La Terre Abandonnee: Directed by Gilles Laurent, camera by Laurent Fenart. Running Time: 73 minutes.
One of the most fascinating after-effects of the March 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima has been the brutally clear glimpses it provides of what can happen when modern human towns are suddenly abandoned; how nature slowly reclaims what belongs to it; what it feels like to walk down streets still plastered with all the accoutrements of modern life, yet utterly devoid of people.
The best art is able to confront this dissonance head-on, and The Abandoned Land, the first- and due to his untimely death in an ISIS-inspired attack in Belgium last year, last- film directed by Belgian sound engineer Gilles Laurent, is a considerably powerful example of this. The shots Laurent presents of places left to rot feel unreal, almost staged, like they are too perfectly apocalyptic. Except, of course, they aren’t, despite the powerful sense one gets watching this film that you are glimpsing a place lost to the sands of time; they are very much real, and are very much here, right now.
Caught within this strange wormhole are a handful of stubborn residents of the town of Tomioka, located right nearby Ground Zero of the Fukushima catastrophe. For various reasons, these handful of older residents either stayed put after the meltdown, or returned very quickly afterwards. They now truly live on the very edge of society- the government knows they’re there, but seems unwilling or incapable of forcing them to move, so they are let be, and live pretty much as they can, even growing and eating food out of soil supposed to be too irradiated to be safe for farm use.
Mostly seen as a curiosity, they continue their lives even as government decontamination efforts continue around them. The shots of these people wearing regular clothes, open to the air and sun, alongside radiation workers covered head-to-foot in full-body protective suits almost feels like an endless, silent joke the movie is letting us in on. The same goes for the shots of sings and awareness campaigns from either the company or the local government about how important the environment and health is to them, as run-down and overgrown as the rest of the abandoned lands they are found in. It is jarring. It is dissonant, but also darkly comic (in a very Dr. Strangelove sort of way), and no active commentary is needed.
The movie is suffused with themes of dying and passing away as a part of nature; it must happen so that life may move forward and something new may rise from the wreckage of the old. These forgotten people in these forgotten lands know that the towns and communities of their past lives are gone forever, and that things can never return to how they once were. Something new will surely come around eventually to take its place, but they won’t live to see it, and their acceptance of this fact and resolve to live on in spite of it is a mixture of pitiful, heartbreaking, courageous, and beautiful.
Laurent had mostly worked in sound prior to making this movie. Friends said he could see sounds the way most directors see color and light, and this talent is on full display here. Sounds of the natural world ping in and out, adding layers and texture to everything we see that mere imagines could not fully convey.
It’s almost ironic, that Laurent’s first feature film would focus so much on death and ending, and be followed by his own violent and untimely death last year. It lends a sadder weight to everything we see, especially when the director makes a brief cameo about halfway through the film. Even though we otherwise never see or hear him- he was known for having a keen sense of the importance of removing oneself from the subject in documentary work- the knowledge that he’s there, behind the camera, and soon won’t be there, and indeed will never be there again, is inescapable.
The Abandoned Land is a masterful and important piece of documentary filmmaking from a talented filmmaker who was taken from us far too soon. Despite this, I am confident that it will stand the test of time as a fitting legacy to both the man who made it, and the people it focuses on, allowing both some measure of deserved immortality.