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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Stuart Heritage

Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes – stunning TV that is suddenly unmissable

Like being led by the hand into the mouth of hell … Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes.
Like being led by the hand into the mouth of hell … Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes. Photograph: Sky UK/Top Hat TV / Sirota

Had it been released at any point in the past few years, Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes would have been an important documentary; a feature-length blend of audio interviews and largely unseen archive footage that puts the 1986 disaster into horrifying new perspective. That it comes out now – just days after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, including an attack on the Chernobyl site itself – makes it as unmissable as it is harrowing.

Obviously, this timeliness was never the intention. Indeed, the film-maker James Jones had a different historical event in mind when he started work on it two years ago. “I initially thought the relevance was Covid,” he says. Like Chernobyl, the early days of the pandemic were marked with mysterious illnesses that the local government attempted to keep a lid on. “I was interested in the idea that this invisible enemy was threatening us,” he says. “An authoritarian regime was lying about it, and Chinese citizens were starting to voice their disquiet publicly.”

The seed of the documentary was planted when Jones read two books on the disaster during lockdown – “Not good for my mental state,” he says in retrospect. “But completely fascinating.” One contained a footnote that caught his eye. “It referenced footage that was shot in Pripyat [in northern Ukraine] the weekend after the accident,” he says. Despite the fact that the worst nuclear disaster in history had happened down the road hours earlier, releasing 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the Hiroshima bomb, the footage showed residents milling about as if nothing had happened.

“You can see mothers pushing babies around and kids playing football in the sand,” says Jones. “Then you start to see these white flashes on the film because of the insanely high level of radiation. It was so chilling.” Nevertheless, the existence of this footage spurred him to seek out more. Via a wealth of sources – national archives, propaganda films, collapsed Soviet documentary studios, western news reports, children and soldiers who happened to have video cameras at the time – he began to piece together a blistering documentary that draws a straight line from the USSR’s attempts to play down the disaster to the fall of the Soviet Union itself.

Although Chernobyl is one of those historical punctuation points on which everyone thinks they have a decent overview, not least due to Sky’s recent drama series, The Lost Tapes is studded with moments of footage so extraordinary that you are unlikely to forget them. A clean-up helicopter crashing to the ground over the explosion site. Searing footage of injuries and mutations to humans and animals. Wooden grave markers in an irradiated forest.

Into the mouth of hell … an image shot at tremendous risk during the clean-up operation after the accident in 1986.
Visceral horrors … an image shot at tremendous risk during the clean-up operation after the accident in 1986. Photograph: Sky UK/Top Hat TV / Sirota

But perhaps the most unforgettable sequence is of the so-called liquidators; civil and military personnel who, after the robot designed to do the job became overloaded with radiation and malfunctioned, were tasked with clearing tons of contaminated material from the roof of the building by hand. We see them fashioning rudimentary PPE by tying lead sheets to their bodies, and joking nervously about vodka. Then there is one clip where a camera follows a group of liquidators up a ladder and out on to the roof itself. It is absolutely extraordinary, like being led by the hand into the mouth of hell. “It was the most dangerous place on Earth at the time,” Jones says. “Many of them had no idea what they were doing.”

Equally distressing is the footage shot around Pripyat before the disaster. The place looks like a utopia. It’s clean and open, filled with so many children that a government official proudly opens the new wing of a maternity ward to cope with capacity. Jones admits that this footage has an air of Soviet propaganda to it, but it does seem a largely accurate reflection of how people who lived there felt about their town.

“It just humanised the place,” says Jones of this footage. “I loved the drama series, but it is relentlessly grim. I think the only shot you see of the actual town is when a bird falls from the sky and dies. But this whole other reality existed, of people swimming in the sea and having ordinary lives. So when the tragedy does hit, you feel that this wasn’t the distant world of grim Soviet citizens. It was a lively and joyous place.”

