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Russian filmmaker plays catch-up on the 1986 Chornobyl disaster

When one of Russia’s most successful filmmakers watched HBO’s acclaimed miniseries on Chornobyl, he says his heart initially sank.

With his own production well underway but still more than a year and a half from release, Alexander Rodnyansky had been beaten to the punch.

“We got very disappointed, of course, because we wanted to tell our own story,” said Rodnyansky. “We never expected such an important platform as HBO to tell such a specific story from Soviet history.”

Rodnyansky, an Oscar nominee who’s made some of the highest-grossing movies in Russian history, had started working almost four years earlier on a blockbuster film that he hoped would be the definitive treatment of the 1986 nuclear reactor disaster.

A botched safety test sent clouds of nuclear material across much of eastern Europe, killing 31 people right away and forcing tens of thousands to flee. The final death toll from cancer and other radiation-related illnesses is subject to debate.

After the five-part HBO miniseries began airing in June, American writer and director Craig Mazin was basking in praise.

But then, Rodnyansky says, his spirits lifted.

The ferris wheel in the abandoned amusement park in Pripyat, Ukraine, near the Chornobyl plant, is one of the enduring images of the disaster. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

He says he saw how well viewers, including those in Russia, responded to the story, how it has sparked a Chornobyl revival, and how a record number of tourists are flocking to the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, north of Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv.

“I realized this series would definitely make people more aware of what happened. It would make the story of Chornobyl much more attractive, much more interesting for viewers.”

Rodnyansky met with CBC News recently in the Moscow office of his Non Stop Productions to discuss the disaster, the impact of the miniseries and the Russian movie industry’s efforts to play catch-up.

His long list of film credits include 2013’s Stalingrad, the highest-grossing feature film in modern Russian history, and 2014’s Leviathan, which was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film and won the category that year at the Golden Globes.

Russian filmmaker Alexander Rodnyansky, an Oscar nominee, is making a blockbuster movie version of the Chornobyl story. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Rodnyansky’s upcoming film, tentatively titled Chornobyl: Abyss, is in post-production and set for a 2020 release.    

Recently,  CBC News visited a giant,  flooded sound stage in Budapest, Hungary where producers were shooting a key scene for the movie.

Prominent Russian actor Danila Kozlovsky plays the lead role of a “liquidator” — one of a three-man suicide squad sent into the watery basement of the reactor on a mission to prevent the release of a catastrophic nuclear cloud.

“They had to become heroes and save lives,” Kozlovsky told CBC News. “They had to save the whole country and the whole of Europe.”

Kozlovsky, who also directs the film, says while comparisons to the HBO miniseries are inevitable, he believes his movie advances the story beyond “the state lie” about the disaster and is even more relatable for movie watchers.

“We are focusing on a specific family and the impact of the events of 1986, how this changes them and who they become at the end of the story.”

Chornobyl Reactor 4, which exploded in 1986, is now surrounded by a stainless steel containment dome. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Rodnyansky,  the executive producer, grew up in Kyiv, and has vivid memories of disaster, which occurred when he was 25.

“I saw these firemen myself and I saw these young people who were … risking their lives and losing their lives, and I remember their funerals,” said Rodnyansky, who’s now 58.

Russian concerns

Shortly after the HBO series hit the pay-for-view channels in Russia over the summer, there was grumbling from senior figures in the Kremlin and on state television about an anti-Russian bias.

The Moscow Times quoted Russian TV anchor Stanislav Natanzon as complaining that the production was full of lazy Soviet stereotypes: “The only things missing are the bears and accordions!”

Rodnyansky says given the frosty political relationship between Russia and the West, such negative comments were to be expected. But he emphasises his production isn’t an attempt to “Russianize” the Chornobyl story.

“I wouldn’t call [our movie] a political statement,” he said,  adding he believes most Russians, including himself, admired the HBO production.

“This movie is definitely about the lie, but we don’t investigate the system. We tell, very much, our story about ordinary people.”

The new movie will focus on a team of ‘liquidators’ who return to the flooded reactor to try to prevent the release of a radioactive cloud. (Non Stop Productions)

Other Russian treatments of Chornobyl, however, may be playing to a more political audience.

NTV, owned by the Russian state energy giant Gazprom, has commissioned its own made-for-TV miniseries which reportedly focuses on the hunt for an alleged CIA spy working at the Chornobyl facility.

There’s no evidence that foreign spies or espionage played any role in the disaster.

The series was supposed to air in late 2019 but NTV has pulled the trailer, and a production official told CBC News that scheduling issues have delayed the project’s release.

Given the political blowback in Russia over the success of a British-American production tackling such a prominent event in Soviet history, many Russian commentators have openly asked why Russian filmmakers didn’t make their own Chornobyl version first.

‘Look from the outside’

Rodnyansky says time and distance likely have a lot to with it.

“It would have been possible to this movie, for sure,” he says.

“But sometimes we need to look from the outside.”

“Sometimes we’re good at telling the stories that are distant from us. And probably Chornobyl was too close. Because in many ways, Chornobyl [became] the most important event that ended the Soviet Union.”

Russian film star Danila Kozlovsky directs Chornobyl: Abyss. (Non Stop Productions)

Kozlovsky, the actor and director, says while being first would have been better, it’s also good that the HBO series was widely seen in Russia.

“When people see our film, they probably already know what happens — kind of like being well educated, which is good.”

Kozlovsky says that education may have helped win over an unlikely financial backer for the project — none other than Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, Rosatom.

He says while Rosatom officials initially had concerns that the world’s worst nuclear disaster might not be the kind of topic they wanted to go anywhere near, they were eventually won over by the script and the tone of the project.

“I spoke to some very high-level officials who really liked the HBO series,” he said, noting that Rosatom eventually “became our friends and partners and helped us make this film.”

When CBC News visited Chornobyl this fall, most of the visitors who talked to our crew said they had seen the HBO movie.

Bumper cars stand at the abandoned amusement park. The Chornobyl exclusion zone has experienced a 30 per cent jump in visitors since the premiere of the HBO miniseries on the disaster. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

Tourism operators report a 30 per cent increase in visitors to the 30-kilometre exclusion zone that surrounds the now shuttered plant. Short day trips pose almost no risk of radiation, though the site remains off limits to anyone under 18.

“It shook me,” British tourist Dave Stambury said.  “I had known about Chornobyl but I didn’t have a feel for the catastrophe.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he hopes to cash in on the renewed Chornobyl interest by making it easier to visit the site. 

It’s not Disneyland

Site operators have recently opened previously inaccessible areas to tourists, including the control room of Reactor 4,  where staff made many of the fateful decisions leading up to the botched safety test, early in the morning on April 26, 1986.

Rodnyansky says while he’s in favour of people seeing Chornobyl for themselves, he doesn’t support exploiting it.

“On the one side, it sounds crazy to me,” said Rodnyansky, of the push to increase tourism.   

“For me, this is rather a place to remember, a place of mourning — definitely not a Disney park or a theme park.”