The history of man-made disasters makes for depressing reading at the best of times.
Among the most notorious in living memory is the 1986 catastrophe, when one of the then-Soviet Union’s biggest nuclear reactors went into meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant in what is now Ukraine.
Two people died in the initial explosion and fire, but we may never know the true numbers of casualties. A massive evacuation and clean-up operation followed, with more than half a million people exposed to the deadly radiation leaking from the reactor.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates at least 27,000 additional deaths from cancer following Chernobyl, while infant mortality and congenital birth defects rocketed in Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus in the aftermath.
The numbers are staggering, but Luxembourgian director Pol Cruchten, whose docudrama Voices from Chernobyl is showing October 25 and 26 as part of the European Film Screenings programme in Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively, says his film is not about the deaths, or even the disaster itself, but rather about the people involved.
“It’s also a picture about love, about the strength of love,” he says. “I’ve not tried to go for a picture in a catastrophic style, but to make one with lots of natural light, and direct it like for cinema, not in a typical documentary style.”
Shot around Chernobyl and the nearest town, Pripyat – also the setting for the 2012 horror film Chernobyl Diaries – which is now a ghost town, the documentary is based on Svetlana Alexievich's book of the same name, which won last year's Nobel Prize for literature.
Alexievich spent more than five years researching and interviewing eyewitnesses for her book – however rather than simply revisiting the author’s subjects and talking to them on camera, Cruchten decided to use actors to recreate parts of the interviews. As the director pointedly notes, many of the original interviewees have died since Alexievich talked to them.
The movie has already won four international awards on the festival circuit, including Berlin and Paris, and has been selected as Luxembourg’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards.
It has also been picked up by Franco-German TV company ARTE for European broadcast, and will be released in selected European cinemas next month.
UAE audiences can catch a sneak preview tonight, in Abu Dhabi, and tomorrow, in Dubai, of the film, which offers a rare, intimate peek into one of the worst human tragedies of modern times.
“It’s a journey to the souls of the people who lived through the disaster of Chernobyl,” Cruchten says. “Whether it’s kids, technicians, or soldiers, there’s a big scale of different people who talk about their worlds.”
Cruchten, whose 2013 docudrama Never Die Young was also chosen as Luxembourg's entry for the Oscars, believes that despite Voices from Chernobyl's grim subject matter, there are plenty of positives to take from it.
“There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from the film,” he says. “Chiefly to stay human, to still believe in humanity even in the face of great disaster, to keep believing in your soul and what you can achieve with your life, because these people are heroes.
“They’re not just ordinary people. To me they’re real heroes and that’s what comes through in the film.”
Cruchten says the resilience of the survivors is an inspiration to him.
“They had to cope with the contamination, with terrible diseases with children,” he says. “There were people losing their kids from the disaster at the age of 7, and they still kept going. They kept looking at the situation with a great deal of philosophy towards life.
“That’s what first impressed me with the book. I read it in one night, I couldn’t put it down because these people weren’t just complaining, they took it with great dignity and I think there is a great lesson for mankind.”
• Voices from Chernobyl screens on Tuesday, October 25, at Novo Cinemas, WTC Mall, Abu Dhabi, and on Wednesday, October 26, at Novo Cinemas, Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai. Both screenings are at 9pm and tickets are free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis