By turns bleakly stirring and guardedly hopeful, Van Maximilian Carlson’s “Bhopali” examines the lingering aftermath of a catastrophic industrial disaster, the massive leakage of poison gas from a Union Carbide pesticide factory in the central Indian city of Bhopal. Well-crafted doc consistently maintains a tone of soft-spoken outrage while documenting how the initial death toll of the Dec. 3, 1984, calamity — estimated at 10,000 or more — has subsequently been far surpassed by the number of chronic maladies and birth defects attributed to water contamination caused by the leakage. Pic should travel far in fest, nonprofit and tube venues.
Interviewees ranging from Bhopal activists to former Union Carbide employees blame the company (a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical since 2001) for events they claim were caused by irresponsible miscalculations made during the initial factory design, and failure to enforce already lax safety standards. Pic pointedly notes that, while visiting the area in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson and two associates were arrested by Indian police — but returned to the U.S. after posting nominal bail.
But “Bhopali” also indicates that many people in Bhopal and throughout the rest of India also blame local and national government officials for failing to diligently pursue claims against Union Carbide, for neglecting to organize an adequate detoxification of land and water near the now-shuttered factory — and for “selling out” by agreeing to Union Carbide’s one-time-only restitution payment of $470 million (an amount, one activist bitterly notes, that resulted in about $500 for each of the lifelong injured).
Carlson, a Los Angeles filmmaker, skillfully interweaves a cogent account of the disaster and the ongoing legal battles it spawned with intimate, often heart-wrenching stories of the disaster’s living victims: Severely handicapped children whose parents — most of them financially challenged — must seek help from charity-funded or government-operated facilities that often are ill-equipped to cope with so many desperately needy cases.
As moving as these personal dramas are, however, none has quite the same impact as the testimony of Sanjay Verma, an activist who was a small boy at time of the Bhopal disaster, and escaped death that night only because he was whisked away by his older sister. Their parents and other relatives were not so fortunate. Years later, he says, they endured yet another tragic loss directly attributable to the catastrophe.
During a TV news interview that, in context of this doc, makes the interviewee seem downright self-delusional, a government minister dismisses the very idea that land and water near the site of the disaster remains toxic. His claim is repeatedly and persuasively rebuffed by a wealth of experts quoted throughout the pic, and by activists shown marching, protesting and otherwise proselytizing for the Bhopal survivors and their offspring. Carlton gives the last word to the latter group.
(It comes as absolutely no surprise when the closing credits reveal that Union Carbide and Dow reps “did not respond to multiple interview requests.”)
On a tech level, “Bhopali” is impressively polished. But not so slick that its ability to provoke thought or rouse indignation is in any way diminished.