The documentary Life on the Atomic River, a film by Slawomir Grunberg and Slava Paperno about the human and environmental
tragedy of the villages near the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, was produced by
Lexicon Bridge Publishers with the aim of creating a contemporary tool for learners of Russian.
The footage used in this documentary was not filmed specifically for language learners.
It was filmed for Slawomir Grunberg's Chelyabinsk: The Most Contaminated Spot
on the Planet,
a television documentary that won the Grand Prix at the International Nature and
Environment Film Festival in Grenoble, France. The film also won 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.
However, Lexicon Bridge Publishers' Life on the Atomic River, produced after another trip
by Slava Paperno and Slawomir Grunberg to Chelyabinsk, Russia, was edited with the language learner in mind:
for this film, we created short, self-contained scenes, organizing them into clear thematic
sequences, and we used no music or sound effects that might complicate
listening to speech.
Why a documentary?
The language of film includes many communication channels in addition to speech.
When the dialogue is foreign, these channels are especially precious:
a film can tell the learner more than a book.
In a scripted film, speech is often absent for long stretches of time.
A documentary, on the other hand, is mostly focused on speech.
Ideas and messages in a scripted film are filtered through the artist's
imagination: in fiction, information is not the most valuable part.
In a documentary, ideas and messages are presented for their own sake.
The viewers strive to understand them so they can think about them and perhaps discuss
them with other people. Isn't that what a language learner always wants to do?
But do the people in the film speak good Russian?
They speak excellent Russian. It is contemporary, natural,
unscripted and unstilted, and most importantly, it reflects
the personalities and backgrounds of real people. Some
are educated and use short-form adjectives in their predicates.
Others are uneducated and use words like
нљту and боїлися. From both groups you will hear
unfinished sentences, jumbled word order, meaningless
conversational fillers... the works—just what you need to hear
when learning Russian as it is spoken in Russia.
If this is for language learners, where are the exercises?
You don't need them. We don't like them. Exercises are haphazard collections
of disjointed ideas. That's not how we think, and that's not how we learn.
Exercises make you concentrate on the technical aspects of a sentence. When
was the last time you filled-in-the-blanks in real life?
Probably when working on a form in a doctor's office. Was it
a learning experience?
What's wrong with fill-in-the blanks and multiple-choice boxes?
Everything. They are good only for tests and exams, and we're not testing you.
Vocabulary lists would be helpful, no?
No. We don't learn a language by memorizing lists. We learn by processing and
producing sentences and paragraphs, i.e. by thinking.
And we learn best when we really want
to understand a story or an idea and to talk about it. This documentary is full
of ideas and stories, and they are all real and relevant (and mostly tragic). There's
a lot to learn and think about. Go ahead.
Start by playing a scene, watching, and listening, but do not try to understand
every word. If you get just a few words on your first viewing, that's fine.
Get the general idea and, of course, absorb the scene.
Next, read the transcript. Don't click every word to see what
they all mean. Not every word is crucial. Click only the words that seem essential.
Once you get to the next level of understanding, watch the scene again.
Then go back to the transcript and click the words that hold the clues to the details
you may still be missing. Watch again a couple of times until you can easily
hear almost every word and follow the meaning of every sentence as it is
If you are lucky enough to have a companion or a group you can discuss these scenes
with, be sure to do just that. Telling someone what you
have learned about the people in a scene is fun
and an important learning step. Enjoy!