One thread the documentary does share with the series, though, is Lyudmilla Ignatenko. Played by Jessie Buckley in the drama, she is a Ukrainian, pregnant at the time of the accident, whose husband died of severe radiation poisoning after trying to put out the blaze.

Ignatenko is one of the primary interviewees in The Lost Tapes. She displays similar emotional backbone here, providing an audio recollection of the horror she witnessed with remarkable clearheadedness. “Lyudmilla has been through so much tragedy,” says Jones, awestruck.

Some of the more homespun archive footage also helps remind us how relatively recent the disaster was. To watch the uniformed cast of the Chernobyl series – or any official Soviet footage from that time, much of which was still shot on black and white film to save upgrading their kit – you could be lulled into thinking all this took place in the 1950s or 60s. But Jones’s wealth of new video footage, with some startlingly era-appropriate fashion, helps to underline that in terms of history, this happened very recently.

“It feels properly 80s,” says Jones. “Actually there was a great clip I really wanted to use where there’s a really 80s disco, and just like flashing lights and DJs and stuff. But it felt slightly wrong tonally to include it.”

Aerial view of the site, in footage found by James Jones and his team in Ukraine.
Aerial view of the site, in footage found by James Jones and his team in Ukraine. Photograph: Sky UK/Top Hat TV / Sirota

For all the visceral horror of Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, the thing that drags the film into the now is the torrent of disinformation that gushed out of the USSR in the wake of the tragedy. Despite the rest of the world reacting with justified alarm at the threat to life, the Soviet government clamped shut and refused to acknowledge anything that wasn’t fully undeniable, regardless of evidence. Pripyat residents are evacuated, but told they will return in a matter of days. Patients dying of unimaginable radiation burns were brushed away as having no connection to Chernobyl. The documentary claims that 200,000 people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the disaster. The official Soviet tally remains at 13. To put it in modern terms, this was fake news on a colossal scale.

Eventually, people learned the truth and public anger at the cover-up was such that Ukrainian independence soon followed, as did the final collapse of the USSR. I ask Jones whether, in the age of the internet, something so big could be covered as easily.

“You would think it would be impossible but then you look at Russia, at eastern Ukraine. If people are watching state television, particularly people at a certain age, you really can control what people think. I guess Putin’s tactic now is just to sow confusion everywhere so people feel they can’t trust anything, whether it’s state TV or some conspiracy theory on Facebook. The actual truth is just one of many things running around. You’d like to think that, if people were dying from radiation or getting cancer or their hair was falling out, that it would be documented. But I don’t know. My faith in the modern world has been shaken.”

Ordinary lives … Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes lays bare the tragedy through new archive footage and interviews with those who survived.
Ordinary lives … Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes lays bare the tragedy through new archive footage and interviews with those who survived. Photograph: Sky UK/Top Hat TV / Sirota

Securing all the footage was such an arduous job that it took him right up to the wire. “It was scattered around Russia and Ukraine, and it was just a nightmare,” he says. “Soviet bureaucracy, the pandemic, sanctions. Our payments to Russia kept getting stopped by banks. It was laughable. Until two or three weeks ago, I thought there was no way we could deliver on time.”

The documentary was finally handed in a week ago. “Literally in the nick of time,” says Jones. “If the war had started earlier, the film wouldn’t have been finished.” That brings us to the subject that has cast a shadow over the interview, the documentary, and the world at large. Throughout our talk, Jones has spoken adoringly of his Ukrainian producers who helped to hunt down the archive footage, along with the crew and interview subjects from the area. Have they been in touch since the invasion? “Pretty much all of them, yeah,” he replies. How are they doing? “They are all terrified, you know? Angry. They are all feeling pretty helpless.”

And Lyudmilla Ignatenko? “I texted yesterday saying, you know, I hope you’re OK. I always talk to her in Russian when we text,” he says. “This time, she replied in Ukrainian.”

• Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes is on Sky Documentaries tonight at 9pm.

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