Dutch Uncles’ Robin Richards Explores The Chernobyl Legacy

Watch this wonderful performance clip ahead of the screening of a new film...

The Chernobyl disaster isn't just something that happened in 1986 – it's happening right now.

A destructive force during its first phase, the disaster poisoned the land around the nuclear reactor, causing an extensive area to be evacuated.

The events in Chernobyl caught the attention of Dutch Uncles' Robin Richards some time ago, and a chance meeting with Clara Casian sparked ideas for a film about the disaster, it's aftermath, and the continuing effect it has on those in that area of Ukraine.

The finished film Birdsongs: Songs From Pripyat is set to be given a full screening this weekend, with Robin Richards performing the score live.

Clash has nabbed footage of a section of the film, accompanied by music supplied by the Dutch Uncles musician. Robin explains:

This section of music is inspired by the liquidators working on the Chernobyl nuclear plant after the disaster. The liquidators were civil and military personnel called upon by the Soviet Union in to clean, burn and bury contaminated areas and materials around the power plant.

The first part of this section is based on archival footage of the liquidators cleaning and digging in 1986, with the rhythmic jostling of the strings representing the movement of the workers, and the deep synthesisers representing the overriding radiation. The second part is inspired by the testimonies of four liquidators we interviewed in Borispol during our trip to Ukraine in May this year; their memories of the clean up and the years that followed the disaster.

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BIRDSONG – Liquidators from Clara Casian on Vimeo.

What prompted you to travel to Chernobyl?
The initial inspiration for the project came about after hearing about work that charities in my home-town Stockport had done in bringing children and families affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster over from Ukraine and Belarus for recuperative holidays. I then began to read more about aftermath of the disaster, personal accounts and testimonies and felt like a collaborative art piece would be a way to share these stories sensitively.

I met Clara Casian at a networking event at HOME in Manchester in 2015, mentioned the concept I had in mind and she was up for working with me on the project. We went out to Chernobyl in May 2016 to capture new footage, record testimonies of those involved and obtain archival footage to piece into the film and soundtrack.

Can you tell us a bit more about the Liquidators section of the film?
The liquidators were civil and military personnel called upon by the Soviet Union in to clean, burn and bury contaminated areas and materials around the power plant. The personnel involved were not informed about the true dangers of the extreme radiation levels they were being subjected to during the liquidation process and many lost their lives as a result.

However, the liquidators have been widely credited with limiting the immediate and long term effects of the nuclear disaster. Clara combined the archive footage and new footage using layering techniques. In the music, I have used synthesised instruments to represent the radiation and acoustic instruments to represent the people and the land. The rhythmic string patterns reflect the movements of the liquidators during the process in this chapter.

Some time has passed since your trip and the film, what do you feel the lasting impact of the project has been?
Audiences who came to the initial screenings in Manchester, Stockport and Salford last year commented on the previously unseen striking archival imagery we obtained from centres in Kiev. I’d like to think that this, combined with the many stories and testimonies portrayed in the film will be the lasting impact and legacy of the project.

You will be performing live, how will you approach this?
Is it a re-creation, or will the live performance be an endeavour in its own right? We feel that the best way to experience Birdsong – Stories from Pripyat is with a live score to the film. The musicians will be following the same scores at every screening, but one performance will never be identical to another. I find that part of the beauty of live scores for film comes through in the imperfections.

Can you envisage doing a few more of these performances?
We are hoping to do a few more in the UK later this year then head back to Kiev for a screening at some point in the near future.

Given the Conservative government seem to be warm towards the idea of nuclear power, do you feel the experience of those at Chernobyl has continued relevance for us in the UK? What lessons can we take from this?
When we were working on the research and development stage for the project we went to anti-nuclear conferences and also spoke to pro-nuclear scientists.

There are many lessons that can be learned from Chernobyl and Fukushima. Although these incidents are relatively rare, there are so many other sustainable forms of energy which wouldn’t pose any such threat of potential disaster. The fact that farmers in Scotland and Wales are still seeing the effects of the Chernobyl radiation on their livestock 31 years on demonstrates the lingering problems caused by nuclear power.

That said, the Chernobyl disaster was caused by numerous issues and shortcuts in the building and construction of the plant. Fukushima was caused by a tsunami. However, these disasters would have been no where near as bad if they weren’t nuclear power plants in the first place.

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Birdsongs: Songs From Pripyat is being shown at Flatpack Film Festival in Birmingham on Sunday (April 9th) with Robin Richards – plus guests – performing the score live.

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