“Branches of the Tree” - Satyajit Ray (1990)

Satyajit Ray’s penultimate film, Branches of the Tree (Shakha Proshakha, 1990), coming just after his An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989) and just before Agantuk (The Stranger 1991), was one of the loose trilogy of films that he made after suffering a debilitating heart attack in 1983.  What unites the three films, the last two of which were based on Ray’s own stories [1], seems to be a somewhat sombre concern for the revelation of the true state of affairs among people, something that may have preoccupied Ray’s mind during his final years before his death in 1992 due to heart failure.  Looking over our lives over a long time, we all may tend to ask in the end what we stood for, who we were.  This perhaps was what was on Ray’s mind.
Branches of the Tree is a rather sophisticated concoction of these concerns, since they are spread across a number of principal characters who inquisitively interact with each other to cautiously reveal and discover themselves.  As such, the film does not involve so much some people changing over the course of the story in response to external events, but instead relatively unchanging personages discovering things about each other.  This revelatory structure, as well as the film’s not having the focus of a single protagonist (or team of protagonists), makes for a unique and thought-provoking kind of drama; and for these reasons Branches of the Tree has not been ranked very high among Ray’s films by critics and viewers.  Nevertheless, I would say that the film is a nuanced and well-crafted production, featuring excellent ensemble acting on the part of its cast members, and it well reflects Ray’s masterful cinematic talents.

The story of the film concerns a wealthy and now retired industrialist, Ananda Majumdar, and his four grownup sons, each of whom is a unique character and focus of attention.  One of the strengths of this film is that Ray fashions five distinctly different characters here, and the actors consistently remain true to these respective disparate characterizations throughout the story.

Early on in the film, Ananda suffers a serious heart attack during a civic ceremony celebrating his 70th birthday.  Three of Ananda’s sons are businessmen who live in towns some distance (several hours by train) away, and they dutifully rush to their now bedridden father’s home in order to express their filial concern.  The other son is mentally handicapped and has been living with the father, so now all four sons are in attendance at the paternal home.  The ensuing story mainly concerns the interactions of these people as they hopefully await for promising signs concerning Ananda’s health condition.

Because so much revolves around the characterizations of the four sons and their families, I will  first give brief outlines of them.
  • Ananda Majumdar (played by Ajit Banerjee) is the wealthy 70-year-old industrialist and father of four sons.  He is the principled and highly honoured pillar of his community – in fact, his community has been renamed after him – and he is a steadfast upholder of the virtues of honesty and diligence.  His wife passed away about twenty years ago, and he now lives basically alone (with a servant) at home with two people who are mentally handicapped and offer almost no opportunities for meaningful interaction – his senile 93-year-old father and his brain-damaged second son, Proshanto.
     
  • Proshanto (played by longtime Ray favourite, Soumitra Chatterjee) is Ananda’s second son, whose promising career (Ananda considered him to be the smartest of his four sons) was ruined by a motor vehicle accident while he was studying in London many years ago.  Now he sits alone most of the time in his room listening to Bach-composed classical music records.  He never looks people in the eye, and he seems almost completely unable to communicate.  But there are indications over the course of the story that he may be more aware of what is said in his company than is first suggested.  So he is our quasi-mute witness to what transpires.
     
  • Probodh (Haradhan Banerjee, another veteran of many Ray films) is the eldest son and seems to be in his late forties.  He is a very successful businessman; but although he is generally outwardly amiable, he seems inwardly cynical and unsympathetic.  For example, he thinks that his harmless brother Proshanto should be shipped off to an insane asylum.  Probodh is accompanied on this trip by his admiring wife Uma (Lily Chakravarty).
     
  • Probir (Deepankar Dey) is the third son and a financial businessman.  Unlike his upright eldest brother, the fortyish Probir is an openly sinful hedonist, addicted to alcohol, gambling, and extra-marital affairs.  He excuses himself for these things by jovially and openly admitting his wrongdoings – he feels that he is at least honest about himself.  He also attributes his inherent greed to what he supposedly learned from his father, but in his own case more honestly confessed.  Probir is accompanied on this trip by his comely wife, Tapti (Mamata Shankar), and his young (about 6-8 years old) son, Dingo (Soham Chakraborty).
     
  • Protap (Ranjit Mallick) is the unmarried youngest son.  Now thirty-four, he has been working for a decade at a cushy advertising job that his father had arranged for him.  But the pervasive dishonesty and corruption of his own business colleagues has led him, unbeknownst to his family, to recently resign from his position and take up an acting position in professional theater.  
The story of this family is told in about four stages.

