Chernobyl hero filmed his own death

 

When Soviet filmmaker Vladimir Shevchenko took his camera onto the roof of Chernobyl's reactor four in the aftermath of the fatal explosion, he had no idea he was right in the middle of what was - in April 1986 - the most dangerous place on earth.

He also had no idea that his chilling documentary Chernobyl: Chronicle of Difficult Weeks, about the clean-up of the radioactive material at Chernobyl, would be his very last.

He died of acute radiation sickness a year later.

The award-winning film director, who was working for Ukrainian TV at the time, was said to have been quite unaware of the dangers he was putting himself in when he agreed to film from the roof next to reactor four.

He'd been hired to film in the exclusion zone. But his gravest error was agreeing - along with two assistants - to climb up to the most lethal area of all, just days after one of the worst man-made disasters of all time.

An aerial view of Reactor 4 after the explosion.
An aerial view of Reactor 4 after the explosion.


Even 33 years after the explosion, Shevchenko's film is still an eerie reminder of the sacrifices made by those who risked their lives in the clean-up efforts at Chernobyl.

Today, as the world focuses once again on those events due to HBO's series Chernobyl, it's worthwhile putting the spotlight on the courageous Shevchenko.

He gave his life so that we could see with our own eyes what went on during the clean-up. It was, at times, incredibly basic and put so many lives at risk.

And, by doing so, Shevchenko was unknowingly filming his own death.

Workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant today wear far more protective gear than the flimsy mask and cap Shevchenko was seen wearing in his film. Picture: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant today wear far more protective gear than the flimsy mask and cap Shevchenko was seen wearing in his film. Picture: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

CHERNOBYL - CHRONICLE OF DIFFICULT WEEKS

According to Shevchenko's official film directors' biography on IMDB, he was born in Balta, Ukraine in 1929 and studied at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow.

He graduated in 1967 as a film director and quickly built up a reputation as a renowned documentary filmmaker, winning awards for his three-part epic Soviet Ukraine: Years of Struggle and Victories (1974-77).

But Shevchenko, who was the first and only film maker allowed on location in the exclusion zone of Chernobyl, is best known for Chernobyl - Chronicle of Difficult Weeks. You can watch the full cut of his film here.

The film is entirely in Russian, although it's believed people are currently working on English subtitles. It includes interviews with beleaguered scientist Valery Legasov, now famous due to the HBO series in which he's played by Jared Harris.

Legasov committed suicide two years after the disaster, on the anniversary, due to the horror of his experiences and the lies he had to tell the International Atomic Agency in Vienna to cover up Soviet mishandling of the event.

Jared Harris in a scene from HBO’s Chernobyl. Picture: HBO via AP
Jared Harris in a scene from HBO’s Chernobyl. Picture: HBO via AP

Shevchenko's footage of Chernobyl has not been widely seen and the fact he lost his life a year after the explosion has been completely obscured, as his name isn't listed on official records of deaths. At the time, his two assistants were receiving hospital treatment, but there is no word of what became of them.

Sydney archaeologist Mr Robert Maxwell, the only archaeologist who has worked in Chernobyl across two field excursions, told news.com.au Shevchenko was well-respected and trusted to film the clean-up efforts, as it was such a highly sensitive time for the Soviets.

"He was granted permission to film the clean-up, including the incredibly dangerous work of the 'biobots'," Mr Maxwell said, referring to the name given to the workers sent in to clean up.

"That part of the footage is quite degraded and there are lots of white sparks on the film itself; that's the alpha particles from the reaction hitting the film and as result of that exposure he died of acute radiation sickness a year later.

"So what Shevchenko essentially did was film his own death and he paid the ultimate price for that.

"To this day he is not on the official list of deaths that the Soviets released and there is no question that he definitely died as a result of the disaster."

Mr Maxwell was surprised that Shevchenko didn't feature as a character in the HBO's Chernobyl because it's clear that the HBO producers had studied his footage.

"I am 100 per cent certain that they have watched his footage. Shevchenko's film is the only evidence we have that the 'biobots' were sent onto the roof of reactor four.

"It is also the only evidence we have that the 'biobots' were wearing flimsy makeshift protection and the HBO producers have recreated that makeshift protection gear for the TV series," he said.

"His film shows the clean-up workers wearing lead vests and cod pieces that they made for themselves, because they really weren't given very much.

"The outfits they wear in Shevchenko's footage is copied in the TV series. They match each other very, very well."

THE 'BIOBOT FOOTAGE'

One of the most memorable and unbelievable scenes in the TV series Chernobyl features liquidation workers on the roof, using shovels to throw highly radioactive material back into the core.

If it wasn't for Shevchenko's 1986 footage, we would not know that this happened. The men could only work in frantic 90 second shifts; any longer and their exposure to the radiation would be fatal.

