The Memory of Trees is the third part in a series of productions that began with Ghost Road, followed by Children of nowhere. What fundamental thematic and design principles apply?
Fabrice Murgia: So this is the third part in a series of productions – the definitive number has not yet been established – that we collectively refer to as the Ghost Road series. For each of the pieces the intention is that we travel to somewhere in the world and meet the people that live there, with the underlying question of why they live in that particular place and why they want to stay there. Because these are all very unique places.
First, we worked on ghost towns in the Unites States and met people that live near the old, disused Route 66, in complete harmony with their environment, as if they themselves were poignant reflections of the demise of the American Dream. Afterwards we delved into a topic that is more politically sensitive: we travelled to the town of Chacabuco, in the Atacama Desert in Chile. It is home to an old saltpeter mine where they established a concentration camp under Pinochet. We met former residents of the town there, who were subsequently imprisoned in the houses where they once lived themselves. In the background we ask the question about human resilience and returning to places that have a special meaning.
This time our topic is completely different: we are focusing on the existence of a closed city. To this very day there are secret places in Russia, which people refer to as 'closed cities' – in fact they also exist in the US. They are direct offshoots of the Cold War. Most of the cities are military-industrial complexes. They are closed off to the outside world for reasons involving military secrecy, often in relation to nuclear weapons.
We travelled to the south of the Ural Mountains, to the area around Ozyorsk, a city with just under 100,000 inhabitants. This city is still closed due to its proximity to the Mayak site, which was one of the largest plutonium production centres during the Cold War. It is still an important factory in which civil and well as military nuclear waste is treated today. The inhabitants are allowed to leave the city, but they stay because of their patriotic conviction. We were not allowed to enter the city, but we did meet a number of residents and that was very exciting.
This project revolves around mysteries and secrets, as well as a secret within the secret. In this city, in 1957, one of the three worst nuclear disasters in the world took place – after Chernobyl and Fukushima. It is called the Kyshtym disaster, after the name of the only known city in the area, because the Soviets kept the incident secret. The people that live in this city have a better life than those in most other Russian cities. They possess more material resources and there are also more products, there is greater wealth and more entertainment... However, they die very young, as if they are living in a toxic paradise.
It is a truly mysterious place – for us, of course, but also for the people that live around the city and are oblivious to what goes on there. They were totally unaware of the events of 1957, which nonetheless had a huge effect on their health as well as on their life in general, and will do so for several generations. You could say that these people live in the 'suburbs' of the closed city, right on its doorstep but firmly on the outside. They are farmers from the Southern Ural whose living conditions are already tough and challenging. Moreover, they have to contend with a lack of recognition and scarce compensation from the State for the irreversible damage they have suffered from the radioactive fallout after the disaster.
Interviewed by Cécile Michel
On May 8, 2019
La Mémoire des arbres / Fabrice Murgia, Dominique Pauwels / interview