1.  Ananda and Proshanto at Home
The film begins by showing Ananda Majumdar living at home with his mentally disabled son Proshanto.  As Ananda soothingly and somewhat rhetorically talks to his almost mute son, who never looks him in the eye and only responds with occasional single-word, ejaculations, we get the impression that Proshanto has always been Ananda’s favourite son.  At one point Ananda  reminds his son of his two fundamental mottos for life:
  • “Work is worship”
  • “Honesty is the best policy”
But later at a celebratory civic party for Ananda’s 70th birthday, where the community leaders express their appreciation for his many contributions he has made to the town that has been named after him, he suffers a serious heart attack.  Ananda is taken home for extended medical care; and upon hearing about his condition, the other three sons make arrangements to come to their father’s side.

2.  Three Sons Arrive
The other three sons arrive with their families from distant locations for a stay in Ananda’s home, and they inquire with the doctor about their bedridden father’s condition.  When they learn from the doctor that Ananda’s longer-term prospects won’t be known for three weeks, Probodh and Probir express their vexation to each other over the fact that they will have to take more time out from their busy lives than they had anticipated.  They want to know what is the minimum required for them to do their duty.  Thus, for them, their own private concerns are seen to take some precedence over familial compassion. 

Because of Ananda’s renown, an out-of-town newspaperman comes to write a story about him, and Probodh recites to him his father’s many professional and humanitarian accomplishments.  In particular, he tells him, his father was famous for his honesty.

3.  Revelations
When Protap and his brother Probir’s wife Tapti have a chance to meet alone, we learn that the two of them have long been familial best friends.  In fact although she never exceeds the bounds of propriety, it is clear that Tapti is in love with her brother-in-law.  Protap confesses to her that the brooding attitude he has been displaying since his arrival is because he quit his high-standing business job one month ago due to the rampant dishonesty and bribe-taking he observed among his colleagues.  They have unashamedly told him that his father’s honesty is no longer possible in today’s India.  So he has decided to become a theater actor, a profession that is considered to have an unacceptably low standing among people of his class.  For her part, Tapti tells her soul-mate about her dysfunctional marriage to a husband who is a compulsive gambler and alcoholic.

Later, they all, except for the near-comatose and bedridden Ananda, get together for a family dinner.  At the table the conversation takes a nasty turn when Probir’s openly corrupt life becomes a subject of discussion.  Probodh criticizes his younger brother, but Probir unashamedly defends himself.  He says that there are two kinds of money – white money and black money.  White money is money earned by honest means, while black money is earned via corrupt means, such as embezzlement and bribes.  He says that these days black money is necessary and the only way to go in business and in life.  He also says that Probodh, whom he knows engages in illegal income tax evasion, is just as corrupt as he is.  Upon hearing this, the seemingly inattentive Proshanto explodes in anger and begins compulsively pounding his fist on the dinner table.

The next morning in their room, Probodh confesses his wrongdoings to his wife but says that dishonesty is standard practice in today’s world.  Ananda’s days of honesty are finished, he tells her.

A little later Ananda urges his attending relatives to relax and go out together on a picnic, which they, except for Proshanto, agree to do.  This picnic scene features an excellent display of coordinated ensemble-acting cinematography, and it shows Ray’s continued mastery in this regard.  The brothers and their wives all nervously try to amuse each other, but the unspoken issue of honesty and integrity is still just beneath the surface.  Finally and amidst this jocularity, Probir taunts the still-brooding and unsociable Protap to reveal what is bothering him.  Protap tells them all what he earlier confessed only to Tapti – that he has resigned from his prestigious business job and entered the dubious field of theater acting because of the pervasive dishonesty infecting the business world.

4.  Departure Day
After a couple of weeks, Ananda’s condition seems to have stabilized, and his sons and their families make arrangements to return to their own lives.  Just before the adults are about to collectively bid farewell to Ananda, however, the young Dilgo sneaks into his grandfather’s room and wants to tell him what he has learned on his visit.  Among the things he has learned, Dilgo innocently tells him, is that there are two types of money – honest money and dishonest money – and that his father and older uncle have dishonest money.  Ananda instantly understands what this means and is crestfallen.  His dreams of having raised an honourable family are shattered.  
 
