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Slamdance 2011 Review: BHOPALI

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
January 25th, 2011

Rating: 4/5

DirectorMax Carlson
CastSaiba BabuSalam BabuRashida Bee

Sometimes documentaries can truly be more than just non-fiction based additions to the world of cinema. Sometimes they can be something wholly different.

Not only able to shine a distinctly singular and focused light on a world not many people may be too privy to, documentaries can somehow, some way, inspire true change to be instilled within a given topic or area. That’s exactly where a film like Van Maximilian Carlson’s latest documentary, BHOPALI, comes in.

Focusing on the horrific Bhopal Disaster, BHOPALI looks into the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, which has become known as the world’s worst industrial catastrophe. Taking place in early December of 1984, the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in Bhopali, Madhya Pradesh, India leaked methyl isocyantae gas and various other chemicals, which resulted in the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people to these various chemicals. With a death toll of over 2,250 immediately following the event, over 3,780 people have died from issues related to the gas release  Other estimates even have over 15,000 deaths accounted for related to the disaster. With a government affidavit stated that another 558,125 people suffered injuries from the event, this is the world’s worst industrial disaster.

And yet, not only does that barely touch the surface of this harrowing story, but it also describes one of the most important worldwide events that still has not found its footing within the world of worldwide discussion. At least not until now.

A compelling and often emotionally stirring documentary, Carlson proves to be the film’s biggest shining star, as it is his assured hand at blending narrative non-fiction facts; the telling of the events and subsequent happenings, as well as the stories of survivors and those effected by the events. Carlson is able to blend the stories of these survivors; ranging from a group of handicapped children who must seek out help from charities or government groups, to older people effected by the tragedy, with such grace and skill, that every single story is not only truly interesting and compelling, but proves that this is one story that is still having its chapters written, without much assistance from the outside world.

However, it is the story of Sanjay Vermai that proves to be the film’s most engrossing narrative. Seemingly knowing that this is his most fascinating story, Carlson focuses a majority of the film on Vermai, an activist who was able to escape the tragedy after being taken away by an older sister. With his mother and father passing away, he has become one of the most vocal activists with regards to this disaster, and it is his story that really makes this film worth its weight in celluloid.

Carried narratively by a series of TV interviews and news broadcasts, the film doesn’t spend much time on the polarizing side of politics, but instead using factual evidence to not only prove that the government was not only at fault here, but that the men involved are routinely getting off scot-free, making the film both emotionally powerful and also quite harrowing. With a possible proxy being the recent economic collapse that has changed this nation, we may not have a body count, but Bhopali is a narrative focusing on a group of people changed forever by a event, where the perpetrators of the said event are getting away free, even with blood on their hands.  It’s a haunting documentary that truly transcends the medium.

Oh, and it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. On a technical level, the film is not only quite polished, but it doesn’t take anything away from the actual narrative. A film like this could just as easily plunge the viewer into the despair that has hit this area, but instead, we are given a canvas painted by someone who has been watching quite a lot of Ramin Bahrani films as of late.

Overall, while the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be (a film based on firsthand accounts or an Alex Gibney like retelling of an event) BHOPALI is a wonderful blend of true human narratives painted on a canvas smeared with the stain of a group of people forever changed and effected by one of the world’s most devastating industrial disasters, that sees the people behind the disaster still waiting to come to justice.

Simply put, it’s one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve seen in a very long time.

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