Memories of midnight

For Bhopal’s residents, life has been on a continuous loop since December 2, 1984. On that night, a gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant led to one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. Thousands were killed and lakhs of people were affected by the contaminants. Nearly three decades have gone, yet things remain eerily static. The suffering has been passed on to the second generation of survivors and justice is yet to be done. Documentary film Bhopali, directed by Los Angeles-based Van Maximilian Carlson and produced by Kirk Palayan, profiles children and their families who relive the memories of that night and cope with the daily effects of the disaster. It also offers moving portraits of families who reside around the abandoned factory surrounded by reminders of that night.

A torch rally organised during the protests

Among the many stories, Saiba Babu’s tale will move you while Sanjay Verma’s will inspire you. Saira is an 18-month-old infant born with severe birth defects due to the contaminated water near the factory. Her father’s struggle to restore her health meets daily roadblocks in the form of an ill-equipped, expensive and apathetic hospital system. On the other side, Verma was six months old when the tragedy struck killing most of his family. The search for answers turned him from a victim to an activist fighting for his and other Bhopal residents’ rights. Excerpts from an interview with Palayan:

Saiba Babu, an 18-month old infant suffering from severe birth defects

Why did you choose the Bhopal gas tragedy as the subject of your documentary?
Max (Maximilian) had a friend who had volunteered at the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal and had done a radio piece on her experiences. He was affected by the stories he heard. Around the same time my students in the Ecology club were researching environmental accidents around the world, and the club was moved by the information about Bhopal. So, weeks later when Max told me about Bhopal, it was eerie since we examined the issues independently yet at around the same time, and we immediately agreed to visit.

Kids playing near the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal

How was the experience while working on Bhopali?
In the beginning, it was overwhelming. Immediately, the gross negligence and the continuing effects of the disaster struck us. It was frustrating to see the injustice and this sparked an unquenching motivation to help in any way we could. Sanjay Verma, who was our friend, guide, support, translator and survivor, helped to bridge our efforts to communicate with the amazing people of Bhopal. With his help we pieced together different stories that created the fabric.

Van Maximilian Carlson with Sanjay Verma, a survivor of the tragedy

What is the film’s core message? What does it explore?
The core message is that the disaster is still happening, since the population of Bhopal in the affected areas continues to suffer today. We explored individual stories and were able to expose a pattern of continued suffering from the poisonous toxins left behind by Union Carbide, which is now owned by DOW. We also learned about an amazing resilience that has developed over the years in the form of protests for justice. Bhopal’s residents have this tremendous fighting spirit that has been rising up against the injustice for three decades; it is a grassroots effort and is truly awe-inspiring. In the end, truth stands alone and cannot be fabricated, twisted or changed. Truth is on the side of the people of Bhopal, their day of justice will come.

Has there been a change in the approach of the government as a result of the film?
Unfortunately, there has not been much of a change in government policy, as they continue to allow DOW/Union Carbide to exist in India. They have also not been supportive of the clean-up efforts, since nothing has changed over all these years. Fortunately, Bhopal’s residents have been fighting and our hope is that the film aids their quest to achieve the justice they deserve.

What were the major challenges while shooting?
We didn’t understand Hindi. We wanted to communicate with Bhopal’s residents directly but this wasn’t possible immediately. Yet, with Sanjay Verma’s assistance, we were able to communicate and learn from the residents. Being unfamiliar with India was a challenge, as we had never visited the country before shooting this film. Bhopal’s people are friendly and kind and helped diffuse any potential problems that could have arisen.

Bhopali’s wins
> Slamdance Film Festival
>  Los Angeles International
Film Festival
>  Beverly Hills Film Festival
>  San Francisco United Film Festival
>  Global Visions Film Festival  

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