We live in a world beset by disasters—from the COVID pandemic to the Soviet invasion of Ukraine to the extreme weather events exacerbated by global warming—which makes this the perfect time to revisit the 1986 nuclear explosion in Chernobyl. You probably have a basic idea of what happened, but James Jones’ Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes fills in a lot of missing information and puts a human face on the disaster.
Chernobyl is constructed primarily from archival materials: the visual materials come from archives discovered in the former Soviet Union, much of it previously unseen, while the audio elements are a combination of archival materials from the time of the explosion and more recent interviews. Many speakers are heard in Chernobyl, and most are identified by chyron, but the overall impression Jones creates is more that of a chorus rather than of a collection of individual testimonies.
What happened in the Chernobyl disaster and the subsequent coverup was shocking, but also predictable, if you understand how things worked in the Soviet Union. This is underlined by the first speaker heard in this film: “In the Soviet Union the relationship with the truth was complicated. In 1982 when Brezhnev died every channel showed the same program, Swan Lake. It was clear without any explanation that something had happened at the top. This was the Soviet Union. Attempts to control the truth ended up with losing control of everything.”
Chernobyl began as a symbol of hope, ambition, and modernity. Construction on the nuclear power plant and the town of Pripyat, the latter built to house workers and their families, began in 1970. People from all over the Soviet Union moved there to work, and Chernobyl offered its citizens a good life. The birth rate was higher than in the Soviet Union as a whole, and safety was carefully monitored, so people living there prior to the explosion report having no concerns about the presence of a nuclear reactor. Instead, the plant was regarded with pride, as a feat of engineering and as a civic good that supplied about 10% of the electricity used in Ukraine.
Ironically, Soviet pride in the Chernobyl plant is the primary reason so much video of it exists: they wanted to show off their accomplishment to the world. The reason most of this footage remained unseen for so many years is because of the evidence it provides of their many falsehoods and misjudgments. The explosion was bad enough, but the bigger shame is what followed. People living near the plant describe receiving no warnings of the disaster, no instructions to stay indoors with the windows shut; instead, they were allowed to be exposed to radioactive air for 36 hours. When they were finally evacuated, they were told to bring only their documents plus whatever they’d need for the next three days, so many people lost most of their belongings.
Cleaning up the mess following the explosion was difficult, because the high levels of radiation remaining in the area made it unsafe for workers. In September, 1986, robots, including the German-made “Joker,” were brought in to seal the damaged reactor. When that effort failed—the robots’ electronic controls quickly burned out—the Soviet authorities decided to complete the job with “bio-robots,” a.k.a. human beings. These young men were provided with laughably inadequate protection—just some lead plates that they sewed into their cotton clothing—and the consequences to them were pretty much what you would expect.
I don’t usually do content warnings, but this film warrants one. Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes includes some extremely disturbing images of the damage radiation exposure does to the human body (and to animals). The filmmaker is right to include this footage—it really brings home the tragedies caused by the explosion and subsequent mismanagement of the disaster—but you could be forgiven for turning away from the screen from time to time. | Sarah Boslaugh
Chernobyl is available for home viewing in the United States as part of the 25th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs from 12 pm ET on April 7, 2022, through 11:59 pm ET on April 10, 2022. Further information is available through the festival web site.