What became known as the world’s worst industrial disaster in modern history occurred in December of 1984 when a Union Carbide (now Dow Chemical) pesticide factory in Bhopal, India leaked enough methyl isocyanate and other gases to contaminate the groundwater within a three kilometer radius of the factory. The Bhopal disaster eventually killed 25,000 people and affected 500,000 people, some of which acquired incurable birth defects. 26 years later, the water supply still remains contaminated and Carbide has yet to take responsibility for their actions, but the Bhopalis maintain their resolve to fight the chronic issues.
Spending four months in 2009 in Bhopal, 26-year-old Los Angeles-based filmmaker Van Maximilian Carlson chronicled the harrowing lives of disabled children and locals like Sanjay Verma who lost his parents and all but one of his siblings to the tragedy. Carlson’s first feature documentary entitled “Bhopali” screened this week at this year’s Slamdance Festival and last night was anointed with the Audience Award and Best Documentary Film accolades. Speakeasy sat down with Carlson in Park City, UT before his big night.
Tell me how you got involved with the project.
One of my best friends volunteered at one of the clinics in the film, the Sambhavna Trust. They treat survivors for free. She volunteered there three years ago and when she came back, she told me all about it and that’s when I became super interested in it. I was born a month before the disaster occurred. I was surprised I hadn’t heard about it before. I’ve always loved movies like “Erin Brockovich” and “Michael Clayton” or any sort movie where someone goes after a corporation. So when I heard about, it was six months after that I decided to make documentary. It deserved a documentary being made because I haven’t seen powerful documentaries about the subject. Most people don’t know about it. That was the passion to do it mainly because of this idea of a corporation thinking they can get away with crimes. I’m really against that. And certainly trying to expose the fact it’s an ongoing tragedy, children being born with birth defects.
Why people don’t know about the disaster?
I think for one, it occurred 26 years ago. There’s sort of a memory hole people fall into. They forget about things quickly. I also think Union Carbide and Dow do a really good job of not talking about it and pushing it under rug. They don’t respond to news reporters. They didn’t respond to me. The most they’ve done is every other year or so they’ve had a spokesman say something about it and last year they had a spokesman mention they were saddened that it’s continuing and it’s not their responsibility, that it’s the government’s responsibility. So I think it’s a PR campaign to forget about it and it’ll maybe go away on behalf of Union Carbide.
At one point Sanjay says living in the village is like “hell on Earth.” Did you feel that way when you were there filming?
I say, for the people that have survived it or lost family members, it has been hell on earth. Visually, if you go to the factory it’s like a wasteland. There’s like this ominous structure that’s still there. The fact that all the area around that, you can see it visibly on the surface mercury lying by the factory still. And children play right within the factory compound. They play cricket mainly. I’d say, yeah, for sure, definitely for Sanjay, it has been for him because he lost his whole family. Even after that, he grew up and his brother was much older than him when the disaster occurred. Sanjay was six months old when the disaster occurred and his brother was 13. Growing up he [the brother] was able to understand the impact and feel the impact of it, so he committed suicide in 2004. For many other people, they feel like that. Certainly for a lot of mothers at Chingari Trust, which is the rehabilitation clinic that treats the children, there is hope there but they recognize that it’s totally unfair and it feels like some sort of hell to them from what they’ve gone through and what some of them are still going through.
Has anything changed in Bhopal in the past year?
Yes, even since the film, at the end of film, the Chingari Trust received a grant from the Bhopal Medical Appeal for $100,000 to move to a bigger place. Since then, the government’s actually stepped in and helped and now Chingari Trust has moved to an even a better place on the main road and they’ve worked it out so Chingari Trust pays them one rupee a year for a much bigger place. The government has also set up a fund paying out survivors. I think it’s somewhere around a billion dollars. Sanjay , I spoke to him [earlier], he said him and his sister, who are the only survivors of their family, are going to be front of judge soon, in the next week, and if the government upholds their promise of paying out a certain amount to families, if they’ve lost family members, I think he might receive $50,000. He was saying one of the major problems is that this pay out only will affect 7 percent of the affected population. I haven’t got all the details on it, but I think it has to do with the fact you have to prove yourself as a gas victim. A lot of these people who got affected never got that chance to do it or they’re affected after the disaster. It becomes difficult to prove you are a gas victim. I think it’s ridiculous. But, the government is stepping up incrementally.
At the end of the movie, there’s a ray of hope. Do you think the Bhopalis are indeed hopeful?
They are hopeful. Sanjay is really hopeful. The people in the film are hopeful. I think that’s why they protest every year and that’s why they’re not giving up because they have hope. One of the major concerns is Union Carbide take responsibility so they can get justice. It’s very high on their list of priorities. That means cleaning the decontaminated water and compensating the victims. I agree. It would set a precedent and would say a corporation can’t come into a developing country and environmentally destroy that whole area, kill people and get away with it. That’s definitely what they’re all about. They have a slogan: “No more Bhopals.” There’s definitely hope. It seems there’s momentum picking up for Bhopal. The government is helping now and Chingari Trust is getting into a bigger space and I don’t know exactly why now there’s momentum, but there is I think — I believe there’s hope.
What’s next for you?
I definitely want to do a narrative feature next. I’m writing a script now and I’m going to look for financing and if I can’t find the right amount of financing, I’m just going to proceed in the way that I proceeded with this documentary, which is rely on the skill set that I have and the group of people around me who know how to do it. There’s two different ideas that I’m pursing. One of them is with Kurt (Palayan, co-producer of “Bhopali”). It’ll be about whaling off the coast of Japan. The other is a film about a magician based out of Los Angeles. Two separate, vastly different projects from “Bhopali”, I think. I’d be great to do that and going further, I definitely want to do another documentary. It’s really a fascinating experience to make a documentary: to meet people, to get behind whatever story you’re trying to tell or cause you’re trying to represent.