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Once the Dust Settles

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IDFA 2019: Once the Dust Settles

John Appel's latest feature doc, world-premiering in IDFA Masters and supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, revisits three scenes of mayhem to assess how tourism can work as a balm, or as an irritant. Nick Cunningham reports.

Before the earthquake of August 2016 the town of Amatrice in central Italy was exquisite and a haven for tourists. These days, rubber-necked vacationists are not welcome, and signs reading "no selfies' are commonplace. On the other hand the infamous Chernobyl, in Ukraine, welcomes tourists by the thousands every year. Meanwhile in Aleppo, once considered the most beautiful city in Syria, individuals are rebuilding their lives, and discovering hope, after eight years of war by venturing onto the streets to guide tourists around its blasted remains.

"I have been interested in guided tours for many years. I am always interested in the relation between disaster and how people talk about it whether as a guide or as a victim of the disaster. For me this is interesting," stresses director John Appel. In all three tales, his subjects are both guide and victim. The film is not designed as a three-act piece, rather as a continuous reflection on the "film's core theme of the different ways people deal with tragedy".

In Amatrice we meet a local priest (unnamed) whose way of dealing with the disaster is either to make light of it (such as when he visits the empty husk that used to be his house) or to convince his parishioners that the earthquake is part of a greater plan. We don't hear the villagers' response to this assertion but Appel suggests that if no earthbound agency is to blame, then the disaster may be easier to bear on the part of its victims. Religion may not supply the answers, but it attempts to offer comfort, which seems at times to be welcome.

Our guide in Chernobyl is Aleksej, a former operator in Reactor Unit 4 where 19 of his colleagues and seven firefighters were killed during the disaster of 1986. Quietly spoken and reflective, he describes a sense of euphoria and a body that felt like bronze as radiation sickness began to affect him. These days he is dedicated to telling the truth about the massive inadequacies of the reactor prior to the disaster, and how it was always a disaster waiting to happen.

The stories of the Aleppo guides are extremely moving. One is a schoolteacher who tries to retain heroic status in the eyes of his adoring son, in the face of his inability to remove the terrorists who occupy his home village, and who have chopped down his 200 olive trees for firewood. A woman, living with her mother among the ruins, is barely able to keep her emotions in check as she under takes her first tour in eight years through the once magnificent and vast Aleppo bazaar.

"For me Aleppo was very special. Officially there is no programme to rebuild the old city. Assad [whose image in picture and on poster pervades the film] is not planning the rebuilding of the destroyed cities, he is planning on remaining in power. People do it by themselves," underlines Appel. "So the strength of those people without any support to do this tells you a lot about how motivated they are to keep on going, not to forget but to overcome."

The great irony of course is that stone ruins beneath vibrant skies make for astonishingly graphic cinematography. "Yes, the beauty of this destruction, it is a bit cynical of course," comments the director. "We arrive with our cameras and film these beautiful early morning or late afternoon shots of destroyed areas, but since I feel that life goes on in the places where we were filming, I didn't feel that I was doing something I shouldn't do. But it is strange to look for the right angle, the right light and the perfect moment to shoot these scenes."

SEE NL Magazine #37 November 2019 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.

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