If you’re watching TV in Russia and “Swan Lake” comes on, you might start to worry. Something earth-shattering has happened somewhere, and you are probably about to be bamboozled.
Such a broadcast opens James Jones’s “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes,” a look back at the worst disaster in the history of nuclear energy; the explosion released 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the Hiroshima bomb.
In 1982, every channel in the former Soviet Union suddenly broadcast a performance of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet. Leader Leonid Brezhnev had died, and the upper echelons of government scurried to keep the news under wraps. Again in 1991, the ballet appeared on stations as perpetrators of an attempted coup sought to overthrow then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a revolt instigated in part by the mendacity and corruption of the system revealed by the Chernobyl debacle.
“In the Soviet Union, the relationship to truth was complicated,” a nuclear engineer who worked at the Chernobyl plant recalls in voice-over in Jones’s documentary. “Attempts to control the truth ended up with losing control of everything.”
Now located in the post-Soviet Ukraine, the Chernobyl plant was celebrated as a state-of-the-art development when the first of the reactors opened in 1977. But no one had acknowledged that the design of the reactors was essentially flawed and that such basic safety measures as containment structures for potential radiation leaks were omitted. In a propaganda infomercial from that time shown in Jones’s film, a white-coat scientist exclaims, “Sometimes people ask, ‘Could a nuclear power plant explode?’ Well, I can completely, responsibly declare that this is completely out of the question!”
Such assurances aside, one of the reactors did explode on April 26, 1986. A fire blazed out of control, spewing deadly radioactivity throughout the surrounding area and the neighboring, now-abandoned city of Pripyat. Following Gorbachev’s orders, the authorities at first did not inform the population of the danger — in part to avoid panic as it tried to contain the damage but also in the hope that after handling the emergency they could boast of their success without admitting to any responsibility for the accident.
The widow of one of those first responders recounts how her husband and the other firefighters were not informed of the dangers nor given proper protective equipment while battling the blaze. Within weeks, as seen in the film’s graphic footage, many would die hideously from radiation poisoning. Later, Soviet soldiers, enlisted to manually dispose of tons of radioactive debris, suffered similar fates. All were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, as some of those in the film testify; and anyone who claimed to be suffering from the after-effects of the radiation or who pointed out the spike in deaths, illnesses, and birth effects were dismissed as hypochondriacs with a case of “radiophobia.” Eventually, the evidence overwhelmed the cover-up, and despite the gaslighting, scapegoating, lying, and intimidation, the truth caught up with the regime and contributed to the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Jones had begun making his film before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February brought Chernobyl back into the headlines as Russian troops deployed on the long-abandoned grounds of the site (they have since been driven out). In an interview with the UK newspaper The Guardian, the filmmaker comments on how Putin’s campaign to conceal the truth about the invasion from the Russian people seems like a repeat of the same deceitful tactics employed by the Soviets back in the 1980s.
“If people are watching state television, particularly people at a certain age, you really can control what people think,” Jones said. “I guess Putin’s tactic now is just to sow confusion everywhere so people feel they can’t trust anything, whether it’s state TV or some conspiracy theory on Facebook. The actual truth is just one of many things running around … But I don’t know. My faith in the modern world has been shaken.”
If Putin’s lies have the same consequences as those told about Chernobyl, maybe his regime will suffer the same fate as that of the Soviet Union. Then perhaps Jones’s faith in the modern world, and that of many others, might be restored.
“Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” is available on HBO Max.
Role playing with ‘Portrait of Jason’
A classic of documentary cinema, Shirley Clarke’s “Portrait of Jason” (1967) remains as electrifying and timely as it was when it was made 55 years ago. A grueling, hilarious, heartbreaking, and brutally insightful psychodrama, it was shot during a long night in an apartment in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel where Clarke and a small crew grilled and indulged Jason Holliday, a gay Black man and a one-of-a-kind bon vivant. While downing numerous drinks and chain-smoking cigarettes, Holliday recounts increasingly outrageous anecdotes from his life as a self-described hustler.
Much of his life seems to have been spent assuming roles to entertain others, and as Clarke and her assistants goad him from off-camera into telling particular stories, some not flattering, it becomes clear that he has fallen into the same role here. That is part of the film’s point, revealing the manipulative, almost sadomasochistic nature of its own making. It is a power struggle between the filmmaker and the subject over the control of the latter’s image, with Clarke having the upper hand but conceding much of her power by showing how the trick of observational filmmaking is done and allowing Holliday the saving grace of his savage irony.
“Portrait of Jason” is available on OVID.tv.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.