After the visitors have all respectfully taken their leave, the grieving Ananda calls Proshanto to his bedside.  On this occasion Proshanto shows empathetic concern, and he finally looks his father directly in the eye.  As the film closes, Ananda reaches out to him and tells him, “you are my everything”.

Branches of the Tree is a grim tale about what mark we make as we pass through this complex and imperfect world.  The facts that Ray, himself, was about the same age as Ananda in this story and that he, himself, was suffering like Ananda from the effects of a serious heart attack suggest to us that the content of this film reflects some of Ray’s own most personal considerations. 

Here, Ananda’s four sons, his branches, represent different positions one might take with respect to the corrupt temptations one might encounter along the way.  In the background is the disturbing image of Ananda’s dementia-addled 93-year old father.  If this is the image of our inevitable deterioration, then we may be concerned about leaving something more meaningful behind before we go.  So these are the positions concerning dishonesty that were assumed by Ananda’s four sons:
  • Embracing itProbir made no bones about his corrupt life and openly embraced dishonesty.  But at least he was honest about that.
       
  • Making compromises with itProbodh made judicious and surreptitious compromises with corruption.  He played the game of respectability, but he was even less honest than Probir was.
     
  • Running away. Protap sought to run away from corruption.  But this will probably prove to be more difficult than he imagines.
     
  • Innocence. Proshanto is basically innocent, but we feel he wants to be good.  And his final engaging look with his father even suggests that he might be getting a little better.  In any case, Proshanto is his father’s only hope.
All in all, this is a thoughtful tale about different postures towards honesty and integrity, and Ray gave it a subtly dramatic rendering.
½

Notes:
  1. Hari Narayan, “A Ray that reflects on itself”, Thread, The Hindu, (2 May 2016).   

“Journey to Enlightenment” - Matthieu Ricard (1995)

Journey to Enlightenment (aka The Spirit of Tibet) is a documentary film directed, filmed,  photographed, and co-scripted by Matthieu Ricard that portrays the life of one of the most revered lamas of Tibetan (or “Himalayan”) Buddhism, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991).  (Note that the term “Rinpoche” means “precious one” in the Tibetan language and is an honorific among Tibetan Buddhists.)  Khyentse Rinpoche was an outstanding scholar, teacher, and tireless promoter of Tibetan Buddhism, and, in particular, he was a master of the Vajrayana (Tantric) tradition.  But perhaps an even more significant feature of Khyentse Rinpoche was his polymathic mastery of all four  major schools of Tibetan Buddhism – Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug  – which, in combination with his nonsectarian nature, helped him in his efforts to bring about a restoration and greater unification of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  This was especially important in the wake of the devastation associated with and subsequent to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949.

This excellent film about Khyentse Rinpoche’s life can be compared to another, subsequent film about the same master, Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (2010), which I have reviewed earlier [1].  Indeed, there is some significant overlap in connection with the production of these two films that are separated by fifteen years.  The producer for both films was Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, who is Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s grandson and is the abbot of the Shechen Tennyi Daryeling Monasteries in Tibet and Nepal.  Both films were narrated by famous actor (and converted Tibetan Buddhist) Richard Gere (Days of Heaven, 1978; Chicago, 2002).  Vivian Kurz was a co-producer of Journey to Enlightenment and a co-editor Brilliant Moon.  And Journey to Enlightenment’s director, Matthieu Ricard, who was Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s disciple and personal assistant during the last fourteen years of the master’s life, both co-edited and appeared in person in the later film.  But despite this overlap, there are some distinguishing features about these two films that make them different and both worthy of your viewing.

First, I should mention that the release of the film Journey to Enlightenment was accompanied by the publication at about the same time of the book Journey to Enlightenment: The Life and World of Khyentse Rinpoche, Spiritual Teacher from Tibet (1996) by Matthieu Ricard and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche [2].  This large-format book, which features Matthieu Ricard’s stunning and sweeping photography, also includes descriptive text from Matthieu Ricard and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche that has been translated by the Padmakara Translation Group [3] and also has additional commentary by the 14th Dalai Lama.  (This book was republished in 2001 as The Spirit of Tibet: The Life and World of Khyentse Rinpoche, Spiritual Teacher [4].)  Many of Ricard’s picturesque photographs from the book are included in this film.  However, the book features more details about Khyentse Rinpoche’s life and experiences than the film, including more personal commentary from Khyentse Rinpoche, himself, and so it offers a complementary and rewarding view of the lama.  Consequently I strongly recommend that you have both experiences – read the book and see the film.

