Ukraine gained independence from Russia with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The eerie similarities between that catastrophe and the current war that Russia is waging against Ukraine are not lost on James Jones, the director of HBO’s new docuseries Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.
Jones said it felt like a “terrible fever dream” when Russia invaded Ukraine right after they’d wrapped the film about the Chernobyl disaster, which took place in what is now Ukraine, 100 miles north of Kyiv, when a nuclear reactor exploded on April 26, 1986.
“It was kind of surreal. We were finishing the film in late February and then the war started days after we’d finished. It was like a kind of terrible fever dream,” Jones told MovieMaker. “People who I’d been working with and interviewing were sending me voice notes saying, ‘I’m in a bomb shelter and air raid sirens [are] going off,’ and it was pretty distressing.”
Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes draws on hours and hours of never-before-seen documentary footage shot at great risk by a handful of cameramen who were given access to the ruined plant. Some were there simply to document, while others were hired by now-defunct Soviet studios to show the heroism of the effort to clean up the once-idyllic town of Chernobyl following the accident. But those tapes were later shelved when it later became clear that the people, nicknamed “liquidators,” who were sent in to dispose of nuclear waste were essentially being given a death sentence due to radiation exposure.
The Soviet Union only acknowledged the deaths of 31 people as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, though the docuseries cites an estimate done by scientists hired by Greenpeace that the full number could be as high as 200,000.
Subjects interviewed in Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes also say that Soviet doctors were instructed not to diagnose anyone with radiation sickness, and the phrase “radiophobia” was coined in order to gaslight people who were experiencing symptoms of high radiation exposure. As the series explains, the Chernobyl disaster — and the distrust it bred between Soviet citizens and officials — was one of the precipitating events that lead to the fall of the Soviet Union.
“A lot of the themes in the film are being repeated — Kremlin lies having horrific consequences, particularly on the people of Ukraine,” Jones said.
But Jones didn’t include that modern perspective in the docuseries, not only because it was completed by the time the Russia-Ukraine war broke out this year, but because he didn’t want to appear to be capitalizing on the tragedy that the Ukraine people are currently facing.
“It’s a film about the resilience and strength of the Ukrainian people standing up against those lies and oppression. So, hopefully, there’s a kind of a hopeful message in there as well,” he said. “It definitely makes it feel more urgent, I would say. I’m also conscious of not being opportunistic with the film, because this war is a tragedy, however you look at it.”
When he’s shown Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes to Ukrainian friends and colleagues, Jones said they felt that it’s important for people to see it now, given the new context.
“Putin is trying to turn the clock back. He’s learned from those leaders in the Soviet Union, the same methods of disinformation and everything,” Jones said. “He’s trying to reverse everything that happens in that film, in terms of getting independence.”
Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes premieres on HBO and HBO Max on June 22.
Main Image: Men being treated for radiation exposure pictured in Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, courtesy of HBO.