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Friday, March 3, 2006

PICTURING CHERNOBYL

At the heart of the matter


Special to The Japan Times

April 26 will mark the 20th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine.

News photo
Maryann De Leo, the director of the Oscar-winning "Chernobyl Heart"

In 2002, veteran documentary filmmaker Maryann De Leo decided to visit the Ukraine and Belarus, and the result was her 20-minute video "Chernobyl Heart," which won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.

Two of De Leo's friends told her about a "shocking" photo exhibit they saw at the United Nations, and one said, " 'Somebody should make a film about it because no one's paid any attention to it,' so I thought maybe I'm supposed to pay attention to it."

De Leo is chatting with a few journalists backstage at Tokyo's Shinagawa Intercity Hall, where "Chernobyl Heart" picked up an Excellence Award at the 28th Tokyo Video Festival, sponsored by JVC. "I had no idea what I was getting into." De Leo's relative ignorance of the scope of the tragedy when she started the project gives the film an air of dread discovery. As a result, it sometimes raises more question than it answers. "I had to narrow [the film] in a lot of ways," she says in her dry New York accent.

Though only a few people were killed in the reactor explosion, 600,000 "liquidators" were mobilized to clean up the facility and 13,000 of them have subsequently died. The explosion threw 190 tons of radioactive uranium into the atmosphere, forcing the evacuation of 400,000 people. Experts estimate that over the years the accident has adversely affected 9 million lives, half of them children who have been born since the explosion.

The government of Belarus, which many say is a dictatorship, seems determined to downplay the ongoing effects on its citizens, who live downwind from the still-hot reactor.

De Leo visited the area three times in 2002 and 2003 with Adi Roche, the director of the Chernobyl Children's Project (CCP), a nongovernment organization based in Ireland. In the film, Roche, De Leo's guide, explains, "There's nothing that shows the violence of what came out of there." Radiation is invisible and odorless. It only makes noise though a dosemeter, which clicks madly as Roche brings De Leo and her crew, all clad in white protective clothing, within visual range of the abandoned facility. Even at that distance the team is exposed to radiation that is a thousand times greater than it is in the average city.

Two thousand villages were destroyed by the accident and no one is officially allowed to live within 30 km of the reactor, but people do, and at one point Roche and De Leo visit some elderly peasants. One journalist asks De Leo if the peasants aren't afraid and she replies, "What are they going to do? There's nowhere to go."

Some residents were evacuated to cities, but many moved back, even to the so-called Exclusion Zone, because they preferred dying at home to living in a strange place.

De Leo spends more time with younger victims. The incidence of thyroid cancer has increased by a factor of 10,000 since 1986, mostly among children and teens.

Orphanages have sprung up throughout Belarus, and not all of the residents are there because their parents died. Many have been abandoned due to mental and physical disabilities that require permanent hospitalization. The disabilities are sobering enough, but the most shocking scene is the rough treatment one severely disabled child receives from a nurse. Though De Leo can be heard despairing over the nurse's actions, she tells us, "I didn't see much of that sort of thing. They really have no one to take care of them. There are now 200 orphanages in Belarus. In one I visited, there was only one nurse. It's overwhelming."

The film's title describes a medical condition. It is not unusual for babies to be born with holes in their hearts, but, according to De Leo, "Multiple holes are something you don't see that much, and the high number of such cases [in Belarus] is what has given the condition the name Chernobyl Heart. However, they don't really know [the cause] because they've never done any studies."

She mentions one Belarus scientist who was jailed after he attempted such a study: "The authorities said he was taking bribes from students who got into medical school." The director says she'd like to go back and interview him for a followup, but trying to increase world awareness of Chernobyl is a quixotic task. "The U.N.'s latest report says there really isn't a problem," she says and shrugs.

De Leo hesitates to tie this attitude into the greater worldwide acceptance of nuclear energy over the past decade. "The fact is, that type of plant [at Chernobyl] is old and isn't used in other parts of the world, but there are other reactors like it in other Eastern republics," she says. "I've heard environmentalists say, 'Yeah, well, there might be an accident at a plant once in a while, but that's not so bad considering the oil situation.' "

De Leo believes Chernobyl is the world's problem, and that the world should help fix it. "The sarcophagus [a sheath of concrete created to contain the radiation] is ready to fall apart," she says.

But she isn't optimistic. Even the Oscar didn't make a difference. "It brought Chernobyl some attention, but no real effect." The best thing it did was spotlight the activities of Dr. William Novick, a pediatric heart specialist shown operating on a little girl whose parents offer the American surgeon effusive gratitude that he has trouble accepting.

"It's what I do," he says later, clearly uncomfortable with being treated like a god, and while he won't say anything negative about the local response to the Chernobyl Heart problem, he implies that the matter could be solved if only the local authorities acknowledged it.

De Leo is working on a separate documentary about Novick, who runs a foundation. "He just goes around the world and repairs babies' hearts. That's what he's decided to do with his life. He's probably in Pakistan or India right now." She says she hasn't found a backer for it yet. Not even American cable TV giant HBO, which bankrolled "Chernobyl Heart," has shown any interest.

"You would think that once you win the Academy Award you could go in and say, 'This is what I want to do,' she adds. "But it's difficult."



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