Matthieu Ricard, the creator of both the book and the film, is a very interesting personage in his own right.  Born in 1946 into an intellectual French family – his father,  Jean-François Revel, was a well-known French philosopher and his mother, Yahne Le Toumelin, was a famous French abstractionist painter – Ricard studied for a Ph.D. degree in molecular genetics at the Pasteur Institute under Nobel Laureate François Jacob, which he completed in 1972.  But although his family upbringing had been centered around Western rationalism, Ricard had developed an interest in Buddhism when he visited India in 1967, and after completing his PhD thesis in 1972, he renounced his promising scientific career and moved to India in order to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk.  There he went on long and intense meditation retreats and studied under a number of masters of Tibetan Buddhism.  Ricard’s initial guru was Kangyur Rinpoche, after whose death in 1975, Ricard came under the tutelage of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.  And over the last fourteen years of Khyentse Rinpoche’s life (1978-1991), Ricard was that master’s principal disciple and close personal associate. 

Ricard’s earlier total withdrawal and disappearance from Western culture began to lessen, however, with his appointment in 1989 to be the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama – and, further, with the publication of his book and the release of his film about Khyentse Rinpoche.  Later, in 1997, Ricard assented to engage in an extended discussion about East-West philosophical disparities with his father, the philosopher Jean-François Revel, an account of which was later published as The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (1999) [5].  This book is fascinating, because although Revel (a rationalist atheist) and Ricard (a spiritual practitioner) hold contrasting views about the spiritual, they both make considerable effort to fathom and empathize with the opposing view.  In particular, of course, Ricard’s serious training and experience in natural scientific theory and practice enables him to see the overall world from an inclusive perspective.

In addition Ricard’s subsequent willingness in 2000 to participate in a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) study of the neurobiological basis of happiness that was conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience has brought him additional international renown.  In that study, Ricard’s observed brain scans in the neurological areas of the brain associated with happiness were “off the chart” and led to him being given the popular designation as the “world’s happiest person” [6,7,8].  Since then the “scientifically-certified”-as-happy Ricard has gone on to publish a number of well-received books concerning meditation, happiness, and overall spiritual fulfillment [9,10,11,12].

As I mentioned, a distinguishing feature of Journey to Enlightenment, in comparison to the later Brilliant Moon, is the former film’s vivid evocation of the pervasive and passionate nature of Tibetan Buddhist spirituality.  While Brilliant Moon tends to focus on the personage of Khyentse Rinpoche, Journey to Enlightenment seems to have a wider compass, covering the amazing fervor of the wider Tibetan Society’s spiritual life.
 
Journey to Enlightenment begins with a brief account of the early history of Buddhism in Tibet.  Padmasambhava was a renowned Indian Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.  He also initiated the construction of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet in Samye.  Because of this, Padmasambhava is seen by Tibetans as a second incarnation of the Buddha, the first incarnation of whom, Siddhartha Gautama, lived more than 2500 years ago and who is said to have predicted his reincarnation. 

Since the time of Padmasambhava, the Buddhist values of nonviolence, tolerance, and respect for the environment have permeated the Tibetan culture.  One key aspect of Tibetan Buddhism that is brought up here is the importance of having a personal engagement with one’s lama.  One cannot achieve enlightenment just by reading documents and scriptures, one must also have personal encounters with a lama that will help one on one’s path.  And one must take the initiative, oneself – ss the Buddha is said to have stated:
“I have shown you the methods that lead to liberation.  But you should know that liberation depends on yourself"
Thus, in terms of what I refer to as “interactionism” in some of my earlier essays, I would say that Tibetan Buddhism beneficently adopts an “interactionist” orientation to the world rather than the “objectivist” orientation that is common to modern secular rationalism [13].  Interestingly, and likely associated with this consideration, the subject of this film, Khyentse Rinpoche, had four accomplished Buddhist filmmakers who have made films that visually evoke interactionism:
After this general Buddhist introduction of the film, Khyentse Rinpoche is then introduced, and it is pointed out that he was one of the Dalai Lama’s main gurus.  This is a clear and important reflection of Khyentse Rinpoche’s eccumenism, since the Dalai Lama is the leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, and Khyentse Rinpoche went on to become the leader of another one of Tibetan Buddhism’s four main schools, the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism (1987-1991).

