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Chernobyl: Men of Steel

Critic:

Patrick Foley

|

Posted on:

20 Jul 2022

Film Reviews
Chernobyl: Men of Steel
Directed by:
Amadeusz Kocan
Written by:
Amadeusz Kocan
Starring:
Amadeusz Kocan, Krystian Machnik, Maciej Bogaczyk
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Chernobyl: Men of Steel is a tragic enough watch without the unavoidable context of its creation occurring right before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This documentation of ‘The Samosely’ – native inhabitants of villages and towns around the infamous Chernobyl power plant who returned home despite Soviet quarantine, feels like the final chapter of one disaster, and an unwitting prelude to another.

 

The documentary follows a humanitarian team led by Amadeusz Kocan, the film’s director, who enter the Chernobyl quarantine zone to visit the elderly residents of a village who returned home against regulations after the disaster. The team provides resources for the ‘Samosely’ (self-settlers), but more importantly company in the face of extreme isolation. Only a few hundred still remain in the region – and the filmmakers offer them the opportunity to tell their stories whilst they still can.

 

What stands out about Chernobyl: Men of Steel is its sense of purpose and importance. Director Amadeusz Kocan’s documentation of the last remaining inhabitants of the Chernobyl region feels like a crucial mission – and a message for the rest of humanity to hear. And it is a message that is relevant to more than just politicians or historians. The stories of the Samosely contain wisdom that speaks to the importance of family, relationships, connections and a place to call home. Despite the incredible risks taken, the choices of the now old and frail men and women feel totally logical when heard first-hand. And Kocan’s drive to provide basic provisions and human connection for these remarkable people is justified by the friendship he makes with them.

 

The film is deliberately slow, and prefers to prioritise its hour-runtime with the stories of its subjects rather than rerunning the tale of the disaster – a wise choice given the abundance of Chernobyl documentary content since the eponymous HBO drama from a few years ago. Instead, the film covers the present day, from 2020 up to 2022, and the still-lingering impact of the disaster, and perhaps more significantly for the film – the evacuation. Simple and everyday aspects of the resident’s lives – such as the joy one old woman gets from singing herself a song every day to remind herself of music – receive more coverage than any grand explanations for the USSR’s actions in 1986. Despite the monolithic manoeuvrings changing these people’s lives forever, it feels appropriate to just accept the happenings of the past and focus more on the present - just as the Samosely themselves have done.

 

Though unmentioned throughout the film, it is impossible when watching in 2022 to ignore the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the imagined impact this would have on the Samosely, and the humanitarian effort to support them. For people who fought so hard to return home, only to see their entire home nation threatened, adds a layer of unexpected grief to the film, and particularly to the humanitarian team given their bond with those they serve. As terrifying as the situation is, the film always remembers the great strength and bravery of the people it documents. If these people survived the disaster, and the forces in place to keep them from their rightful place in the world, you’d bet they can survive Vladimir Putin.

 

If there’s anything to criticise about Chernobyl: Men of Steel it is the title, given that the majority of the people the film documents are in fact little old women (though the steel part is never in doubt). But beyond this, this is a remarkable documentary – that feels like essential viewing, as a coda for one of history’s most tragic and shocking disasters.

About the Film Critic
Patrick Foley
Patrick Foley
Digital / DVD Release, Documentary, World Cinema