Pripyat Piano, a short creative documentary by the Czech music composer and filmmaker Eliška Cílková, reveals a hidden memory of a ghost town, Pripyat. The film received the Silver Eye Award 2019 for the best film of the East Silver Market and now it is part of the East Silver Caravan. Ihe films's world premiere took place at the on-line edition of Visions du Réel in April 2020 and it was selected for Glasgow Short Film Festival in Scotland (August 17–23) and New Narratives Film Festival Taipei in Taiwan (October 7–11). In the online interview the director describes how her musical project evolved into the making of her film.
Could you tell us about the origin of Pripyat Piano?
For the first time I visited Pripyat in 2010. This place was not well-known at that time and there were almost no tourists, so we could move freely. I was rambling across Pripyat on my own for about two hours and then I accidentally found a piano in one of the flats. When I returned home I realized how strong impression Pripyat made on me. It is not only about the power of nature, but mainly about awareness of transitoriness of human life. At that time I was studying musical composition, which I have been still dealing with, so that I wanted to implement my own project related to the zone.
I got the idea of making this film in 2015 during my stay in New York, when I was participating in Fulbright Scholarship Program. At the time I did not know anybody there I was happy I could spend time by myself; I was visiting museums or I was just sitting outside and observing what was happening around. Therefore I realized my interest in documentary film. In my mind I started to prepare the film already there.
Did you watch other films or artistic projects related to Chernobyl and the town of Pripyat? Is there anything that inspired you?
Yes – when I started to consider my own musical project, I was searching for the existing projects associated with music or sound. At that time, it was for example Peter Cusack’s Sounds from Dangerous Places (2012), involving field recordings from Chernobyl and Pripyat. And when I recollected the piano I had accidentally found, I realized there must have been more such pianos in Pripyat. So I started to look for more of them and it took me two long years.
After all I had very limited recording possibilities, because in 2012, when I was working on the album, various restrictions were applied in the zone. It affected the time of recording and there was always a man standing behind me who kept an eye on me. The album Pripyat Piano which was released in 2013 serves rather as a documentary. Movements and voices of people can be heard on the recordings that are intentionally not affected by any effects. As my album was mentioned in the book Experimental Music since 1970, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2016, I was contacted by many musicians who were inspired by my project and went to record pianos to Pripyat as well. I am grateful I realized my inclination to documentary thanks to this album.
What was the footage of the filmed material?
It was approximately 20 hours of material. We were filming various narrations of people related to Pripyat and we shot several situations with them. But in the end only their songs and poems or those people themselves captured while performing appear in the film. I chose this radical form, because I wanted the film to be different from the existing films. I also wanted to give the viewers opportunity to perceive the film on their own.
What did you feel during the on-line premiere at Visions du Réel and how did coronavirus crisis affect release of your film?
The festival was on-line due to COVID-19, so I was watching it at my cottage where I spent the whole quarantine. I even made a presentation about myself there. This presentation was intended for viewers and was supposed to replace face-to-face meeting with a director. It is great that there was such an opportunity. At the same time there was a viewing limit of 500 people. To my surprise, our film reached this limit already the first afternoon. When Facebook fans were asking us to increase the limit – and we asked the organizers of the festival – we were told it was not possible. They wanted the premiere to be exclusive and attractive for other festivals. It actually makes sense because the film will be available in the Czech Republic in autumn and there will be even a small cinematographic distribution in January 2021.
Was the film’s reception different after the Chernobyl miniseries (HBO) was released? Did it increase interest in your film?
I cannot judge, because I haven’t seen Chernobyl so far. I did not watch it intentionally, because at that time I was editing the film and I did not want to be influenced by that. (Since 2010 I have been watching various documentaries and reading books related with the place… I was interested in this place in the long term.) But the truth is that one of my friends asked me, whether I was working on Pripyat Piano intentionally at the same time Chernobyl was released. He also said that it was a great idea, because it would be more discussed. So I told him about those years of my experience with CD and that the timing was coincidental.
There are various VR projects where a player/viewer is walking through Chernobyl and Pripyat. Have you considered the medium of virtual reality in your further projects?
I find VR projects interesting and we are not against this possibility. The moment you visit Pripyat, you usually want to come back.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on another film poem with ecological theme. During summer I made a half-hour documentary film for ČT2 channel; the film is about the buried church in Radovesice.
Photo: Eliška Cílková
The interview is part of our Czech Doc Newsletter #13, released with kind support of APA - Audiovisual Producers' Association.