I didn’t watch Ukraine’s Forgotten Children, about internats, or boarding schools for children whose parents can’t or won’t look after them. I couldn’t bear to; I visited enough such places when I was living in Ukraine.
It’s one of many social issues I covered as a journalist five, even ten years ago, that has not changed at all since then. Still the same impoverished corrupt system, still the same few brave individuals who manage to make a stand, and the same exhausted mass of others trying to keep hold of a shred of humanity and decency; and gradually losing even that.
It sounds like this is a fair-minded and courageous film. I would encourage people to watch it, in the hope that it does not become yet another rock to throw at Ukraine’s increasingly dented international reputation, but contributes to improving these children’s lives, and those of their carers, more than my articles ever did.
Neither will I be watching the movie Chernobyl Diaries, though for different reasons. I’m not even going to put a link to it, because I find the whole premise so disgusting, and I frankly hope it tanks. American tourists visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone and run into a load of mutant zombies. Never mind that this was a real-life disaster whose trauma, physical and mental, continues to affect thousands of people; let’s just turn it into a cheap horror flick.
Of course this has been done already, in the computer game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. For some reason I’m slightly less horrified by the game, maybe in part because it was made by a Ukrainian company (I met one of the programmers once, on a night train from Moscow; he was very proud of how closely the geography of Pripyat in the game corresponds to that of the real abandoned town), maybe because it’s also partly based on the Tarkovsky film Stalker, and set in a fantasy future when a second meltdown takes place. Or maybe because I’ve just had more time to get used to the idea – the game’s been around for a few years.
I went to an environmental conference a few years ago in Kiev, which included a documentary about former Pripyat inhabitants going back to visit the homes they were forced to leave in 1986. Some of them attended the screening, and afterwards spoke passionately and movingly about their lives before and after; how the disaster was (mis)handled by the authorities; about the future of nuclear power in Ukraine and worldwide, and the way Pripyat has become a ‘disaster tourism’ destination.
At the end of the session, in among the questions about environmental and social impact, two guys from Britain spoke up. They wanted permission to show the documentary at a fantasy and science fiction convention.
I think the speakers were pretty bemused or upset by the request. But some of them had already seen or played S.T.A.L.K.E.R.. In the end, they shrugged. What could they say? Their lives had already entered into myth and fantasy. You could call the abandoned town of Pripyat a monument to human hubris and error and tragedy. But most people don’t. They call it a disaster theme park.
A confession: I’m not above exploiting the Chernobyl disaster myself. I wrote a number of news articles and features about it, based on unforgettable interviews with those who experienced the disaster. And I’ve been trying to put together a series of short stories for several years. I can’t seem to get the stories how I want; I think because the line between exploitation and entertainment and some kind of literary integrity is just too fine.
(I wrote a novel about Ukraine’s homeless children too. I had fine ideas of contributing any royalties from it to an organisation working with such kids. It’s yet to find a publisher though; the end is too sad.)