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was born in 1910 into a wealthy family in eastern Tibet.  But at the age  13, he left home to go on an extended meditative retreat.  For the next fifteen years he meditated mostly alone in caves.  His main teacher initially was Shechen Gyaltsap Rinpoche (1871–1926), who formally proclaimed him to be the reincarnation of Khyentse Rinpoche, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892).  After Shechen Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s death, Dilgo Khyentse came under the tutelage of his second main teacher, Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (1893-1959), who convinced his young disciple to abandon his commitment to spend his entire life in solitary meditation and to go out into the world and spread the Buddhist teachings.  From this time on Dilgo Khyentse devoted himself to assisting everyone he encountered along the path to spiritual enlightenment.

However, in 1949 the Chinese Communist government invaded Tibet initiating what amounted to a human and culture genocide of horrific proportions.  Over the ensuing years, which include the depredations associated with the Cultural Revolution, one million Tibetans were killed or died of starvation, about one-sixth of the Tibetan population [14].  And many more Tibetans were subjected to torture and long periods of confinement.  In addition, almost all of the 6,000 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed, and almost all of the sacred documents were burned.  As the Chinese military was closing in on taking full control of Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche were separately able to flee Tibet, along with about 100,000 other Tibetans.  The Dalai Lama managed to find refuge in Dharamsala, India, while Dilgo Khyentse made it to safety in Bhutan.

There from his new home in Bhutan, Dilgo Khyentse made many visits to other areas in the Himalayan region – Sikkim, Nepal, and India – in order to spread Buddhist teachings.  In Nepal, Dilgo Khyentse initiated the rebuilding of the Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery, the original of which in Tibet had been destroyed by the Chinese invaders.  This detailed construction effort took over twelve years of hard manual work and craftsmanship, but it was finally completed in 1991. 

Journey to Enlightenment also portrays how Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche would spend a typical day.  At 4am in the morning he would wake up and commence five hours of continuous, solitary meditation.  Then he would eat something and attend to sacramental and administrative duties, after which he would offer his guidance to people who had come to him for help.  Finally he would resume his meditation before retiring in the evening. 

In his later years, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was assisted by his grandson, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, who came to be recognized as a spiritual heir and who became the abbot of the Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery.  Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche also became recognized as the reincarnations of three important lamas from the original Shechen monastery in Tibet.

In those later years, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, along with other disciples, would accompany Khyentse Rinpoche on annual trips to the sacred Bodhi tree in Bihar, India, where Siddhartha Gautama Buddha is said to have first gained spiritual enlightenment.  There Khyentse Rinpoche would offer to the many in attendance his prayers for world peace.

In 1985 China finally opened the borders to allow a few Tibetan exiles to briefly visit their homeland, and Khyentse Rinpoche was able to come.  Wherever he went on this visit, he was met with large rapturous crowds who had not forgotten their beloved spiritual master.  Since Matthieu Ricard was able to accompany Khyentse Rinpoche on this trip, the film features colorful and revealing footage of the many crowds of Tibetans offering their welcoming.  While there, Khyentse Rinpoche vowed to help restore the Samye Monastery, the earliest Tibetan Buddhist monastery, which had been first constructed in the 8th century during the time of Padmasambhava’s stay in Tibet.  But Khyentse Rinpoche devoted most of his time on this visit to teaching and blessing the many Tibetan lamas who came to him seeking his guidance.

In 1991, after a brief illness, Khyentse Rinpoche passed away, and ceremonial observances of his death were conducted throughout the Himalayan region.  To ensure the continuance of his spiritual legacy, his many disciples and followers sought to find his personal reincarnation.  This was accomplished when a child born in Nepal in 1993 was officially identified as Khyentse Rinpoche’s reincarnation and given the name, Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche in 1995.

