In Dec. 1984, right before midnight and without warning, the gas leaked from the Union Carbide factory. The cool night breeze blew the gas — extremely toxic methyl isocynate — over the city of Bhopal, India, exposing hundreds of thousands of citizens to poisonous chemicals.
Though figures vary, the immediate death toll was somewhere between 2,400 and 3,500 people. Activists allege 25,000 people died as a direct and indirect result of gas exposure.
The factory still stands today, the 26-year-old chemicals continuing to poison the ground and the surrounding land. Union Carbide and its owner, the Dow Chemical Company, both refuse to take responsibility and clean up the remnants of the disaster.
Bhopali, a documentary by newcomer Van Maximillian “Max” Carlson, looks at Bhopal today, reviewing the wreckage of that calm December night’s events. Bhopali is one of the most impactful and poignant documentaries released in recent memory, but it is certainly not an easy film to watch.
The genuine human struggle of those affected coupled with the lack of contemporary news coverage and the sheer unjustness of it all, however, makes this film a must-see.
That probably sounds like an overstatement, but like 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s groundbreaking documentary about global warming, Bhopali is a revelation.
Many people today seem to be unaware of the tragedy in Bhopal. Though it might not be covered in mainstream media, the struggle continues, with activists’ cries for continued litigation muted by international and corporate law.
Carlson’s documentary, presented so compellingly, shines a glaring light on a population that has been so systematically maligned.
Minute after minute, Bhopali brilliantly focuses the lens on ordinary people in extraordinarily tragic positions.
There are the activists, of course, but the film also tells the story of a woman survivor who must deal with her speech-impaired, physically challenged son; a family that must cope with a depressed infant, unable to even sit upright; and a man who lost his parents and five of his eight siblings in one fell swoop on the night of the gas leak.
Characters are often the critical components of a film’s narrative success, and in that sense Bhopali is a blockbuster. You simply cannot ignore these peoples’ stories.
Moreover, Carlson masterfully weaves the events of the gas leak, the testimonies of survivors and the current legal pursuit.
One survivor’s moment flows into the technical aspects of the contamination, which flows again into the legal turmoil behind the catastrophe. Even acclaimed political activist, philosopher and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of linguistics Noam Chomsky, makes an appearance, narrating the governmental issues that allow the tragedy in Bhopal to continue today.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the film is intensely beautiful, with a blend of talented cinematography and cleverly animated court documents, diagrams and even a graphic novel-esque sequence that somehow works perfectly in tandem with the recount of the gas leak and the subsequent flee from the descending fumes.
Still, all of this glossy production does not take away from the friction of the subject material. In actuality, the beauty of the filmmaking highlights two things: a beautiful community has been, in many ways, destroyed and that there is a sort of beauty in the cautious hopefulness of that same community today.
Bhopali isn’t a perfect documentary by any means, mostly because it has a clear bias and leaves out the opposing point of view of the events from that horrific night (though the film does state the Union Carbide and The Dow Chemical Company refused to answer questions).
In the end, however, Bhopali isn’t just about the disaster itself. It’s a film that primarily reflects on human nature and how the people of Bhopal still fight to take care of their own when the battle already seems lost.
To have to fight for normalcy nearly 27 years after the original travesty is a task of Homeric proportions that no one should have to undertake.
While most of the world, including The Dow Chemical Company and its subsidiary, Union Carbide, continues to leave behind the memory of history’s worst industrial disaster, Bhopali stands as a forceful reminder that justice has yet to be served.