Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Log 384: Magnificent film on the Bhopal tragedy tells us more truth than we would like to acknowledge about the reality of our modern world

Italiano: Autore: Luca Frediani. Utilizzo in W...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: A protest rally against DOW, in Bhopa...
English: A protest rally against DOW, in Bhopal. An effigy of Anderson can be seen at the start of the rally. Photo taken from a building on Chola Road. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Dow Chemical banner, Bhopal, India. F...
English: Dow Chemical banner, Bhopal, India. Français : Bannière Dow Chemical, Bhopal, Inde. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bhopal, India
Bhopal, India (Photo credit:
Of all the many accidents, attacks, fires, collapses and disasters to which the modern world has given rise, undoubtedly the most horrific has been the cloud of poison gas that overcame the city of Bhopal in, India on Dec 3 1984, arising from a pesticide plant run by the United States company Union Carbide.
Hundreds of its victims died in their beds, others while running about in the area of the factory, trying to escape the gas. Some estimates put the deaths during the three decades since the accident occurred at 25,000, and many thousands more have been irrevocably injured.
Since then the incident has become the poster-boy, as it were, for a wide range of some of the worst aspects of modern life. Probably the first of these is the chronic indifference of the wealth-owning elite everywhere to the poor. A close second must come the racism which has allowed the Western managers and owners responsible for the plant to simply ignore every attempt that has been made to bring them to justice.  (For example, the head man of Union Carbide at the time was an American called Warren Anderson. He flew to India in the early days of the incident, but he was greeted by a protesting crowd, was shuffled away by police, who announced they had arrested him, had ordered him to face trial, then had granted him bail, and allowed him to skip bail by getting back into his private pane at the first opportunity and returning to the United States, whose government has since then rejected all efforts made by India to have him extradited. Maybe this should have been recalled when the U.S. was making such a fuss about Russia having refused to extradite Edward Snowden recently. There is, in fact, a long list running over many decades, of U.S. refusal to extradite anyone they did not want to extradite, just as Russia did this year.)
As recently as two or three years ago, and probably still, for all I know, Anderson is living in opulent retirement in Long Island, while tens of thousands of victims of his company’s negligence continue to suffer, 29 years after the event, in Bhopal, hundreds and hundreds of their children still, at birth exhibiting terrible physical and mental deformities.
This whole story is told with magnificent fidelity in a film, Bhopali, made by a man called Van Maximilian Carlson that was screened on Saturday night by Cinema Politica, Concordia University’s excellent winter series of documentary films bearing political messages.
To make a long story short, the factory was fairly quickly closed and abandoned, but its ruins, heavily polluted with all manner of chemicals, were left to stand and impregnate the local water table with its chemicals. Incredibly, until very recenty, all effortts to persuade either the companies involved or the local governments to clean up this disgusting pollution had failed, and people have been forced to drink water that they know is impregnated with a variety of poisons that have resulted in deformed births for so many of their children. Efforts made to bring the company to justice have been unavailing: indeed, as is usually the case in industrial accidents, it is not always clear who should be sued, since the Union Carbide factory was not even at the time of the accident, a wholly owned subsidiary of the company, but had already been sold to Indian owners, and has since been sold to another Indian company. Meantime Union Carbide has been bought and absorbed by Dow Chemical, this merger resulting in formation of the world’s largest chemical company, at which time  Dow became responsible for the liabilities of the original company.
The film-makers, though they were able to shoot in the affected area of the city quite freely, and to interview the wretched victims --- surely among the poorest people on earth --- of the accident, tried but failed to have anyone from the company respond to their requests for interviews.
This is also par for the course: companies are notoriously shy of people inqiring into their affairs, especially those in the United States and Canada.
A bright new effiicent hospital has been built in Bhopal, but the victims of the disaster have discovered that it will not treat them unless they pay the fees upfront.  So the only place they could turn to for help was a clinic called the Chingari clinic, operating in small, crowded quarters, and on an extremely limited budget, that has been able to give some help to the unfortunate chidren born subsequent to this disaster, without charge.  The international campaign of support of the Bhopal victims apparently has  managed to direct additional funds to the heroic people who have been running this clinic throughout these years when the combined power and wealth of western industry and government has treated them with such chilling indifference.
I have to say here, as someone who has made his share of protest films in the past, that this film is an absolutely magnificent plea for help for these people. Not a false note has been struck in it from first to last, and the rather small audience that gathered to watch it on Saturday sat rivetted to the screen as it unfolded its terrible tale.
When the film ended, I was reminded  of an experience I had in the theatre in the 1960s when the Royal Shakespeare company director Peter Brook staged a version of Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Representative, which deals with relations between the Pope and the Jews during the war. That play began as one entered the theatre and was  confronted by two vast doors across the stage, doors of a gas-oven, which, when they opened, ensured that the whole action should be seen as taking place within that terrifying place. When the play ended, for the only time in my experience, the audience sat in utter silence for three minutes, too moved to applaud, too stirred to even react.  I had something the same feeling on Saturday night when the end of the movie wass greeted by a thin scattering of applause from an audience whose absorption in the movie could not be doubted.
Most  of us stayed as we don’t always do, to hear and take part in the discussion headed by people who have had personal experience in Bhopal, and who have spent now decades trying to work out the most effective way in which they can help the victims of this terrible event.
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