Slamdance Film Festival 2011 Coverage: Interview with Director of the Documentary Feature Film “Bhopali” Van Maximilian Carlson

Luis Pedron: What attracted you to this material? Hats off to you and your fellow filmmakers for creating such a socially relevant and eye opening film.

Van Maximilian Carlson: I was intrigued by the story of Bhopal because it was a shocking example of how a corporation could get away with major crimes against the environment and against human life without any significant repercussions or punishment. It has been 26 years since the disaster at the Union Carbide factory and still such pain and suffering continues in the community, and still the corporation responsible has not been held liable for the disaster. In America, many of my friends didn’t know a thing about the disaster, many people in general have never heard of it, or if they have heard of it, they usually think it was a disaster that occurred long ago and they assume everything is fine now, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The suffering continues, many are still ill, children are being born with birth defects, the water, which thousands rely on, is heavily contaminated, and Union Carbide has been allowed to get away unpunished. So, for all of these reasons I felt compelled to make a documentary on the subject of Bhopal, to raise awareness, expose the truth, and to let people know that this disaster is ongoing.

Luis Pedron: I could not imagine how you guys as filmmakers felt being at Bhopal? How do the fumes smell even 25 yrs hence? I cringe when I saw people still consuming the poisoned water? Please explain to us your inner feelings as you were filming all these?

Van Maximilian Carlson: The experience of meeting survivors, meeting people who had lost their entire family due to the disaster, meeting the children affected by the poisons, it was very profound and emotional. I spent a lot of time at the Chingari Trust, a non-governmental rehabilitation school for children affected by the poisons, children born with birth defects such as mental disability, malformed limbs and cerebral palsy. When I first started visiting, I felt very sad for the mothers and their children because, for them, their entire life has been hindered by the disaster, and it’s incredibly unfair. But the more time I spent with them, the better I felt about the situation, mainly because of the support they’re receiving. The school really does a great job of supporting these children and their mothers, mentally, physically, and emotionally. So, although it was very shocking and depressing to first explore the world of Chingari, my experience changed throughout the process of filming, and that initial sadness turned into hope.

In terms of the factory itself, I remember walking in a particular area of the factory, where kids were playing cricket, and the smell of chemicals were so pungent that I was afraid of staying there for too long because I thought I might pass out. So I only filmed for a few minutes and moved on but I remember thinking how absurd it was that the factory still remained. One would think it would be totally deconstructed and decontaminated by now, but it’s not, and that’s really unjustifiable.

Luis Pedron: Why do you think, Bhopal residents still stay there instead of migrating elsewhere?

Van Maximilian Carlson: I’ve asked that question before, to the residents that live near the factory, and mostly what they’ve said is that they do not have any choice because they can’t afford to migrate and are just trying their best to survive. Many live a hand to mouth existence and they honestly do not have any other options. However, not all of Bhopal is as poor as the ones I’m mentioning, and not all of them live near the factory or depend on contaminated water, but the ones that do either have to drink contaminated water or they don’t get to drink any water at all. So to them it’s not a question of moving, or drinking contaminated water or not, it’s purely a question of survival, and they’ve chosen to live there because they don’t know how else to survive. The Indian government has, thus far, done a really poor job in helping with the contaminated water situation. Currently there are activists within the community who are trying their best to get clean water for these people and the progress has been slow but there is at least progress.

Luis Pedron: Losing loved ones must be devastating to everyone in Bhopal much less loosing everyone in the family and thousands in the community, how do you think

they kept sane inspite of all this loss?

Max Carlson (right) and Sanjay Verma

Van Maximilian Carlson: I think the only way to keep sane when facing devastation like that in Bhopal is to have family, friends, and a community that you can rely on. In the case of Sanjay Verma, a prominent activist in my film, he lost 7 out of 10 family members on the night of the disaster, including his parents. He received a lot of help and support from his neighbors, who all came together to help. So in general, it seems the community really comes together to support one another and without that, I think many would be unable to cope. Sanjay’s older brother, Sunil, is one of the unfortunate ones who was never able to fully cope with the loss of his 7 family members, and he committed suicide in 2004. So, I think there are many who will never be able to fully heal from the disaster, but they are trying, and they have the support of their community to rely on, as well as support from organizations aimed to help the survivors, such as the Chingari Trust, and the Sambhavna clinic.

Luis Pedron: Regarding Union Carbide, how difficult was it getting information from them?

