Writing for LRT.lt, cultural historian Mikko Toivannen reviewed Burial (Kapinynas), a new film directed by Emilija Škarnulytė, an artist and filmmaker who makes films and immersive installations exploring deep time and invisible structures, from the cosmic and geologic to the ecological and political. Burial is classified as a documentary (streaming on Mubi), but Toivannen notes that the sixty-minute piece is not a conventional one. Škarnulytė has crafted an audiovisual essay, “short on narration and contextualization yet rich in atmosphere and intriguing visuals”. The topic of the film is Lithuania’s decommissioned Ignalina nuclear power plant, or more broadly – nuclear power, or even something greater.
The opening words, “Uranium was created in supernova explosions about 6.6 billion years ago” appear above images that possibly represent uranium, and reveal the film’s ambitious thematic scope. The uranium that humanity has mined for power for less than a century carries within it far deeper histories and, as Škarnulytė makes clear, extends forward into futures that may well outlast our own.
On this cosmic timescale, Ignalina power plant’s few decades of existence “appear as but a blip, and that transience is captured evocatively by the quiet scenes of anonymous workers dismantling and scrapping, bit by bit, the plant’s skeleton and complicated machinery”.
The Soviet-era Ignalina complex was decommissioned as part of the agreement that led to Lithuania’s accession to the European Union in 2004. But the complicated work is ongoing and will not be completed before the 2030s; it is this process that Škarnulytė has captured and that forms the bulk of the material in Burial.
The title may refer to the plant itself, but it is equally plausible that what is being buried here is in fact humanity itself, self-destructive and helpless in the face of the relentless onward march of time. The brooding sense of fatalism throughout the film is justified by the subject matter alone, but in the present day also turns minds to the renewed fears of nuclear catastrophe unleashed by Russia’s senseless aggression in Ukraine.
There is a sense of urgency to the film that may not have been intended: having premiered in April 2022, the initial conception of Burial predates the February invasion, although it’s unclear how much its final form has been influenced by it.
Burial is not about contemporary events and has no straightforward moral, says Toivanen. It is, first and foremost, a fascinatingly crafted visual experience: the desolate industrial scenery, the heavy machinery and incredibly intricate control panels of the power plant make for an engrossing cavalcade of sights. The effect is enhanced by the fact that little explanation is given, and a non-expert watcher can certainly not be expected to understand much of what is shown on-screen.
It is left to the audience to piece together a coherent whole out of the succession of scenes that make up the film. This is not always easy, but the images themselves do the talking. Among the most memorable, and certainly the most surreal, of the film’s images is an extended scene of a large snake, perhaps a python, seeking its winding way on and among what appears to be the control interface of the Ignalina plant. Snakes appear elsewhere, too, a central metaphor in Burial’s visual syntax.
The film’s haunting soundscape consists of a mix of the very mundane – the thuds and clanks of heavy tools, of simple labour – and the atmospheric music, largely darkly ambient but interspersed by a few raw unaccompanied vocal tracks. Snippets of words and voices also float through occasionally, some from Cold War-era broadcasts, others unidentified, even unintelligible. It all adds up to a thoroughly immersive sixty-minute experience.
In its final scenes, the film seems to turn its focus into some kind of imagined future, or futures, offering images that are in turns dystopian, apocalyptic and strangely hopeful.
Škarnulytė’s enigmatic and dispassionate camerawork embodies this detached, superhuman perspective perfectly. Perhaps there are no lessons to learn, but Toivanen says there is no doubt that Burial manages to raise questions and to provoke a great many thoughts.