Anyone who has travelled and studied or worked in a foreign country has, at one time or another, felt the pangs of homesickness. A gnawing feeling of anxiety, mild as it may be, about being far away from the place you grew up in, from the comfort and safety of wherever you call home. Visaginas is an accidental case study in what would happen if an entire city were to experience those feelings of anxiety simultaneously.
Built just 40 something years ago in Lithuania, Visaginas was to be a gateway between the USSR and western Europe, marrying the best of both cultures. An entire city constructed with a colossal nuclear power plant at its epicentre, populated by Russian migrant workers and designed in the shape of a butterfly. Fast forward in time and Lithuania has gained independence from Russia. One of the conditions of the country joining the EU was that the nuclear power plant had to go. Overnight, 5,000 Russians found themselves unemployed. As many as 30,000 more felt the impact as the main source of income in the city began to shut down. They became stranded in a city with no prospects, in a country where the seeds of mistrust of Russians had long since been sown.
A native Lithuanian born to Russian parents, director Olga Černovaitė felt that the story of Visaginas was one that needed to be told and from her time there interviewing some of its citizens, Butterfly City was created. At it’s best it’s a tale of identity and disenfranchisement. Of how important a sense of belonging can be and what can happen when someone is stripped of that. While the characters who pop up along the journey are certainly interesting enough to want to delve into, the film doesn’t tell their story in as meaningful a way as it could, barely scratching the surface of the emotional impact of their predicament.
The film as a whole could benefit from being pared down and there’s a sense that it may have been a more coherent and intimate piece if the stories of all the characters were told as a series of individual vignettes. Butterfly City is disjointed and uneven, lacking any real drama or impact and it’s a shame because there is undoubtedly some fantastic raw material there and Olga Černovaitė has done fantastic work in unearthing the story of the rise and decline of life there.
Visaginas is a genuine oddity, a place that was built by one generation of workers whose own kids are currently employed in shutting it back down. It’s a relic of political change and upheaval; a quietly decaying indictment of how the demise of the USSR has led to some it’s former citizens feeling abandoned and hopeless. Butterfly City is a noble attempt to tell the story of Visaginas, it just lacks energy and spirit, much like the city itself.