Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl

It’s the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster,and I’ve been watching Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl. This is a film directed by David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky based on Mario Petrucci’s award-winning book-length poem, Heavy Water: a poem for Chernobyl. It tells the story of the people who dealt with the disaster at ground-level: the fire-fighters, soldiers, ‘liquidators’, and their families.

There are no facts given and there is no narration. Instead, the film uses Petrucci’s poetry to tell the story against a backdrop of haunting images from the modern Exclusion Zone and from archive communist newsreels.

I still believed I could save him. Milk, soup, kisses. As if
he could digest the touch of my lips, feel my making of broth

in his dissolving heart-chambers. When his breath shut,
when he began to cool — then — I called for family. It was

almost a miracle, the Doctors said. Four times the fatal dose
and he nearly turned round.

The poetry itself is derived from eyewitness accounts. Near the end of the film, the narrator reads a long list of radioactive substances that were released into the environment, with the length of time each remains active in the environment. In the Soviet Union, Pripyat was once considered to be the town of the future, and effective use is made of old news footage to provide an insight into that era of optimism about the technology.

We worked naked. The old way.
A shovelful – sometimes a handful
at a time. Every mineshaft pisses itself.
But this – this one stank. Something
wrong in the water. And that heat.
As if there was more Earth above you
than below. We came out fainting
like girls. Our black wouldn’t wash.
We knew this was no ordinary ore.
That each grain we dug was worth a life.
We lived for morning. How it gave
delicate colour to the walls of our tunnel.
They filled it with mercury-water –
it thrashed at the sides as Holy Water
in some vein of hell. Liquid air
they said. Or this Reactor will sink
like Atlantis. And now there are those
who will not stand near us. To them
I say – How will you bury us? And so
we are all agreed. All we brothers –
from Kiev. Moscow. Dnepropetrovsk.
We vow to bury one another. This
is impossible they tell us. It cannot
be done. It can. We are miners.
We know how to dig.
– Mario Petrucci, ‘Miners (Chernobyl, 1986)’

On April 26th, 1986, reactor four at Chernobyl nuclear power station explodes, sending an enormous radioactive cloud over Northern Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus. The danger is kept a secret from the rest of the world and the nearby population who go about their business as usual. May Day celebrations begin, children play and the residents of Pripyat marvel at the spectacular fire raging at the reactor. After three days, an area the size of England becomes contaminated with radioactive dust, creating a ‘zone’ of poisoned land. The poetry was read by David Bickerstaff, Francine Brody, Juliet Stevenson, David Threlfall and Samuel West.

Chernobyl was the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. It resulted in a severe release of radioactivity into the environment following a massive explosion. The plume drifted over extensive parts of the western Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Northern Europe, and eastern North America, with light nuclear rain falling as far as Ireland. Large areas in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were badly contaminated, resulting in the evacuation and resettlement of over 336,000 people. The 2005 report prepared by the Chernobyl Forum, led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO), attributed 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), and estimated that there may be 4,000 extra cancer deaths among the estimated 600,000 most highly exposed people.

The photos on this post are by David McMillan, who began taking photos in the exclusion zone in 1994.

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One thought on “Heavy Water: a film for Chernobyl

  1. I am way behind the eight ball with this piece, Gerry, but it reminded me of the programme that I think it was Channel four screened on an anniversary of 9/11 called ‘Out of the Blue’, in which dramatised scenes of 9/11 were acted out by an actor, Rufus Sewell reading Simon Armitages poem ‘Out of the Blue’. It’s on You Tube in 4 parts, it jumps a little, but its such a powerful piece.
    The director of this Chernobyl piece, Phil Grabsky, I am aware of as I have a copy of his film ‘In search of Beethoven’, which is wonderful and contains a great line from Sir Roger Norrington (conductor…of orchestras….not buses), ‘Mozart wrote for Saturday, Beethoven wrote for Eternity’.

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