At the Full Frame Festival: “Chernobyl Before and After” — and Two Takes on Disability

By David D’Arcy 

Be prepared to be shocked. But also be prepared for a horror story that is far worse than what was reported at the time — but not as bad as it could have been.

A scene from Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.

Helmut Schmidt, the former West German chancellor, called the Soviet Union “Upper Volta with missiles.” Never mind that there is no longer a place called the Soviet Union or one called Upper Volta (today’s Burkina Faso). But Schmidt could just as easily have said that the Soviet Union was Upper Volta with nuclear reactors.

Though condescending, his point was still well founded. It’s well documented in the wrenching new TV film, Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, by the veteran British filmmaker James Jones. The Soviet Union cut corners as it modernized, and its citizens at Chernobyl paid an agonizing price.

The film won an honorable mention — second place – for the top prize at this year’s Full Frame Festival in Durham, NC. It’s reassuring that the doc was made and its revelations are public. Less reassuring is that Chernobyl, a danger in 1986, was at risk again during the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine this year. It could be a threat once more if the tide in that war turns.

In Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, we see the stark black-and-white footage of the immediate aftermath of the April 1986 accident. Officially, the crisis was downplayed — it still is. The Soviets only acknowledged the disaster after abnormally high levels of radiation were detected in Sweden. At that point, Russian film crews had already been dispatched to document cleanup efforts. Edited and scripted footage was broadcast selectively — very selectively — for propaganda purposes.  We’ve seen this footage in standard documentaries about Chernobyl — emergency alerts, workers labeled “liquidators” proudly stripped to their waists, “volunteering” with shovels to dig out debris. There are images of some of those workers smiling as they appear to be healing in hospitals (before the radiation exposure kills them). There are even shots of the forest around the reactor complex coming back to life.

A scene from Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.

But Jones obtained the pre-edited Soviet videotapes, which are crude, rudimentary, and in black-and-white. We see families walking in the manicured company town of Pripyat after the accident as if nothing had happened. We then see the uncertainty on people’s faces as their injuries begin to worsen. Workers, all male, were assured that the dangers to themselves were minimal. They were also bribed with extra allotments of vodka. Those who “volunteered” for emergency work were given lead-coated suits that looked like sandwich boards. (Think of the cheapest costumes and props in Roger Corman’s early movies.) We see them laboring on the rooftops of buildings, where workers shovel off burnt remains by hand. They are fighting a battle with sticks and stones that ended up killing 80 percent of them. We now know – and it was probably known then – that this cleanup would send irradiated dust and fragments into the air. The winds would puff the poisoned powder to the surrounding population.

Officials put the death toll at 54; several thousand children died from thyroid cancer. The numbers were solemnly communicated to the public by no less than Mikhail Gorbachev, who comes off as a compliant party hack here. These days the death estimates from independent sources range from 150,000 to 200,000.

The tapes also provide some pre-accident footage which displays the lush color of the towns near Chernobyl. There is lots of green space, new cafes and parks, a huge maternity hospital, and apartment buildings for families. It looks as if the town were an extension of a corporate park or a world’s fair. Those same places will show up in the later black-and-white footage: the population includes babies born with birth defects and young men eaten away to nothing from radiation exposure. The original color footage was shot, as was everything else, to make the Soviet Union look modern and up to date.

The glaring juxtaposition of footage from before and after the accident, with funereal low-tech black-and-white close-ups of birth defects, is a jarring reality check. Gorbachev’s post-accident assurances are heard in between glimpses of a utopian futurism of a nuclear Potemkin village and the gruesome consequences of radiation poisoning. Be prepared to be shocked. But also be prepared for a horror story that is far worse than what was reported at the time — but not as bad as it could have been.

Like so many stories from a besieged Ukraine today, events on videotape from 1986 have a direct connection to what is happening today. And the past has strong implications for what could happen now. When Russian troops invaded in February, they tried to set fire to the forest surrounding the Chernobyl site, which would have released huge amounts of radiation that had been absorbed by the dense trees, potentially sending particles of toxicity far beyond Ukraine.