Returning to the comparison of Journey to Enlightenment with Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, I would say both of them are good films.  Brilliant Moon, with its colorful and unique animated imagery, offers a more schematic coverage of Khyentse Rinpoche’s whole life.  But Journey to Enlightenment, thanks to the extensive personal commentary given by the Dalai Lama and, more importantly, Matthieu Ricard’s colorful photography and cinematography, provides a more closeup and intimate portrayal of this figure.  I recommend it to you, as well.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, “‘Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche" - Neten Chokling (2010), The Film Sufi, (6 October 2018).   
  2. Matthieu Ricard and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Journey to Enlightenment: The Life and World of Khyentse Rinpoche, Spiritual Teacher from Tibet, Aperture,  (1996).
  3. “About Padmakara”, Songsten, (n.d.).   
  4. Matthieu Ricard and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, The Spirit of Tibet”: The Life and World of Khyentse Rinpoche, Spiritual Teacher, Aperture,  (2001).
  5. Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life, Schocken, (1999). 
  6. Kim Zetter, “Scientists Meditate on Happiness”, Wired, (16 September 2003).   
  7. Alyson Shontell, “A 69-year-old monk who scientists call the 'world's happiest man' says the secret to being happy takes just 15 minutes per day”, Business Insider Australia, (25 December 2016).   
  8. Robert Chalmers, “Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr Happy”, The Independent, (18 February 2007).  
  9. Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill,  Little, Brown and Company, (2003; English translation by Jesse Browner, 2007).   
  10. Matthieu Ricard, The Art of Meditation, Atlantic Books (2008; English translation by Sherab Chodzin Kohn, 2010).
  11. Matthieu Ricard, On the Path to Enlightenment: Heart Advice from the Great Tibetan Masters, Shambhala, (2013 – this is an abridged edition and English translation of Chemins Spirituels: Petit Anthologie des Plus Beaux Texts Tibetans, 2010).
  12. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015). 
  13. The Film Sufi, “Interactionism”, (label), The Film Sufi.     
  14. Maura Moynihan, “Genocide in Tibet”, The Washington Post, (25 January 1998).  

Matthieu Ricard

Films of Matthieu Ricard:

Johan Renck

Films of Johan Renck:

“Chernobyl” - Johan Renck (2019)

Chernobyl (2019) is a historical miniseries dramatizing circumstances and events concerning the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the worst nuclear power disaster in history.  Created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the five one-hour episodes of this series offer a detailed, multilayered account of what happened and the tragic consequences that followed.  Although this is a documentary and the production team must stick to a factual portrayal, this is one of the most chilling dramas that I have ever seen.  And Chernobyl has a disturbing message and implications that extend well beyond the specific circumstances covered in this story.

The basic facts are pretty well known.  Early in the morning of April 24th, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor in northern Ukraine undergoing a routine safety check experienced an accidental and crippling explosion that led to a dangerous release of nuclear radiation and the threat of a catastrophic total nuclear core meltdown.  But details concerning exactly what happened and why are less well known, and that is primarily due to efforts to suppress information coming out about those events.  Ukraine was then a Soviet Socialist Republic of the Soviet Union (USSR), and the Chernobyl reactor was managed by Soviet authorities, who took immediate steps to mitigate the disaster.  Top Soviet officials feared that information coming out about the Chernobyl disaster would damage the reputation of the Soviet nuclear power program and, by association, the international prestige of the USSR.  Nevertheless, there have since been persistent efforts to reveal the true story of what happened.

Even so, there has been widespread disagreement concerning the actual death toll associated with the Chernobyl disaster [1].
  • 31 deaths  – this was the official death toll that the Soviet authorities came to agree on.  However, critics complained that this figure was grossly underestimated and did not take into account deaths due to radiation sickness (acute radiation syndrome, ARS).
     
  • 4,000 deaths.  This number was subsequently arrived at as an estimate on the part of such organizations as the  United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO) [2].
     
  • ~200,000 deaths.  However, more realistic consideration on the part of Greenpeace International of the longer-term effects of ARS and induced cancer have led to estimates in the hundreds of thousands [3].  I believe that this is probably the more likely death toll figure.
Whatever the precise death toll might be, we learn from the account given in the Chernobyl miniseries that had it not been for the heroic efforts on the part of some scientists, officials, and workers on the scene that the death toll would have been in the many millions and that the full areas of Ukraine and Belarus (and perhaps more) would have been rendered uninhabitable.  So we need to have a more thorough account about this catastrophe. 

For the production of Chernobyl, Renck and Mazin manage to achieve this goal of a more thorough account by effectively telling the complicated story via the use of multiple narrative threads:
  • What caused the initial explosion? 
    The rather complicated sequence of events that led to the explosion are eventually rather lucidly explained after the tenacious investigations of several key figures.  These are
     

    • Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris), a nuclear power expert and the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow who has been summoned by the Soviet Union Communist Party’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) to aid cleanup efforts.  Legasov is a reluctant participant at first, but he eventually becomes the principal protagonist of this story.
       
    • Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), Deputy Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers.  Shcherbina is a dedicated party authoritarian, but he becomes persuaded by Legasov’s earnest efforts to follow a more humane path.
       
    • Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a nuclear physicist from Minsk. Khomyuk is a relentless truth-seeker, regardless of the personal consequences her efforts may entail.
       
  • Mitigating the disaster
    This involved several, near-suicidal measures undertaken by volunteers following Legasov’s desperate recommendations.  These included three particularly dramatic sequences:
     
    • Three men don deep sea diving equipment to go to the radioactive reactor basement to drain water that has dangerously collected there.
       
    • 400 coal miners volunteer to install a heat exchanger under the reactor in order to prevent a further meltdown.
       
    • 3,828 volunteers are recruited to go in small teams to the roof of the reactor and spend a maximum of 90 seconds each, due to radiation exposure concerns, clearing radioactive graphite from the roof.
       
  • Combating the coverup
    In order to protect the image of Soviet nuclear supremacy, the Soviet authorities continually downplay the dangers and attempt to suppress critical information about the Chernobyl disaster.  They seek to attribute total responsibility for the reactor failure to human operational errors on the part of the reactor’s local managers and operators.  However, Legasov and Khomyuk have determined that the RBMK reactor also had a critical design fault: pressing the reactor’s emergency shutdown button (as the Chernobyl reactor’s operators finally did) would generate a catastrophic explosion in the reactor core. Suppressing information about the reactor’s flaw would prevent necessary measures from being taken to prevent further disasters at the fifteen other, similar RBMK nuclear reactors across the Soviet Union.  Legasov, Khomyuk, and Shcherbina risk and ultimately damage their careers and lives in order to overcome this coverup and ensure this information is brought out.
These three narrative threads are expertly interwoven across the five episodes of Chernobyl.  Along the way there are some dramatic subnarratives that color the above three dramatic themes, particularly the “mitigating the disaster” theme, with a human component.  The most dramatically affective and memorable of these sequences for me were:
  • The firefighter Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) from the nearby town of Pripyat responds immediately to the Chernobyl fire.  Unmindful of the personal danger, Ignatenko is exposed to lethal dosages of radiation and is soon gruesomely consumed, literally, by the ravages of ARS.  Ignatenko was a real person, and these scenes show the human tragedy that befell him and his pregnant wife.
     
  • The mining crew that worked to install the heat exchanger beneath the stricken reactor.  These scenes dramatize the unqualified heroism and devotion to duty on the part of ordinary working class people trying to do what is right.
     
  • Shortly after the disaster, hundreds of thousands of citizens were drafted to “liquidate” animals and pets in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (initially an area 30km in radius around the power plant, but later expanded to 2,600 km2) that were presumed to be radioactively contaminated.  This sequence follows a young draftee, Pavel (Barry Keoghan), who is reluctantly trained to scour the countryside and ruthlessly shoot and kill every pet that he encounters.  For me, this had more general implications – it was a dramatized reminder of how young men are recruited into military service around the world and coercively trained to suppress their own natural  instincts for compassion so that they can unfeelingly kill their fellow beings.

All of these narratives and storylines are meticulously well crafted by the series production team, and they feature excellent cinematography by Jakob Ihre and editing by Jinx Godfrey and Simon Smith.  How they managed to stage some of the scenes was a marvel to me.  There is a considerable amount of agitated hand-held camera work, which I often find jarring and ineffective in other productions, but which I found skillfully employed to good effect on this occasion.  And the acting performances are uniformly well done.  I particularly liked the nuanced performance of Jared Harris in the lead role of Valery Legasov.  Harris had earlier effectively played an entirely different character in the role of the fragile King George VI in the television series The Crown (2016-17).  Here in Chernobyl he plays a thoughtful and well-intentioned figure who struggles to find the right path.  And I also appreciated the sensitive performance of Emily Watson in the role of the dedicated nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk.

With respect to the overall veracity of the subject matter, I believe that all of the narratives and storylines in the series have been meticulously researched by the series creators for historical accuracy, but as we might expect, there have been criticisms from some quarters concerning the ultimate authenticity of this account [4,5,6,7,8].  The Russians, in particular, have complained about the whole thing and have even suggested that the Chernobyl disaster was the result of a CIA plot [5].  More tellingly, though, are Masha Gessen’s criticisms of the Chernobyl miniseries [4].  She complains that it falls prey to the “great man” perspectival prejudice prevalent among many historical accounts that reduces complex historical interactions on the part of many participants to just a simplified description of the activities of a few people.  What happened according to these prejudiced accounts can then be attributed to the actions of a few “great men”.  While I respect and generally admire Ms. Gessen’s insights and agree that the “great man” prejudice can often be a problem, I don’t think it applies in this case.

