In May, I had the privilege of meeting award winning documentary filmmaker Max Carlson at the New York Indian Film Festival’s opening gala. Max’s most recent work, Bhopali, won the “Best Documentary” title a few days later.
This evocative 80-minute documentary deals with the tragic history of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, North India. Here, one of the world’s worst industrial accidents took place nearly 27 years ago. The inability of Union Carbide and the Indian government to take proper responsibility for the disaster has made Bhopal’s people suffer ever since.
Late in the night on December 2, 1984, the Bhopal Union Carbide fertilizer plant began leaking 27 tons of toxic methyl isocynate gas. Due to negligent factory maintenance on behalf of the American owned company, none of the 6 safety systems designed to contain such a leak went into operation. The result was mind numbingly tragic. Gas pervaded the city of Bhopal, exposing a half million people to the virulent fumes. Thousands died that night, and at least 25,000 to date as a result of ineffectual cleanup.
In the 26 years since this travesty, over 100,000 people’s lives have been devastated by contaminated groundwater. As a result, thousands of children have been born with debilitating physical and mental conditions, such as cerebral palsy. In fact, the frequency of birth defects in Bhopal is 10 times higher than the Indian average. Likewise, cancer rates are staggeringly high.
The reprehensible human sacrifice in Bhopal is a result of incessant finger-pointing between corporation and government. Union Carbide, which was later absorbed into DOW, believed(s) the Indian government should assume responsibility. The Indian government insists DOW should pay a greater price. Bhopali investigates the history of these arguments, many of which have been driven by deceit. The film also brings to light that the accident might have been preventable. A mid-1970’s Union Carbide document proves that significant maintenance cuts were made at the plant even though potential safety hazards were known.
When asked what inspired the film, Max told me, “Just hearing about the story and imagining the circumstances. I found out about the subject through a friend who volunteered at Sambhavna Clinic, a free clinic that treats survivors of the disaster through a holistic medicinal approach. I ended up editing a radio piece for my friend and was so shocked by the story that I decided to make a full-length feature about it. I had a strong desire to not let an irresponsible corporation, such as Union Carbide and Dow Chemical, get away with longstanding crimes.”
Max, who had never been to India, dove into the project in January 2009. He filmed a total of 4 months in Bhopal (January, February, November, and December of 2009), in addition to making a brief trip to the DOW headquarters in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Max and his producer Kirk Palayan independently funded, filmed, and edited the project while balancing their day jobs. I applaud their efforts.
For me, the most tragic part of the film is witnessing the broken lives of the Bhopal survivors and their children. Think about how much unnecessary suffering has resulted from the inability of powerful sources to take proper responsibility and work together over the course of nearly 3 decades. Something as simple as a dependable water filtration system hasn’t even been installed.
There are many people from Bhopal selflessly working towards positive transformation. Bhopali highlights the Chingari Trust, a rehabilitation clinic that treats children affected by the toxins of the tragedy. The therapists spread every rupee thin to help as many children as possible. The film also focuses on the activism of Sanjay Verma, also Max’s translator. Sanjay, who lost almost his entire family on that fateful day in 1984, ceaselessly fights for the cleanup of Bhopal. Find out more about these stories at http://www.bhopalithemovie.com.
We can make a difference here in the United States. I urge you to sign the petition Max established.
Every signature counts.
Bhopali will be in theaters in the fall and available on DVD soon after.
Sophie Herbert is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student), a singer-songwriter, and a visual artist. She has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India; teaches yoga in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and recently released her first full-length album, "Take a Clear Look." Please visit her website at SophieHerbert.com.