The Chernobyl special documentary The Lost Tapes (Sky Documentary / NOW On Demand) by James Jones opens and ends with a performance of Swan Lake on old-fashioned 4:3 TV.
His was the content that every TV channel in the Soviet Union switched to in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine on April 26, 1986.
Tchaikovsky’s ballet was a cultural veil that obscured early news of what would become history’s worst nuclear disaster. There will be worse deceptions and more despicable cover-ups in the days, weeks, months, and years that follow.
Best mini series of 2019 Chernobyl will likely remain a major disaster drama forever. But Jones’ two-year documentary was made, the toughest examination yet of an incident still shrouded in lies and denials.
The official number of direct deaths is 31, but some estimates put the number of Chernobyl-related deaths at 200,000. About 8.4 million people were exposed to radiation.
Jones never would have imagined that the Chernobyl site would appear on the news the same week it aired, this time on the battlefield of Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine. It gives an inherently powerful documentary about timeliness.
Jones has assembled an exceptional collage from visual materials in the 1980s archives, including bulletins from East and West (note the contrast), Soviet propaganda films and hand-held footage of the cleanup operation as it happens.
Most of this has not been seen in decades or has never been seen. A lot of it is almost impossible to look at. We have seen radioactive poisoning victims coughing up blood, their skin discolored, blistering, cracked by sores that fester and peel like old paint.
There are photographs of animals and infants with severe deformities. A farmer shows off a lamb with a peculiar bulging eye. We saw a dead child with two heads and milky white eyes. Terrible.
One nurse said of the newborn babies nicknamed “the sirens” because their radiation-mutated lower half resembled the tails of a mermaid.
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No narration. Instead, Jones overlays the voices – some from the archive, others from interviews made for the documentary – of the survivors. These include soldiers, firefighters, employees at the Chernobyl plant – some of whom were later made convenient scapegoats at the trials – and loved ones of those who died.
One of the most prominent interviewees, who linked Jones’ film to the mini-series, was Lyudmilla Ignatenko, played by Jessie Buckley in the latter.
Her husband, a firefighter, died of radiation poisoning. When she visited him in the hospital, she thought he would survive.
He and the other men in the ward were sitting on their beds, chatting, joking, and playing cards. He was dead for a few days.
Lyudmilla was pregnant when Chernobyl happened. Her baby lived for five days. A doctor told her that the child had saved her life by absorbing all the toxins in her body.
Near the beginning, we see a sunny film, in stark contrast to the usual drab Soviet image, of the glittering new town of Pripyat, which will provide Chernobyl with most of its workforce.
Residents here are mainly happy young couples, hoping to have children. A little later, we see some children playing in radioactive playgrounds in the days following the disaster.
The longest segment follows the “liquidators”, ordinary soldiers ordered by their superiors to go in and clean up tons of radioactive fuel while wearing ill-fitting protective suits that include lead plates sewn into the fabric.
These young men, full of courage (at least for the propaganda camera), joked about the free vodka they had been promised. Within a few years, 80pc of the liquidation equipment died.
The Soviet authorities blamed the illness the people contracted on a contrived illness called “radiophobia”. In other words, it’s all psychological.
There is a very different tragedy happening in Ukraine right now, but the audacity remains the same as it was in 1986.
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/tv-reviews/extraordinary-documentary-is-a-timely-return-to-the-hell-on-earth-of-chernobyl-41400657.html Extraordinary documentary is Chernobyl’s timely return to hell on earth