Time never stops flowing, but film? Film is fixed. James Jones’s documentary, Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes will still exist in years to come, divorced of the date on which it was first released. Watch this in ten years’ time, fifty years time, a hundred years time, and it will remain a very good documentary about the Chernobyl disaster. That will be its context. If that’s all it ever is, then it will still have been worth the effort. It is, and will remain, a very good documentary about the Chernobyl disaster. Four stars. Recommended.
This review could have done the same thing. A review that would still work as an honest assessment of the film if read in 2072, just as hopefully it would in 2022. I could have written about why this is such a good documentary, about its impeccable journalistic credentials, astonishing access to previously unseen sources and beautiful framing.
I could talk about what an excellent companion it makes to Sky’s landmark drama Chernobyl, from a few years back – highlighting the truth and the fiction, deepening our understanding. I could talk about its deliberate quieting of the authorial voice, with all the audio taken either from the archive or from eyewitnesses who are still alive. How poignant, harrowing and borderline unbelievable their stories are.
Like Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old it is our direct line to what Doctor Who would presumably call a “fixed point in time”. A marker in history. This is really what it looked like. This is really what it felt like. This is what happened. I was there. This is exceptional documentary film-making, about one of the most important and horrible events in modern history.
I could talk about all of that, and you could watch the documentary and agree or disagree and discuss the disaster and the breakup of the Soviet Union and the shadow it cast over the end of the twentieth century, and the role of the filmmaker as witness and storyteller, and all of that usual stuff. That’s a perfectly valid context for this film and this review.
But right now, in this specific time, at this specific point, the context changes. We watch The Lost Tapes in early March 2022, as the Russian army butchers and blasts its way across the very same landscape in which the story is set. We listen to the descriptions of the power plant, the reactor, the nearby towns, now part of modern Ukraine, and we know that just a week ago tanks moved in to secure it. We watch young soldiers sent into the teeth of a radioactive nightmare, and we know that right now more young soldiers are being ordered to risk their lives against that same backdrop. We watch the horror of radiation sickness, the slow, awful, death of men turned into walking dirty bombs, buried in secret, and we hear that Vladimir Putin has put Russia’s nuclear arsenal on high alert. History happening simultaneously in 1986 and 2022, like one of those sci-fi shows, Yellowjackets or The Witcher, that follow intercut timelines set years apart. The past is the present and it is absolutely terrifying.
It makes a compelling and clever documentary into something more than the sum of its already impressive parts. In the current climate, the climate of 2022, another fixed point, another marker, this becomes a lesson in our present as well as our past. Misinformation. Secrets. State sanctioned murder. Incompetence. Bravery. Cover-ups. Killing. An onlooking world trying to make sense of it all. The Chernobyl disaster marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet era; just five years later a referendum was held in Ukraine and 92% of the population voted to become an independent state. The lies, misdirection and threats that followed the tragedy at Chernobyl played a huge part in sewing mistrust between Kyiv and Moscow. Ukrainians poisoned by massive doses of radiation were told they had a harmless psycho-sematic mental condition called “radiophobia”, a blunt lie repeated over and over in the stark face of cancer, deformity and early death. It’s a particularly gruelling part of The Lost Tapes.
Some estimates, we are told, put the deathtoll following the disaster in the hundreds of thousands. The official number, announced at the time by the Soviet governments, remains 31.
Turn on the news: Chernobyl, Ukraine, Russia. Tanks, soldiers, radiation. Misinformation. Fudged figures. Death. We’re at another marker in history. Another watershed. Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes shows us, not just how we got here, but an awful lot about where we are now … and that makes it absolutely unmissable.
Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes is available on Sky Documentaries and NOW right now.