The real Chernobyl Diaries: notes from Ukraine

Thom Davies

Woman near Chernobyl Ukraine Thom Davies 300x199 The real Chernobyl Diaries: notes from UkraineDiary Entry, 7 June, 2011: “My brother died from thyroid cancer”, says Olga, 31, as we walk together near her village on the outskirts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. “I was helping my parents plant potatoes here when it happened.  I remember a convoy of army trucks driving along that track towards Chernobyl. They were staring out of the windows at us, through their gas masks.” Later we sat together at her family grave and shared bread and vodka, as is tradition in this part of Ukraine.

What struck me the most about the film ‘Chernobyl Diaries’, which I had put off for as long I could, was the shameless insensitivity it shows towards the hundreds of thousands of people who have suffered and continue to suffer from the 1986 nuclear disaster.  The film portrays Chernobyl’s victims as deformed flesh-eating zombies who haunt the abandoned city of Prypiat, which lies near the destroyed reactor in north Ukraine.

They skulk in the darkness, and in a plot-less mess of disaster-porn, devour a group of annoying American tourists. However, for people like Olga and many others I have met over the last few years, Chernobyl is a very real and very painful part of their lives.

In some ways it is no surprise that a bad-taste horror flick has been made about Chernobyl. The facts themselves read like a classic dystopian science fiction novel; nuclear meltdown, post-apocalyptic abandonment, scientific unknowns.

Except Chernobyl is no fiction.

It led to the forced-relocation of over 350 000 people. That’s more than the entire population of Iceland. The myriad implications for these environmental refugees have been devastating, with severed social-networks, divided families and joblessness. Many people I have interviewed even suggested that “the stress of evacuation is worse than the threat of radiation”, with some choosing to move back to their polluted villages.

One evacuee, who now lives 500km from Chernobyl near the Romanian border told me how she would “walk back right now in bare feet if I was allowed to go home”. She’d got permission to go back only once to her derelict flat in Prypiat since she was given three hours to pack-up her things 26 years earlier.  Today, Chernobyl Diaries uses her abandoned childhood as its movie set.

The nuclear meltdown has fenced-off an area roughly the size of Oxfordshire.  And then there is the death toll. The UNDP places this at around 9000, but many dispute this conservative figure, with reasonable estimates stretching to nearer one million.

Incredible then, that something so scientifically precise as nuclear science can produce such inconsistencies when that science fails. But what numbers and statistics cannot show is the uncountable sociological problems associated with the accident; the feelings of loss; the sense of abandonment by the Ukrainian State.  And the tears.

The controversy of the film has been expressed by charities who work with Chernobyl victims. Chief Executive of UK charity ‘Chernobyl Children’s Life Line’, Dennis Vystavkin told me how he thinks “the film is disgusting, it’s doing our heads in”.

Why then, with something so obviously tragic, does a film like Chernobyl Diaries exist?

The answer, in part is based on a latent Orientalism, a perception of Eastern-Europe as somehow backward, strange and ‘other’. One only has to look at recent films such as Borat (2006), which portrayed Kazakhstan as primitive and racist, or Hostel (2005) where once more Eastern-Europe was presented as a place of savage post-socialist depravity. Not to mention ‘A Serbian Film’ (2010).  The recent coverage of Euro 2012 continued this negative portrayal, with ITV commentator Peter Drury exclaiming after Poland scored an equalizer against Russia: “from president to peasant, they’re all cheering!” – reinforcing the tired stereotype of Slavic people.  You can imagine Drury preparing that line before the game ‘What do Poland and Russia have in common? That’s it – peasants!’.

With this ‘othering’ comes a fascination with disaster. Where people’s ‘otherness’ becomes more important than their humanity. But zombies? Well there are some modern disasters that even zombies steer well clear of. Chernobyl – the worst technological disaster in human history, is for some reason not one of them.

Of course, there is a real monster in Chernobyl, lurking in the shadows. That of radiation. As one frail old woman who survived the Second World War told me “At least when the Nazis were in my village you could see them”. Radiation is invisible but everywhere. And it’s not stopped by the barbed wire fence that surrounds the Exclusion Zone.  It’s the more visible, tangible threat of poverty however, that takes priority. Many people regularly slip under the wire into the polluted Zone to pick mushrooms and berries, or hunt for wild game.

For thousands of people who continue to suffer from Chernobyl, who have either lost loved-ones or who live on the margins of the Exclusion Zone and society, films such as Chernobyl Diaries are no more than an insult.

Towards the end of the film in an abandoned building a young zombie girl stands, ghost like, looking away from the camera. We never see her face, but she is no older than Olga would have been when she saw those gas-masked soldiers 26 years ago.

When Mark Kermode reviewed the film, despite his artistic reservations he said it was “A good idea, a good setting, a good location”. On behalf of those I have met during my research, I disagree.

Thom Davies is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Names have been changed to protect the identity of participants.

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  • Amanda Fee

    Don’t know about you but if i wanted to teach people about Chernobyl i wouldn’t show them this film. Could just be me though.

  • Ian Z. Futterer

    I’m waiting for a zombie movie about the indian ocean tsunami

  • Dorothy Joy Perez

    I agree whole-heartedly that the movie was insulting and insensitive to those who have suffered, and are suffering, from the nuclear disaster. With that said, the movie wasn’t made to serve as a documentary to the disaster. The unknown is horrifying and so they took a mysterious town, added a twist, and used it as a form of fictional entertainment. That’s really it. I’m not going to lie though- I would have preferred a documentary.

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