Winner Best Documentary Slamdance 2011
Interview with Van Maximilian Carlson, Director
By Julie Hassman
t21: What inspired you to make Bhopali?
MC: I was inspired to make Bhopali pretty much as soon as I heard about it. I originally came to know about the Bhopal disaster by editing a radio piece on the topic. I edited that piece about 3-4 years ago and because of that I became very interested in the subject, particularly because it was a little known tragedy here in America. And given that it was an American corporation responsible for the disaster, named Union Carbide (now owned by DOW Chemical), I felt a certain responsibility to tell the story as well. The tragedy is ongoing and the corporation has been allowed to get away with crimes for the last 26 years, so I knew this was a very relevant as well as necessary documentary to make.
t21: Biggest obstacle in making it?
MC: The biggest obstacle was the initial meeting with the children of the Chingari Trust, who are all debilitated due to the poisons from the Union Carbide factory. You come to learn the children’s stories, as well as their family’s stories, and it does make you quite angry, upset, and wanting to help. Almost every child at Chingari will need ongoing help for the rest of their lives, a cruel part of life that Union Carbide should bear the responsibility for, but they don’t. So yes, just initially being with the children and recognizing how hard it is for them and how hard it will continue to be, that really was quite hard for me, and one of the biggest obstacles in shooting. However, once I was with them for a week, I really began to see another side. A very playful side, between all the children, the staff, their mothers. They are very lucky to have an establishment like Chingari, which is really a sanctuary for them, and I came away feeling incredibly hopeful for the improvement of their conditions.
t21: Most inspiring subject you met while creating this project?
MC: The most inspiring subject I met was definitely Sanjay Verma. He is featured in my film and he is a survivor of the Bhopal gas disaster, as well as an activist. Sanjay lost 8 out of his 10 family members due to the disaster, the most losses of anyone in Bhopal. His entire life has been affected by the disaster, and one would think that he would be a very conflicted and dark individual, having experienced that kind of loss, yet he is not. He remains one of the most uplifting, joyous, energetic, and free spirits that I’ve ever met. I suppose it’s ironic that he is such a powerful spirit, but perhaps it makes sense. In any case, he is truly an inspiration and an example of overcoming obstacles and being a stronger person in the end.
t21: Favorite/most unexpected response to Bhopali?
MC: My favorite response so far has been that of an individual who donated thousands to the Bhopal cause after seeing the film. It was a tremendous and very gracious donation which will go quite far in helping the survivors.
t21: What do you hope viewers will take away from it?
MC:I hope viewers realize that Bhopal is an ongoing tragedy that needs to be fixed. The fixing starts with spreading the word because there is very little known about the disaster today. Union Carbide and Dow Chemical have done an incredible PR job in keeping the tragedy as under-wraps as they can. They rarely ever speak about the disaster so as to not draw any attention to it. What I want, is for attention to definitely be drawn to it. I want people to come away wanting to help the cause and get involved in whatever way they can. The biggest hurdle, I believe, is just raising the awareness. If enough people know, I believe real change can occur.
t21: If you were not a filmmaker what would you be?
MC:If I was not a filmmaker, hmmm… I mean, currently and for the last 8 years, I have also been a freelance editor, on movie trailers, commercials, etc, but I suppose if I had to do something totally not film related, I would want to be an investigator, detective, spy, or something in that field. There are similarities between that and documentary making as well, they both involve investigating, and sometimes detective/spy work.
t21: First website you check in the morning?
t21: Personal motto?
MC: Don’t say you’re going to do something unless you’re going to do it. If I commit to something I always try to finish it, I don’t want to be known as someone who just talks the talk but never walks the walk. Hah.
t21: The biggest global problem today?
MC: The biggest global problem, there are so many problems, but I believe the problem basically all stems from the thirst for money and power and the disregard for anyone but yourself, which is some sort of primal human instinct to want to survive and triumph. It affects everything, from wars, to finance, to corporations allowed to get away with criminal behavior. If you take war, I believe the US invaded Iraq to maintain control of it’s oil, and thus maintain control of the countries that rely on that oil, Asia, Europe, etc. It’ an imperialist move that definitely involves control, dominance, power, money. To jump topics, America’s financial troubles, I believe, stem from deregulation starting back in Reagan’s years, all of which have led to some corporations/financial institutions doing what they do best, making money in any way possible, even if it is completely corrupt and illegal. This has been allowed to go on and the really frustrating part is that there seems to be zero accountability for those in charge who have broken the law. But, again, in some way it all has to do with money and power. I’m reducing it down to a very simple answer and it is really much more complicated, but I do think it’s a big problem today. This question is very hard to answer, I would like to see a lot more accountability though, on all fronts.
t21: Favorite city or landmark?
MC: I’ve lived here all my life and it remains my favorite, Los Angeles.
t21: Favorite public figure?
MC: If you’re talking entertainment, then Ricky Gervais. If you’re talking politics: Noam Chomsky.
t21: Last song that was stuck in your head?
MC: A song named Benfica by Panda Bear.
t21: Last meal you made?
MC: Last meal, wasn’t really a meal. It was a sour-dough baguette, with a slice of St. Andre cheese, avocado and tomato.
t21: Coffee, tea or water?
MC: Definitely tea, not a coffee drinker because I don’t like too much caffeine. For tea I really like genmaicha, it’s a green tea, not too caffeinated. And spearmint is always good as well.
t21: Boat, plane or train?
MC:Boats are fun if you get to actually steer. Planes get you where you want to go. Trains, I rarely take them. I guess Boats are the most fun
t21: Latest obsession? (activity, cultural, food)
MC: Latest obsession, basketbal actually, I went to a Lakers game last night which was very fun, although they lost. I’m not obsessed but I am definitely in a big basketball phase, I’ve even been playing at courts in Chinatown lately.
t21: Source of inspiration?
MC:Music, films, art, seeing other people do well. Seeing other people be great at their craft and wanting to be as good as them.
t21: First job?
MC: I was a paid intern at a movie trailer company called 3Oh!5, in North Hollywood.
t21: Who would you love to work with?
MC: I would love to work with Paul Giamatti.
t21: 10 year goal?
MC: I would like to have completed at least 3 feature films in that amount of time, hopefully more.
t21: Your next or current project?
MC: My next project. I’m developing a few scripts for narrative feature films. One about a magician, one set in the 80s, and one a straight up Martial Arts film set in Los Angeles.
t21: Your question for t21?
MC: What does the name Telegraph21 mean?
t21: The name Telegraph21 is both a nod to the nineteenth century invention that allowed people to communicate in real time, and an expression of bringing that same spirit of innovation into the twenty-first century.