Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Voices from Chernobyl, on

When watching this documentary, the parallels between the Soviet Union’s response to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Chinese Communist Party’s response to the Wuhan Covid outbreak look eerily comparable. Reports were covered-ep and whistle-blowers were silenced, resulting in thousands of deaths that might have been prevented. Yet, Nobel Prize winning oral historian Svetlana Alexievich’s book was not just an expose. It also thoroughly documented and expressed the love and grief of survivors. Luxembourgian filmmaker Pol Cruchten adapted her book with his artistically rendered documentary, Voices from Chernobyl, which premieres today on

The words are spoken in French, but they are adapted from the Ukrainian and Russian of survivors—if “survivor” is the right term. Many widows of reclamation workers and fire-fighters remain in mourning years after the disaster. Alexievich also talked to a teacher, who explains how damaged her young students have been by the incident. Physically, they are under-sized and sickly, while psychologically, they are preoccupied with death. Counter-intuitively, she are her colleagues are oddly pleased to see any signs of traditional school children misbehavior, since it signals signs of inner life.

We also hear (or in many OVID viewers case, read in subtitles) the words of the chief of the Belarusian nuclear authority, who had cautionary reports regarding the Chernobyl disaster stolen from his office. Had the authorities acted on his warnings, it would have saved hundreds of lives—maybe thousands, but the Soviets preferred to pretend nothing was wrong, in hopes of avoiding an international propaganda disaster. The lives of thousands of Ukrainians were disposable towards that end. Remember, good old Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary at this time—you can see his rotting portraits abandoned throughout the wreckage of Pripyat Cruchten’s cameras capture.

Instead of talking heads, Cruchten superimposes the words of Alexievich’s interview subjects over scenes of ghostly Pripyat or carefully composed tableaux, symbolically representing the horrors of Chernobyl. Stylistically, it is a lot like experimental hybrid films, such as
Scars of Cambodia or Into the Crosswind. Cruchten’s cast are more like interpretive dancers than traditional thesps, but there is definitely something acutely expressive about their screen presences.

might confuse (or bore) the intellectual lacking, but it is definitely powerful cinema for smart people. It packs a devastating emotional impact and the chilling similarities between the Soviet cover-up and that orchestrated by Xi loyalists in Wuhan makes the film urgently timely. (It is also worth remembering Putin’s troops were recently shelling the still radioactive plant, trying to further weaponize it against Ukraine).

Apologists used to argue authoritarian regimes could better respond to emergencies, because of their command-and-control structure, but it clearly turns out their lack of transparency has repeatedly led to unnecessarily widespread suffering and death. That is quite clearly reflected in Cruchten’s film. Very highly recommended for its visual poetry and its historical revelations,
Voices from Chernobyl starts streaming today (3/15) on