Slamdance – Interview with Bhopali director Max Carlson
Max Carlson directorial debut is documentary called Bhopali, examining the effects that still plague the citizens of India after a huge gas leak in 1984 from factory owned by the company, Union Carbide. Thousands were killed instantly, and tens of thousands have been affected since then. No one is demanding Union Carbide take responsibility, and the Indian government isn’t helping much either. I spoke with him about his documentary here at the Slamdance film festival where the movie is premiere.
BFR: How did you finance your film, Bhopali?
Max: I think the biggest expense for the whole film was the $1600 plane ticket to India. Since I directed, edited, and was the cinematographer, there weren’t a lot of people to pay. My dad works in the [film] industry and loaned me the camera we used, it was a Canon 5D. I edited the commercials and most of the publicity. The whole budget was between five and seven thousand dollars. When we got to India, one of the activist groups trying to draw attention to the issue let us stay for free. So basically, since we did everything ourselves, it was extremely cheap to make.
Can you give us a bit of background on the Bhopali disaster?
The world’s worst chemical disaster happen in Bhopal, India in 1984. A chemical company called Union Carbide, set up a factory there. In the seventies and eighties, they started making a lot of cost cutting measures, which included getting rid of a lot of the safety systems for the plant. The factory is surrounded by a very densely populated community. There was a gas leak that killed thousands in the surrounding area. Around one hundred thousand people are still chronically ill. After the leak, the company abandoned the factory, they left all the waste, all the chemical there and kind of washed their hands of the situation. For twenty six years, the poison chemical in the ground has been affecting the people there. A lot of kids are being born now with malformed limbs, with cerebral palsy, and all sorts of genetic defects. The company has been allowed to get away unpunished for this.
I was shocked that I had never heard of such a huge disaster.
That’s one of the reasons I chose to make this particular documentary. Most people in America have never heard about the disaster. People have never of Bhopal and certainly can’t tell you where it’s located. That’s really said. It’s not just something that happened in the early eighties and is over. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. My interest was in exposing the corporate crimes involved and to show how no one is taking responsibility for these people. People need to be more aware of the situation.
In the film you mention that now there’s a third generation being affected by the chemical leak. Can you explain that?
For a large part of the film, I follow a rehabilitation clinic that helps those made ill by the leak, mostly children, you can see the present day effects in this patients. The first generation are the people who were alive in 1984, the people who survived everything that happened. The effects of the chemical still affected these people, and they’ve passed on genetic problems to their children. These children are the second generation. And the third, is comprised of the people who are still depending on the water that is now so contaminated, its making them sick as well. It’s really a critical condition. No one has ever attempted any sort of cleanup. In 2009, tests were done, up to three kilometers from the plant. Even at that distance, the water was contaminated, and 30,000 people are depending on it to live. Even the government, it seems, is helping at a bare minimum. It’s a huge injustice, and these people are hugely relying on activists to get the story out there.
Who is funding the clinic for the survivors?
It’s a NGO (non-governmental organization), so it’s funded by donations. They’re working with other organizations to set up long term funding.
Is the American government directly funding any of it, or any cleanup efforts?
No, there’s no funding from the American Government. But one of the NGOs helping out is based in Boston. They raise a lot of awareness through school systems. Americans really can help though, they have that option. Although a lot of American money is going to help the victims, such a small fraction of Americans even know about the problem. I’m really surprised there’s not a documentary all ready about it. Every anniversary of the event, there are little news stories here and there, but not a powerful documentary to raise awareness. On the topic of donations, I’d like to mention a website called www.bhopal.org. That’s the best place to learn about the disaster, get involved, volunteer, or donate.
Are there any efforts to raise money to clean up the area?
No, there’s not, unfortunately. It’s sad and unjustifiable. You’d think India would have done something by now. Now, the chemical has seeped so far down, it’s too expensive really. There are some class action law suits right now against Union Carbide, completely about the environmental issues, mostly about the water contamination. People want justice from Carbide and Dow Chemical. The government is hesitant to fund cleanup efforts claiming it would set a dangerous precedence: governments cleaning up dangerous messes by private companies. I agree, that is a tricky area, but regardless, it needs to be cleaned up. Every year the survivors protest about it, but nothing gets done. So, to answer your question directly, no, there are no efforts to start a cleanup. There are efforts to bring in clean water by pipe and truck, but it’s very slow. The government is in charge of that. But it’s still in pretty bad shape twenty six years after the fact.
Is anyone pressuring India into taking action? Like the World Health Organization, or the World Trade Organization?
I’m not sure about any sort of political pressure, I can’t make a statement about that. There is a court case going on in American concerning the disaster. The American courts invited the Indian government to take part in the trial, and all they contributed was a single letter. I’m not sure what the letter said, but that’s the limit of their efforts. Greenpeace is always trying to raise awareness, but really, they need somebody big and powerful to make things happen.
Where can people catch a screening of Bhopali?
Tonight (1/23/11) at 7:30PM, as well as Tuesday at noon. Both showings are a the Treasure Mountain Inn, and I’ll be there to answer questions about the film.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about Bhopali?
I’d really love it if the film helped people understand that environmental problems are all our responsibility. It’s not fair the parties responsible are getting away from corporate crimes, and we need to take action to stop it. You can’t rely on them to take responsibility. Or, really, the government either. I would implore people to help. Please visit www.bhopal.com for information on how to help.
Thanks to Max, and Integrated PR for providing this interview and publicity materials