Appel on tragedy and tourism

Appel on tragedy and tourism

Leading Dutch documentarist John Appel describes his latest feature Once the Dust Settles, screening in 2019 IDFA Masters, as a “three-act film with one theme”.

He is determined that this theme, how people are forced to deal with life after having suffered shocking adversity, is experienced by audiences as a continuum, and hopes it is powerful enough to blur the borders between the film’s three distinct segments, located respectively in Amatrice (central Italy), Chernobyl and Aleppo.

The other key thematic driver within the narrative is that  of ubiquitous tourism, and how his protagonists either embrace or reject it as they seek to get on with their lives.

In Amatrice, a priest roams the ruins of the town which suffered a terrible earthquake in 2016, offering solace and comfort. Despite it being a haven for sightseers in the past, signs across the town now read ‘no selfies here’, and the inhabitants prefer to be left to grieve in peace.

One of the key operatives at Chernobyl Reactor 4 during the disaster of 1986 now gives guided tours around the site and is determined to blow the whistle on years of institutional neglect prior to the fire that killed nineteen of his fellow workers.

Within what is left of Aleppo, always considered Syria’s most beautiful city, two tourist guides find a sense of hope and salvation as they resume their work amidst the rubble and debris where, incidentally, the locals are more than happy to pose for group selfies against the blasted backdrops.

“For me it is interesting that out of nothing, out of the disaster, [we see] the starting point of tourism,” comments Appel. “You shouldn’t have the feeling that at the end of part one you start watching a second film and then after part two you start watching [another] new film. Everything should be part of one film, and that for me was one of the biggest challenges.”

Appel was very moved by the Aleppo experience. “It was quite exceptional that I could make this film, that they allowed me to shoot, since normally they have journalists going to war zones, but I was making a film about the revival of tourism,” he comments.

“For the people I met it was something extraordinary, that they met some filmmaker from the Netherlands making a film about this story. Basically they have not seen foreigners for the past eight years. For them and for me it was very emotional and special.”

“Assad is not planning the rebuilding of the destroyed cities. He is planning on remaining in power… so the strength of those people without any support to do this [deciding to resume tours] tells you a lot about how motivated they are to keep on going, to move on, not to forget but to overcome,” Appel adds.

How does Appel respond to criticism of directors from established industries who parachute themselves into territories or zones to tell local stories that could or should be told by local filmmakers?

“For me this is not a film about Ukraine or Italy or Syria, this is a film about people, and how people cope with life after a disaster,” he comments. “In that sense I am specialised in people. I’m not specialised in politics so I don’t have any political statement to make in this film, although you can have some slight glimpses of Assad in Aleppo, but I never asked anybody about their position in this war.”

“For me it is not about that. So in that sense, yes, I think that if you really want to make a film from inside about Ukraine or Syris you have to be local I think, but if you make a film about how people cope with a disaster you can be based in Amsterdam and travel to Aleppo and Kiev and Amatrice.”