It is true that some dramatic shortcuts were taken in the Chernobyl miniseries.  For example, while Valery Legasov and Boris Shcherbina were real people, the character of Ulana Khomyuk is a fabricated composition representing the numerous scientists and engineers who assisted  Legasov during the investigations.  This was done for dramatic simplification, and I don’t think the characterological composition here represents a serious shortcoming to the overall telling of the story.  What is more important to this story is it’s overall message, and it is not about a few great, or villainous, men.

No, this harsh, doom-laden account the problem depicted is systemic.  The entire society is infected, and the film offers a grim picture of a generally dystopian world from which there seems to be no escape.  In fact from the very outset we know that hopeless annihilation is generally in the offing, when we see Valery Legasov, committing suicide on April 26, 1988, two years after the Chernobyl disaster.  He was probably suffering from ARS due to high doses of radiation exposure during his investigation and already condemned to death.  He had fought a noble fight, we will ultimately learn, but he had now given up.  And as we then watch the story unfold from the initial explosion two years earlier onward, we are haunted by the knowledge that the people heroically struggling to mitigate the disaster’s consequences are being hit with invisible radiation that will harm and probably kill them. 

And as we see in this story, the catastrophic situation was made worse and irreparable by the harsh authoritarian society in which it took place.  In that society permeated with harsh punishments, order was maintained by fear and menace.  “Official” explanations had to be accepted without recourse to the independent discovery of verifiable truth. 

We have a modern faith that lies will always be uncovered eventually.  As Valery Legasov says before the court,
 “Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth.  Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
But it can take a long time.  What concerns me is that we now live in a society where hate-filled rhetoric is starting to dominate the political discourse and beclouding the messages of those who are offering reasonable, positive proposals to today’s problems – proposals that can and should be subjected to rational debate and public verification.  This quest for truth is made more difficult when we have an elite that dominates and rigs the public media in order to obscure the truth [9].  And the world is further saddled with a US President who utters and seems to get away with many lies on a daily basis (Trump has uttered an average of more than twelve confirmed lies per day over the course of his presidency) [10,11].  Are people getting so accustomed to these constant lies that they are gradually willing to abandon the noble quest for what is true [12]?

But rather than acquiesce to these gradual steps towards an apocalypse, we can take some practical steps now that can help us avoid future Chernobyls.  One is for us to recognize the inherent dangers associated with energy production facilities that are fundamentally centralized  in location and control and harbor potentially catastrophic elements in connection with their operation.  Human control of such centralized and potentially catastrophic energy resources always has the possibility of going awry, as it did in Chernobyl.  And such is generally the case with nuclear power; therefore its deployment should be abandoned if there is a safer alternative.  And fortunately there is a safer alternative. The distributed and less damaging nature of renewable energy is far preferable.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. “Deaths due to the Chernobyl disaster”, Wikipedia, (15 June 2019).   
  2. Dick Ahlstrom, "Chernobyl anniversary: The disputed casualty figures", The Irish Times, (2 April 2016).    
  3. “Chernobyl death toll grossly underestimated”, Greenpeace International, (18 April 2006).   
  4. Masha Gessen, “What HBO’s ‘Chernobyl’ Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong”, The New Yorker, (4 June 2019).   
  5. Luke Johnson, “The Kremlin peddles a myth of Russia’s past greatness. No wonder it hates ‘Chernobyl.’”, The Washington Post, (12 June 2019).   
  6. Henry Fountain, “Plenty of Fantasy in HBO’s ‘Chernobyl,’ but the Truth Is Real”, The New York Times, (2 June 2019).   
  7. Andrew Whalen, “Chernobyl Disaster's First Responders Share True Stories of Death and Radiation”, Newsweek, (5 June 2019).   
  8. Kent German, “Chernobyl was bleak, brutal and absolutely necessary”, Cnet, (5 June 2019).   
  9. Joseph E. Stiglitz, People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent, Penguin, (April 23, 2019).
  10. Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, “In 869 days, President Trump has made 10,796 false or misleading claims”, The Washington Post, (10 June 2019).       
  11. “In 869 days, President Trump has made 10,796 false or misleading claims”, Fact Checker, “The Washington Post”, (7 June 2019).  
  12. Bret Stephens, “What ‘Chernobyl’ Teaches About Trump”, The New York Times, (20 June 2019).