Documentary of Epic Industrial Accident Stirs Up Emotions at Newport Beach Film Festival
(Oddbox) Amidst the 40 documentaries screening in the heart of Orange County at this week’s Newport Beach Film Festival is Bhopali, the emotionally raw chronicling of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters in modern history. While events such as Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and the recent string of disasters striking the Japanese Islands earlier this year, the Union Carbide catastrophe at its pesticide factory in the capital city of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is just as notorious, as it allegedly claimed as many as 25,000 lives. The disastrous event and the ensuing fallout during the past quarter-century since the fateful December evening in 1984 hit the film festival circuit in the form of a documentary directed by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Van Maximilian Carlson.
Already capturing critical acclaim at the Slamdance Festival earlier this year, where it earned Audience Choice and Best Documentary Film Awards, Bhopali, which is coincidentally Carlson’s first-ever feature film, is making waves for its candid look into the events that transpired in the underprivileged city of Bhopal. (Bhopali also claimed Best Documentary Special Jury Award at the 2011 Beverly Hills Film Festival.)
Since 1984, the citizens of Bhopal have been at odds with both the state and federal government officials, as well as with Union Carbide executives. To this day, Union Carbide has yet to claim any level of responsibility for what happened on December 2, 1984. Just the same, Union Carbide’s new company, Dow Chemical, manages to stay more than an arm’s distance from those directly and indirectly affected by the industrial disaster.
As described at length in the film, Bhopali reaches to educate its audiences of the many gases apparently contaminating the groundwater and air in and around the now defunct factory, which is still standing but not owned by Dow Chemical or any of its subsidiaries. (In fact, Dow Chemical never owned the property, as it purchased Union Carbide after the latter company sold the facility and left town.)
With the property under government control for all intents and purposes, the battle between the residents and higher powers that be extend above and beyond chemicals. Not only does the Madhya Pradesh government deny there are poisonous chemicals found anywhere near the defunct factory, but it claims the disaster took just under 4,000 lives. Of course, those directly affected by the disaster claim the numbers are much higher, with numbers ranging between 10,000 and 25,000 lost souls in the last quarter-century.
Bhopali is more than a film about carbon-based life forms induced into a permanent sleep. Instead, Carlson immersed himself into Bhopal and its everyday surroundings for about four months while filming the documentary in 2009 — coincidentally the 25-year anniversary of the disastrous chain of events still rocking the nondescript area immediately surrounding the old Union Carbide factory.
In that time, Carlson strategically meandered through a well-planned path to shed light on how a course of events over a 24-hour period affected the lives of about a half-million people spanning three generations within one city most people outside of India would have otherwise never heard of but for the industrial disaster.
To this day, nearly 27 years after Union Carbide was criminally implicated for its potentially negligent operations of its pesticide factory, Bhopal residents claim their water supply is still contaminated. As the film's tagline suggests: "The Bhopal disaster did not happen. It is happening." The $471 million settlement Union Carbonide paid to the affected citizens in 1989 apparently was not satisfactory, according to an activist featured in the documentary. That same activist said the settlement offer amounted to a payment of $500 per victim — barely enough retribution for those who suffered a lifetime of injuries and deformities spawning directly from the fateful day in 1984.
Through it all, Carlson masterfully chronicles the never-ending saga of the now three-generation-deep fallout from the nightmarishly catastrophic industrial disaster. Running about 83 minutes at length, Carlson initially paints a grim picture, be it the apparently cowardly actions of Union Carbide officials selling its Bhopal facility and packing its bags for the United States to avoid being sued in Indian court, or the tragic loss of children’s lives, even today, as a result of the accident.
The struggle of political activists against a non-responsive government is discouraging; the story of one Sanjay Verma, who lost both parents and all but one sibling as a result of the disaster, is heart-breaking; the death of an infant child, despite the best efforts of her parents, is nearly impossible to endure.
Thankfully, Bhopali becomes more hopeful as the film progresses, not only a testament to the masterful direction of Carlson, but also a proof positive that even the most powerless of voices can be heard, so long as those directly affected are relentless and expressed with consistent conviction. The film’s redeeming moments occur when a local school tending those children who are born with birth defects even today manages to expand its operation base and discover breakthroughs in treating the physical handicaps of its students.
Even more, what Carlson is able to do so well is intertwine the relevant facts of the disaster with heartbreaking tales of the victims, well-chronicled evidence, and the enduring spirit of humanity. Never once does Carlson fall into the trap of overdoing it in presenting a case against the corporate villains.
With qualitative production value and a well-told story staying true to the very spirit of the mountainous struggle still endured by the Bhopal citizenry four decades after calamity struck an otherwise innocent city, Bhopali is a must watch. Kudos to the Newport Beach Film Festival for selecting this film in its lineup.
(Film review based upon viewing of Bhopali at its screening on May 3rd at the 2011 Newport Beach Film Festival at the Triangle Square Cinemas in Costa Mesa, California.)