What makes the footage so compelling is that we can clearly see some men picking up the radioactive graphite with gloved hands. We also see Shevchenko filming from the roof top, wearing only a flimsy mask and cap for protection. Then we can see how badly damaged the footage is as the radiation makes an impact on the film itself.

It's harrowing to see how much work the men are doing with their hands.

This is Shevchenko's footage focusing on the rooftop clean-up.

 

THE INVISIBLE ENEMY

When Shevchenko developed his film, he was horrified to see that a portion of the film was pockmarked and featured static interference and noise.

At first, he thought the film stock had been defective. But he soon realised the film was fogging up because the camera had been affected by the radiation.

According to British film makers Jane and Louise Wilson, whose short film The Toxic Camera focused on Shevchenko's work at Chernobyl, the 'degradation' and 'popping' effects in the footage were simply part of the film capturing the 'invisible enemy' of radiation.

The Wilsons' film features the story of Shevchenko's camera which was so severely radioactive that, after it was used to film Chernobyl, it had to be buried on the outskirts of Kiev. According to the narrative in the Wilson's film, "Shevchenko's camera had become an actual lethal weapon."

Author Susan Schuppli, who wrote The Most Dangerous Film in the World quotes Shevchenko as describing radiation as "a fatal invisible foe."

Shevchenko: "It has no odour, nor colour. But it has a voice. Here it is. We thought this film was defective. But we were mistaken. This is how radiation looks. This shot was taken when we were allowed a 30-second glimpse from the armoured troop-carrier. On that April night the first men passed here - without protection or stopwatches, aware of the danger, as soldiers performing a great feat. Our camera was loaded with black-and-white film. This is why the events of the first weeks will be black and white, the colours of disaster."

CREEPY FOOTAGE

Mr Maxwell, who worked in Chernobyl in 2010 and 2011, said he finds Shevchenko's film incredibly eerie.

"There is footage that he filmed as he was driving along with the emergency vehicles and tents that he passes along the way. Then there's the shocking footage from the top of the building itself from the roof, adjacent to reactor four," Mr Maxwell said.

"Shevchenko also filmed the camps in the immediate vicinity of the exclusion zone where hundreds of thousands of people were conscripted into the clean-up area around Chernobyl. His film is a very unique account which has become somewhat popular among urban explorers and people into Chernobyl, but the vast number of people aren't aware that his film exists."

"It is, without a doubt, some of the eeriest footage I've seen in my life and, being a scholar of not only nuclear issues but urban decay and Hiroshima and Fukushima - as well as many alleged ghost videos - Shevchenko's film is easily the creepiest footage I've ever seen.

"Not many people in the modern west are aware of his significant contribution to our historical and archaeological understanding of what actually happened in 1986. Without his footage of the liquidation of Pripyat and the clean-up efforts around the power plant, we wouldn't have that primary first-hand material to draw from. It simply wouldn't exist."

DEATH OF SHEVCHENKO

Independent regional Soviet newspaper Weekly Nedelya reported in March 1987 that Shevchenko died of severe radiation sickness. According to Nedelya, he was described at the Tbilisi film festival as "an outstanding man who gave his life so that we and our descendants can see with our own eyes all the horror and depth of the Chernobyl tragedy." Nedelya also reported that his film "had shocked those that had seen it."

The Communist Party newspaper Pravda Ukrainy reported in 1987 that Shevchenko and his team filmed at Chernobyl between May and August 1986.

According to the newspaper: "Shevchenko, who filmed in the immediate vicinity of the stricken reactor, had a high temperature while he was editing his film but continued to work.

Shevchenko also captured the horrific footage of the helicopter crash over Chernobyl, a scene that has also been replicated in the HBO Chernobyl series.

Film stills from Chernobyl: Chronicle of Difficult Weeks, directed by Vladimir Shevchenko, 1986. Picture: SusanSchuppli.com
Film stills from Chernobyl: Chronicle of Difficult Weeks, directed by Vladimir Shevchenko, 1986. Picture: SusanSchuppli.com

A MODERN NIGHTMARE

Thirty-three years later, Mr Maxwell believes Chernobyl is still the stuff of modern nightmares; a mixture of Soviet ideology and a poorly designed nuclear reactor.

"It is truly horrific even today. Chernobyl is an ideological disaster as much as it is a physical disaster.

"At the time, Soviet authorities told the workers and the nation that Chernobyl was the pinnacle of Soviet nuclear design. But, in reality, it was a time bomb waiting to go off," Mr Maxwell said.

As for Shevchenko, watching his film it's impossible not to dwell on the fact that while the radiation was impacting his footage as he stood on the roof surrounded by debris, the radiation was also impacting his own body.

Chernobyl is available to stream on Foxtel.

LJ Charleston is a freelance features writer. Continue the conversation @LJCharleston


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