Children With Hardhats chernobyl: the lost tapes
Children with hardhats pictured in Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes courtesy of HBO

Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes director James Jones was always fascinated by the Chernobyl disaster. He just thought it had already been covered so much that there wasn’t a need for another documentary on the subject — until he learned about all the unseen footage that had been filmed during immediate aftermath of the disaster in 1986.

Jones speaks Russian, and even spent a year living there in college. In his career as a documentary filmmaker, he’s directed episodes of Frontline and Dispatches, and last year, the documentary The Riots 2011: One Week in August.

That background made him the perfect person to tackle a new Chernobyl docuseries. His journey to making HBO’s Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes all started when he began reading books about the disaster during the early days of the pandemic — and in one of those books, he found a footnote that pointed him towards a bit of footage that would lead him down a “rabbit hole.”

“They referenced the footage that you’ll have seen in the film, which was shot the weekend after the accident happened. It’s a glorious, sunny spring day — moms pushing their babies in strollers and kids playing in the street and everyone just, like, milling around, weddings happening. But you see these white flashes on the film, and that was because the radiation level was so incredibly high, and everyone’s just carrying on, oblivious to it,” Jones told MovieMaker.

“You slowly start to see, literally, men in protective gear appearing spraying down the streets. But still, everyone is carrying on as if nothing’s happened,” he said. “The fact that that was just hours after the accident — I was like, what else did they film?”

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Turns out, there was a lot more where that came from. After watching that one piece of footage, Jones became dedicated to tracking down all the footage that was shot right after the explosion. Most of it had been gathering dust, unseen, for 36 years.

“A handful of documentary crews were given access to the plant after the accident happened, and they were state studios. Basically, they were sent to document the heroism of the cleanup operation and this pride that only the Soviet Union could deal with a disaster like this,” Jones said. “Obviously, what they actually captured was a much more grim story of young men being sent to almost certain death.”

The films that the Soviet Union did make about Chernobyl at the time, Jones says, were edited to only show the heroism of the cleanup effort. The rest owas censored, leaving countless hours of footage on the cutting room floor. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the state film studios that had commissioned those documentary projects ceased to exist, and some of the leftover footage was lost — but a lot of it was preserved.

“Sometimes relatives would take it, sometimes people will hang on to it. The title The Lost Tapes makes it sound like just one chest of tapes that we stumbled across, but it was actually piecemeal and painstaking, over a year and a half, just basically tracking down every single camera person who’d been in Chernobyl before and after the accident,” Jones said.

One of the tapes we see in the documentary shows a group of young Soviet soldiers who were asked to volunteer to be “liquidators.” Their task? Cleaning up radioactive waste with nothing but a shovel and scant protective gear. Jones met the men who had inherited the tapes while on his first trip to Kyiv.

“It was observational footage of these guys living there. In the film, you see the guy is kind of like larking around being like, oh ‘Yeah, we heard we get 150 grams of vodka for coming here, and you know, the radiation doesn’t affect us.’ All that stuff that was just so ordinary and full of life,” Jones said.

Another essential bit of footage came from a cinematographer who had been holding onto his unseen footage for 36 years.

“He was a conscript in the army, and his superior officer was like, ‘Hey, Sergey, didn’t you go to film school in Kyiv? Why don’t you go to Chernobyl and take a camera? So he just went and he filmed all this stuff. He’s still a cinematographer nw, but he never showed his footage from Chernobyl to anyone, which just blows my mind,” Jones said. “Dealing with him was a long process of winning his trust, because he’d waited 35, 36 years to show anyone, and it’s beautiful. It’s just stunning.”

Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes is now streaming on HBO Max.

Main Image: Children with hardhats pictured in Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes courtesy of HBO