Drawing on archival visual material from the former Soviet Union and a mix of old and contemporary interviews, the tense documentary “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes” reconstructs the 1986 nuclear disaster from the perspectives of people present during its devastation.
We hear from Lyudmila Ihnatenko (the inspiration for Jessie Buckley’s character on the HBO dramatized mini-series), a resident of the area who was pregnant when the catastrophe occurred, and whose husband, a firefighter, went to the plant after the initial explosion. Oleksiy Breus, an engineer at Chernobyl, speaks of going to work the next day not even knowing what had happened. It is chilling to hear about the slowness of the evacuation — there is mention of children going to playgrounds instead of sheltering indoors — or to see flashes in the imagery that we’re told came from the film itself registering radiation.
Some of the most powerful footage involves the “liquidators,” men charged with containment and cleanup in the months after the accident. One dismisses talk of radiation as nonsense. Soon after, the movie shows flabbergasting video of them shoveling debris while presumably absorbing lethal doses.
Although it’s mentioned at the beginning that the Soviets documented the accident’s aftermath, hoping to propagandize the story of a heroic rescue, you might wonder who would possibly be holding a video camera at that moment. But “Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes,” directed by James Jones, does not extensively explore the history of its components. It’s less concerned with the tapes themselves than with the act of bearing witness.
Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes
Not rated. In Ukrainian, Russian and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. Watch on HBO platforms.