BHOPALI TAKES TOP DOC GRAND JURY PRIZE and AUDIENCE AWARD AT SLAMDANCE 2011: AN INTERVIEW WITH THE DIRECTOR CUM HUMANITARIAN, VAN MAXIMILIAN “MAX” CARLSON
Van Maximilian “Max” Carlson
This moving documentary by promising director Van Maximilian “Max” Carlson gives voice to the victims of the historic Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) Disaster on December 3, 1984 in Bhopal, India. From biting, heart-wrenching testimonials of surviving victims of the tragedy to an expansive collection of newsreel footage, Carlson gives depth and perspective to this historic tragedy that killed 25,000 people and left more than 100,000 people chronically ill.
One of the film’s most devastating sequences is that of Dr. D. K. Satpathy, a pathologist and the director of Medico Legal Institute in Bhopal, who showed the rows and rows of fetuses that remain in water-filled containers from the women who died in the UCC disaster or those of women who miscarried in the aftermath of the event. “I want the world to understand the crimes of these companies,” another Bhopal victims’ relief volunteer states. “They profit from their endless projects, as they’re shown on TV, but these are the same products that poison our lives.”
I interviewed the director cum humanitarian on Monday, January 24, 2011, the afternoon after his film premiered at Slamdance 2011.
Ashley Elaine York (AEY): You’ve chosen to highlight a little known but important story about American businesses acting badly in developing countries like India and Africa. Although a more common occurrence than one might think, this topic is usually not taken up in a first doc feature. Why did you feel compelled to highlight this subject in your film?
Van Maximilian “Max” Carlson (Max): I learned of the Bhopal disaster only about 2.5 years ago. There was a chemical leak from the UCC factory that installed itself in Bhopal as a pesticide manufacturing facility. Bhopal was a densely populated area in 1970s. In the 1980s, to cut costs, UCC cut refrigeration on the MIC.
[NOTE: MIC, methyl-isocyanate, is a chemical 500 times deadlier than hydrogen cyanide, so volatile that unless kept in spotless conditions and refrigerated to 0˚C, it can even react explosively with itself. To save $70/day, UCC shut down refrigeration on the MIC, which caused the tragedy].
Max: Months after that, the tank leaked and the toxic chemicals were released into the air. It eventually seeped into the ground and the groundwater supply and spread as far as 3K away, which has affected 100,000-200,000 people to date. Immediately after this, UCC abandoned the factory, left the chemical waste, and went back to the US. Even 26 years [on], the toxins are still in the ground and the water supply and are still affecting the Bhopal community. Children are born with mental disabilities, cerebral palsy, or limbless. And, since Dow Chemical bought UCC out, both companies now claim they’re not liable for cleaning up the factory or compensating the victims. My film is primarily about the children affected by this disaster. It follows them and the Chingari Trust, which was set up by two women who lost the majorities of their families in the gas tragedy to treat the children affected by the UCC Disaster. Many have been born with weak or malformed limbs, so they need physical therapy.
AEY: You mentioned you learned about the disaster only 2.5 years ago. How did you first hear about it? The subject isn’t heavily covered in the current 24-hour news cycle, is it? I only learned of it because I was living in South Asia, taking my Master’s in SE Asian Studies in Singapore, and had friends doing their research on the tragedy.
Max: Yeah, I also learned about it from a friend familiar with the area and with the disaster. A friend of mine visited Bhopal in 2008. She had volunteered at the Sambhavna Clinic, a free clinic which treats survivors of the disaster in Bhopal, three blocks from the abandoned UCC factory. I was immediately intrigued by the story, as well as surprised that I had never heard about it before—especially since it’s considered [historically] to be the world’s worst industrial disaster. I was only 24 at the time, and only older people tended to know something about it. But, most people don’t realize the ongoing disaster that it is today; they have no idea of the repercussions that have followed years later—that 30,000 people are still drinking that contaminated groundwater because they have no choice, and still get sick. I also was shocked to learn the corporation responsible for the tragedy still hadn’t been brought to justice. And I felt compelled to try and help, so in a relatively short amount of time, I decided I would make a documentary on the subject.
AEY: How hard was it to film what really amounts to an exposé in a foreign country, as an American citizen, without interference from the Indian government, UCC, DOW, or influential American ambassadors living in India?
