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Life on the Atomic River: DVD

Life on the Atomic River. In Russian. 60 minutes. NTSC format, all regions. ISBN 1-58269-023-5 (one video DVD, 31-page PDF transcript by download). Director of photography: Slavomir Grunberg. Edited and produced by Slava Paperno. US Copyright Registration Number PA0001312090. $39.00.

Three atomic accidents and fifty years of nuclear waste dumping have turned the Techa River into toxic hell. Chelyabinsk-40, an atomic weapons factory, was a top secret installation, and both its accidents and the lethal effects on the local ecology were a closely guarded secret, even from the people most affected by it. Everyone noticed that the villagers were dying of cancer in their forties and that birth defects were rampant, but no one knew why. Now that the truth is out, how are these people coping? And what are the lessons to be learned?

We watch the filmmakers interview dozens of people in the villages: doctors, farmers, teachers, children, and local officials. So many questions, so little clarity... It is hard to come to grips with something so cruel and so grossly misrepresented and misunderstood.

We hear that the locals didn't know anything. Yet the officials claim that the population was warned. A teacher stands in the snow on the river bank and explains that the bridge is too far away, and it is faster and easier to simply walk across the frozen river. Then a local activist puts her radiation meter on the river ice and reports a level that is a hundred times higher than normal.


A local physicist tells us how proud he was as he watched his nuclear bomb being attached to an airplane. He admits that the attention bestowed on him by the highest government officials may have warped his judgement. He doesn't have much to say about the effect of his work on the population whose cattle was grazing on the river banks.

An administrator, who is still the head of the factory, admits nothing, though he does say that the times were different: when Stalin was sending thousands to labor camps, human rights were not protected by law. Is he sorry? He doesn't appear to be. But he casts his eyes down as he speaks in his spacious office with a portrait of Lenin on the wall. So much is below the surface, so much for the viewer to think about...

The same film may be used online in our Cloud pages, with the transcript displayed on your computer or tablet next to the video, and every word in the transcript linked to a gloss or a comment. Why, then, buy the DVD? We think that a teacher may prefer using this DVD in class with a DVD player and room projector, and an individual learner, too, may very well benefit from the DVD's superior image and sound quality. For artistic impression and practice in listening comprehension, watching a film on your TV is a different experience than working with short scenes, transcripts, and glossaries on your computer screen. The transcript (with no glosses or notes) may be downloaded and printed.

Using documentary films for language learning fits our teaching philosophy. We have done this again and again in our own courses.

A film by accomplished and talented filmmakers tells the language learner much more about the foreign culture, people, and country than can be said in words. Since a language learner is informationally disadvantaged to begin with, this is very helpful.

By the nature of its genre, a documentary film is especially rich in carefully focused information. An idea, an attitude, a controversy is what drives a good documentary. This is the stuff that makes us think, and we know that learning of any kind—including language learning—must involve thinking. Formal language exercises with their typically disjointed pieces of information that have little relevance to our lives are never as effective as a story that consumes the viewer.

Unlike a typical textbook exercise, the language spoken by characters in a documentary is usually not scripted and thus reflects the speaker's personality and background. This is likely to benefit the learner in a number of ways: unscripted speech is more believable (and therefore more engaging), closer to the actual everyday language use (and therefore important to experience), and is rich with all the irregularities of linguistic reality (unfinished sentences, conversational fillers, on-the-spot creative distortions, etc.) that very few textbooks tell us about.

Our documentaries are not filmed for language learners, but they are edited with the language learner in mind. We tend to create short, well-focused scenes; avoid excessive use of music and sound effects that interfere with listening comprehension; and stay clear of ideology. But we do not shy away from challenging the viewer, both intellectually and emotionally, because learning is enhanced when the learner is engaged.

Slawomir Grunberg is an Emmy Award winning documentary producer, director, cameraman, and editor born in Lublin, Poland. He is a graduate of the Polish Film School in Lodz, where he studied cinematography and directing. He emigrated from Poland to the US in 1981, and has since directed and produced over 40 television documentaries. In addition to the national Emmy Award for his film School Prayer: A Community At War, he has won a regional Emmy Award, four Grand Prix awards at various international film festivals, several Best Documentary awards, and numerous other honors and prizes. Grunberg's Chelyabinsk: The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet, a television documentary produced from the same footage as Life on the Atomic River, won the Grand Prix at the International Nature and Environment Film Festival in Grenoble, France; the Best of the Environment Award at the Vermont International Film Festival in Vermont, USA; and the Journalistic Achievement Award at the International Ecological Film Festival in Frieburg, Germany.

Slava Paperno has directed the Russian Language Program at Cornell University since 1991. In addition to his many publications for learners of Russian, both in print and electronic, he has published over two dozen Russian translations of works by American, British, and Canadian authors. In 2000, he received the Best Contribution to Language Pedagogy award for “achievements in computer- and video-assisted language teaching” from the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL). In 2005, AATSEEL awarded its Best Contribution prize to Lauren G. Leighton's Modern Russian Culture (available at this website) that was designed and produced by Slava Paperno.

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