What happens when water sinks a city?
Image: Matthew Salleh
For 60 years, Villa Epecuén, a small Argentine town located about five hours southwest of Buenos Aires, hosted European vacationers who had come to bathe in the salty waters of Laguna Epecuén. Then, one day in 1985, the dam built to keep the lake’s waters out of the town burst. Everyone fled to nearby Carhue, except one person: Pablo Novak.
For nearly 30 years, Novak lived alone near his submerged hometown. When the waters finally receded in 2008, he moved back, where he has lived ever since—the only inhabitant of a ghost town. Novak is the subject of Pablo’s Villa, a documentary by Australian filmmakers Matthew Salleh and Rose Tucker. The six-minute short is a bleak look at a town whose history was almost lost and the elderly man whose dedication has kept its story alive.
Pablo’s Villa isn’t explicitly a look at climate change, and it’s not meant as a warning. But it’s not hard to see the story of Villa Epecuén as an early glimpse at what might happen if climate change and sea level rise aren’t kept in check. Novak told Salleh that the citizens of the town never thought much about what would happen if the lake overflowed—the dam was always there to hold the water back.
“They thought they could beat nature—this wasn’t a freak accident or a disaster or anything, it was the natural ebb-and-flow the lake,” Salleh told me. “It just naturally rose up and consumed everything. An old man in the town once said that this had happened before, but people said ‘Don’t believe the old man.’ Looking forward, are people going to take the warning signs we’ve seen with sea level rise?”
In the documentary, Novak says he always dreamed that the town would be rebuilt, but Salleh says that seems highly unlikely to happen. The salty water of the lake has corroded many of the roads—if you’re not careful, you can fall into the sewage systems. You can barely tell where anything once stood.
“It’s become kind of like the modern version of an archeological dig. You can see how everything crumbled—things have collapsed except for the door frames,” he said.
Novak never left his hometown, even when it was flooded. Image: Matthew Salleh
Novak’s dedication wasn’t lost on Salleh, either.
“Half of our crowds thinks he’s crazy and the other half understands the draws of a hometown,” he said. “He’s just sitting there, content and happy, reading 20 year-old newspapers every now and then.”
Novak might be happy in his town, but he once had dreams that it’d be returned to its former glory. Not anymore.
“I thought that before I died, I would rebuild this place,” Novak said in the film. “But now, I’ve lost hope.”