Ligia Ciornei • Director of Clouds of Chernobyl
“I tried to portray the way in which Romanian society was functioning in 1986”
- We spoke to the Romanian newcomer about her feature debut, which touches on the situation for pregnant women in Eastern Romania in the aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion
Born near the border with Ukraine, Ligia Ciornei drew inspiration for her short films Vintage (2017) and Somewhere in Moldova (2019) from her homeland. While acting as a theatre director and performance artist, she is also currently presenting her low-budget first feature, Clouds of Chernobyl [+see also:
interview: Ligia Ciornei
film profile], in the Romanian Days sidebar of the Transilvania International Film Festival. Ciornei reveals some of the real events that lie behind the plot as well as some insights from the development process.
Cineuropa: The film is based on true events, although the real-life female protagonist lost both her child and the battle with the authorities. How did you first find out about the case?
Ligia Ciornei: When I asked my parents how they remember the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, they told me a story about a family friend who was five months pregnant at the time, after years of struggling to conceive. In northern Bukovina, where I come from, there were already newborns with malformations, so her mother-in-law, who was also a family doctor, was threatening her daily, saying that she would give birth to a handicapped child, describing in detail each aborted fetus. Due to that psychological pressure, perhaps, the woman suffered a miscarriage in the sixth month and did not have the courage to try for a child again. From then on, many other snippets of life were brought to my attention – children with blackened teeth, cancer cases, unexplained malformations of the heart – and all of this contributed to the development of the script.
Why have you decided on a (relatively) happy ending that differs from the real events? You previously mentioned that Cristian Mungiu advised you on how to bring the movie to a conclusion.
The happy ending arrived as a dramaturgical necessity. All of the women to whom I spoke throughout the research period were forced to have abortions for different reasons – fear, family pressure, domestic violence... The fact that Irina decides to keep the baby, and the ending itself, only raises the question for us, women, of whether the birth of a child depends on a decision. I think not: it is in the nature of things that a woman will give birth. The paradox of the 1986 period in communist Romania – a time when abortion was forbidden and a woman could go to jail if caught, when the radioactive clouds could directly affect the foetus, and when domestic violence became commonplace in families – homes in on the theme of women’s freedom. The end of the film shows the beginning of the fall of communism, which is also a sign of liberation – at the moment when the mother-in-law dies, the dictatorship begins to wobble.
As for having Cristian Mungiu’s help, when I was just about to give up on the film owing to financial issues, the leading actress, Isabela Neamțu, happened to meet him in front of the Odeon theatre in Bucharest and told him we were working on a story revolving around an abortion, just like his 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [+see also:
interview: Cristian Mungiu
interview: Oleg Mutu
film profile]. He wanted to see the edited draft, after which I received a long, encouraging email, advising me to develop a proper ending. By that time, we had shot around 70% of the material in six days, up to the moment when Irina was leaving the house. We had neither the time nor the money for it, but the simple fact that Mungiu was supporting us led to an amazing mobilisation. We took his technical remarks on board and put all of our energy into bringing the story to the public, also with the precious help of Dana Bunescu, Viorel Chesaru, Mario Marian, Cristina Badea and many others.
Most of the film takes place in interiors and claustrophobic spaces that contribute to creating a thriller-like, or even horror, atmosphere. What inspired you visually when building such an environment?
The focus was on the expressiveness of the mise-en-scène, something I learned from my experience in independent theatre. Antonin Artaud’s ideas on the single playing space and André Bazin's theories about the single frame guided me in achieving the claustrophobic effect. Thinking of one-take movies such as Hitchcock’s The Rope and Sokurov’s Russian Ark [+see also:
film profile], I wanted to create an atmosphere in which the viewer could witness, as in the theatre, the “present moment”. The aesthetic of the film was more related to my desire to present, on a family level, the terror and fear established by the communist regime, compounded by the Chernobyl incident. Speaking of family, I tried to portray the way in which Romanian society was functioning in 1986 – a world intertwined with paradoxes and contradictions, aspiring to be on an equal footing with the great powers.
The initially announced title was 1986: The Lost Year. Why did you decide to change it?
The idea for this first title arose from the conversations I had with the women who lost their babies – in their words, 1986 is a lost year. Since part of the Romanian population is much more receptive to this title, the movie is locally distributed under the original title, 1986: The Lost Year. Clouds of Chernobyl emerged organically as we wanted it to have a greater international impact.
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