Max: Well, I went to India with just myself and my producer, Kirk Palayan. We arrived in January 2009. We lived off of funds from our day jobs, which we also used to shoot it. We filmed in Bhopal for about two months; then I returned to Bhopal again in November and December of 2009. I tried my best to find an aesthetic balance between these very personal human stories and the dense history of the tragedy. I wanted to stay away from narration, and just let the stories unfold before the audience. I never went to film school, but I was the director, cinematographer, and editor of the film, so my involvement became very personal and the experiences and the people I met in Bhopal will never be forgotten. It was something we felt totally passionate about. The most difficult part of the experience was paying for the plane tickets back and forth to India. We just saved money to do it. We couldn’t fly to Bhopal directly, so we had to pay for several planes to get there; it took 36 hours to finally get to Bhopal, and ultimately was very expensive. But I edit movie and video trailers for a living, so I was able to cut the film on Final Cut Pro, which helped us to save money.
Ashley interviewing Max, January 24, 2011
AEY: Did you shoot the film with the intention of showing it at festivals or selling it, or was this, simply, a project of love for you and Kirk [the producer]?
Max: We set up a website for BHOPALI which has info about the film itself and screening times and press reviews, and another whole section on how to get involved and help with the Bhopal cause. After I finished the film, we submitted to festivals and, luckily, we got into Slamdance. But the focus of my film is to encourage people to help these victims. We screened the film in Bhopal already and the Chingari Trust School received a copy of film, as well. The two women who run the orphanage will screen it annually at their awards ceremony. Mainly, we want people to lend their support. While I was there, the people of Bhopal were so very warm to me and wanted to tell me their stories because they know hardly anyone knows about it. I only hope my film does justice to the inspirational people of Bhopal who continue to fight for their lives.
AEY: Indeed, you have created a moving and important film. People are already talking it up, and it just premiered last night. Even though you have won other awards for your past directing efforts at the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival and the Toronto International Teen Movie Festival, and your doc NINTH NOVEMBER NIGHT (2004) was considered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Documentary Screening Committee to be “one of the outstanding documentaries” of that year, your career might take off after this 17th Annual Slamdance. If so, would it change you as a person or the types of films you make?
Max: Well, the success hasn’t changed my life yet (laughs), but the experience of going to Bhopal did. It changed my life forever. I feel like, in general, a person can do things on their own [to make a difference]. You don’t have to rely on huge amount of outside funding. You can do it on your own. Filmmaking is all about getting out there, documenting something important, and then getting your project out to an audience. I have a lot of friends whom I met [in Bhopal]: Sanjay Verma, for one. He was originally supposed to be my translator and guide. But his story was poignant and tragic. He lost 7 of his 10 family members on the night of the disaster, including his folks, 3 sisters, and 2 brothers. He was raised by his older sister and brother and grew up in an orphanage. Now he works as an activist for the Bhopal victims. I relied on him to meet people in the community. Everyone knows him and his story. In the Bhopal community surrounding the factory, everyone knows each other. It’s a close-knit community. So meeting Sanjay was great: in spite of his trauma, he is an insanely outspoken and funny person. It’s amazing to meet someone as strong as him. And he’s now my friend.
AEY: What’s next for you, Max?
Max: I would like my next film to be a narrative feature. I started very young making narrative shorts and Kirk Palayan, my co-producer, will work with me on this next project too. It’s about whaling off the coast of Japan. I’m also working on another project about a magician who lives in California. And then there are a few docs on different things that I want to explore in the future.
AEY: What’s the lesson of BHOPALI? What’s your personal “take away?”
Max: That when environmental disasters of any kind occur, know there will be repercussions years down the line. And realize that it is up to us to support those victims and help in any way we can, because they can’t rely on the Indian government or the DOW Corporation, for example, to help them. It’s up to us. We should try our best to make sure when a disaster like this happens, the corporation who caused the damage is held responsible–in order to set up a precedent that stops US corporations from going into developing counties, causing disasters, then escaping back to the US where they are protected from prosecution in the future. It’s really up to us to do our part to stop this from happening in the future.
In 1989, a settlement was reached under which UCC agreed to pay US$470 million (the insurance sum, plus interest) in a full and final settlement of its civil and criminal liability to the Indian Government, as “representatives” of the victims. Most families of victims received $500 for life-long injuries. The settlement was considered so low that UCC’s stock went up by $2/share the next day.
Today the factory site is owned by the state government of Madhya Pradesh and only the state can remediate the factory, the toxic soil, and the contaminated groundwater. To date, the Indian Government remains adamant that there is no contamination in Bhopal.
If you are moved to help, go to:
The Bhopal Medical Appeal
BHOPALI: The Film Official Site