autonomy. Every time Belikov and colleagues appeared in international settings to discuss the film, these ideas were already circulating. It’s not only about the danger of nuclear power without proper regulation, it was also the expression of independence of a Moscow system that would betray citizens in Ukraine by not telling the truth about what was going on in the actual crisis portrayed by Rozpad. That was really inspiring to viewers, generally, and inspired my colleagues and the investors in California.
And I think, sadly, with the Russian attack on Ukrainian independence, in the years since Maidan and then the February 2022 invasion, the fiber, the spirit of independence, and the courage to tackle the toughest problems and to stand up to great physical and potential political dangers are again evident through a film like Rozpad. It seems as relevant today in trying to understand what’s at stake, in the struggle for democracy, and in facing these dangers in the spirit of artistic freedom and independent expression. That democracy is worth defending and is being defended in this struggle in Ukraine, holding off against one of the world’s great military powers.
Rozpad today brings that back before us as a context and an artistic and political statement in support of the idea that Ukrainians want and have every intention to maintain their own independence — and will stand and fight for it. In doing this, the Rozpad filmmakers anticipate the issues that swirl around the bombs and missiles Russian throws into Ukraine. They fight for democracy and the independence of Ukraine and as a demonstration of defiance against further Russian incursions in the Baltic states, Scandinavia, and throughout Europe.
Poster for Decay/Rozpad
A 1992 essay in the New York Times about the film commented:
Lenses Reflect Back to the U.S.S.R.; ‘Rozpad’ Peers Into the Hell Of Chernobyl. History galloped through Mykhailo Belikov’s country last year. It gave Ukraine new life and trampled the detritus of the old totalitarian regime, which had brought it to Chornobyl. That was the good news. The more problematic news, for a filmmaker like Mr. Belikov, is that the rush of history completely changed the landscape that was the setting for his art. He is one of the creative artists who rejoice in the triumph of democracy in the former Soviet Union but are unsure what political victory will do for art defined by defiance. What is a truth-teller without a lie to confront? What is a dissenter without an Establishment to oppose? The best testament to the awkwardness of the moment is Mr. Belikov’s 1990 film Rozpad, about the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. Leaning on the known facts of the tragedy, Mr. Belikov traces out fictional accounts of victims and bystanders from just before the explosion to a period about six months later.
Another commentary observes the situation in Ukraine following the 2022 Russian invasion:
Marvel at the heroism and resilience of Ukraine. In the first days of the war, the armored might of Vladimir Putin shriveled before the courage of the nation he had attacked. In the face of Mr. Putin’s invasion, the Ukrainian people have discovered they are ready to die for the idea that they should choose their own destiny. To a cynical dictator that must be incomprehensible. To the rest of humanity, it is an inspiration.
And this place, part of a fairy-tale physical complex of structures George Lucas invented, here is Rozpad, with a sound engineering mix and Dolby Sound…
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Stanislav Menzelevskyi is a film scholar, archivist, and translator. Since 2011, he has been working at Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center (National Film Archive) as the head of the Research and Programming Department, researching silent and sound soviet cinema, writing articles on cinematic and cultural topics, and organizing film screenings and retrospectives.