After the recent Russian invasion, the famished skeleton crew that stood watch at gunpoint over the contained space where the 1986 explosion took place did not have the proper instruments to monitor temperature and radiation. No one believes that Chernobyl is safe. (For a study that ties the post-accident response detailed in the film to the long-term state of the reactor and its environs before the recent invasion, turn to the informative Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future by Kate Brown of MIT. For an interview with director James Jones, listen here.)

Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes did not win the top prize at Full Frame. That went to I Didn’t See You There, directed by Reid Davenport, which also received the Grand Jury Prize for documentary film at Sundance 2022. Somehow I missed it in the virtual Sundance.

The title I Didn’t See You There makes sense once you know that Davenport has cerebral palsy. He directed and filmed his doc from a wheelchair. He is one of the subjects of his film, as well as its protagonist. This is nothing if not a personal film.

And its look is personal. There is a camera mounted on Davenport’s wheelchair, which he propels at what looks like a high speed. When Davenport is in quick motion, the film generates a stream of images of sidewalks and streets at close range. That’s not entirely new. The artist Christian Marclay assembles films out of rapid-fire still pictures of sidewalks from above at point-blank range. But Marclay’s camera is immobile — Davenport’s races over the surface. The effect is kaleidoscopic, and a welcome relief from the pro-forma drone camera that has become the go-to instrument for contemporary documentaries.

Via narration that feels as hard to stop as his wheelchair, Davenport explains that the film began when he saw a circus tent go up near his home in Oakland. Call it his version of Proust’s madeleine, but he recoiled at the prospect of disabled people being presented as freaks for the entertainment of audiences. His outrage over the exploitation of the disabled has roots close to home — the director grew up in Bethel, CT, the birthplace of none other than P. T. Barnum.

Davenport runs on anger, but he’s funny and stubborn. He can’t help but be a keen observer of wherever he is, all the while swearing that this will be his “last personal film.” We watch him slow down when he’s with his family, wary of his mother’s efforts to talk him into coming home to live in Bethel. There is also a stinging confrontation where a workman — oblivious of Davenport’s existence —  leaves a power tool that blocks wheelchair access to the ramp into Davenport’s building. “I didn’t see you there,” the workman’s excuse, is a nicety that able-bodied people say to those whom they consider a nuisance to accommodate. If Davenport is determined not to make personal film, he succeeds in showing us why. (For an interview with Reid Davenport, listen here.)

A scene from Move Me.

What, then, might a future film subject be, if not himself? In a published interview, Davenport said that he is working with the producers of the documentary Pray Away (2021), about religious types who promulgate a “conversion therapy” for homosexuality. He plans a doc “about how disabled people have [died] and continue to die under the guise of assisted suicides.” Talk about taking your game up a few notches.

Given Davenport’s defiant stance toward the world and his film style — full speed ahead (in his wheel chair) while he delivers a monologue — his take on assisted suicide and the disabled already sounds personal.

In the documentary Move Me, also at Full Frame, we hear from a voice contending with a life-changing injury, and with family and the future. Co-director Kelsey Petersen, a student of dance, injured herself when she dove into Lake Michigan after a few drinks. She hit bottom, and emerged paralyzed from the chest down.

A decade later, Petersen is awaiting an experimental procedure — hoping warily for a miracle or something like it — and performing, with some able-bodied dancers, in “A Cripple’s Dance,” a poignant performance that we see in the film. She talks frankly about whether her treatment might restore sufficient sensation to bring sex back to her life, a topic that is often off-limits in polite public discussions of disability.

The film is at its strongest when Petersen explores the challenges of losing more than your mobility. Move Me lacks the visual invention and narrative bravura of I Didn’t See You There, yet it explores a more complex internal drama.

David D’Arcy lives in New York. For years, he was a programmer for the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel. He writes about art for many publications, including the Art Newspaper. He produced and co-wrote the documentary Portrait of Wally (2012), about the fight over a Nazi-looted painting found at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

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