Van Maximilian Carlson: I tried multiple times to get in touch with someone from Union Carbide, as well as DOW Chemical (the company who now owns Union Carbide), but I was never successful. In fact, one of the letters I sent to them was refused, actually marked “refused” on the return envelope. So I assume they simply did not want to have anything to do with the film or myself. Much of the information I received, in terms of Union Carbide, came from a man I interviewed named T.R. Chohan, who was a former engineer at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. He wrote a book on the disaster, where he uncovered many of the neglectful practices of Union Carbide, and he was very willing to speak about Union Carbide and share valuable information, which I’m sure Union Carbide would not be happy to find out that he has shared.

Luis Pedron: What do you think, personally, what is your recommendation or the solution to this huge problem?

Van Maximilian Carlson: First, you’re right, it is a huge problem, and it’s necessary to realize that there are many individual problems which make up the whole, from the contaminated water, to the thousands chronically ill, to the children being born with birth defects, to the factory continuing to contaminate the area, an unresponsive Indian government, and a corporation allowed to get away with major crimes. Each problem needs to be addressed in a different way so it’s quite a tough question to answer. I definitely think that if the Indian government played a more active role in helping the people of Bhopal than the situation would improve dramatically, but it’s been 26 years since the disaster and I don’t think it would be wise to rely on the Indian government for help, or to rely on Union Carbide or DOW Chemical. I think the solution must come from activist groups, supporters of the cause, grassroots efforts. I think there are practical solutions that can begin right away, such as fixing the water situation. There’s no reason that the survivors living near the factory need to be consuming contaminated water, especially with the technology that exists today. Clean water should either be piped in, or advanced water filtration systems should be set up to filter the water, both of these solutions would at least stop future generations from consuming polluted water. Of course, these solutions cost money, and without the governments help, one has to rely on the help of supporters to the cause. In my opinion though, I believe Union Carbide, now owned by DOW, is fully responsible for the disaster and should be the one responsible for fixing the situation, but it will remain to be seen whether or not this happens. Whether the government or the corporation chooses to help, the things that must be done are this: the factory must be completely closed down and fully decontaminated, the water issue needs to be addressed, either by piping in new water or some other alternative, a health plan needs to be figured out for the survivors of the disaster since thousands are chronically ill, and a health plan needs to be developed for the children who are being born with birth defects due to the poisons.

Luis Pedron: I am so encouraged with the different NGO’s Non Government Organizations such as The Chingari Trust in how they are trying to alleviate the problems resulting from the Bhopal – Union Carbide disaster? Please tell us about what The Chingari Trust is all about and how it is expanding?

Van Maximilian Carlson: The Chingari Trust was set up by Rashida Bee and Champ Devi Shukla, both survivors of the disaster. They began as activists and eventually received a Goldman environmental prize of $100,000, which they used to set up the Chingari Trust. The Chingari Trust is a rehabilitation school, which treats children affected by the poisons of Union Carbide. These are children with birth defects, such as mental disabilities, cerebral palsy, and malformed limbs. They have teachers who specialize in speech, physical therapy and specialty education and around 50 children, and their mothers, attend Chingari every day. It’s a really remarkable establishment and does so much for the children and their mothers. In 2009 they received a grant from the Bhopal Medical appeal and were able to expand their facilities, which means they found a much bigger space, they can treat more children, they also added more personnel, more exercise equipment. There are still many children who are unable to attend simply because of space limitations, so hopefully they’ll continue to grow.

Luis Pedron: How can people from abroad help out this situation?

Van Maximilian Carlson: There are many ways for people to help, ranging from volunteer work in Bhopal, to donations, to joining activist movements that support the Bhopal cause. There are two main rehabilitation clinics that treat survivors, the Chingari Trust as mentioned before, and the Sambhavna Trust. If you visit the websites of these 2 organizations then you can learn a lot about how to volunteer, where to donate, etc. The websites are www.chingaritrustbhopal.com/ and www.bhopal.org. Since these organizations are NGO’s, they rely on donations to continue their work in aiding the survivors, so those are the two best places to start. But I think any form of help one can think of would be beneficial, even if it’s as simple as posting a link to a Bhopal related article on your facebook.

Luis Pedron: How excited are you in attending Slamdance Film Festival? How are you preparing – physically and spiritually?

Van Maximilian Carlson: I’m very excited to attend Slamdance, especially since this is my first feature film and especially since Slamdance will be the world premiere of Bhopali. This will be the first major film festival that I’ll be attending and I’m excited to see what the audience reaction to the film is. I’m also excited to see the other films in competition. In terms of preparation, I’m really just trying to gather my energy and focus my thoughts on a positive experience. I know it will be very cold, and since I’m from Los Angeles, it’ll be weather which I’m not totally used to, but I think as long as I keep positive, and hydrated, it’ll be a great time.

Luis Pedron: What is your advice for filmmakers out there filming their first documentary?

Van Maximilian Carlson: My advice to filmmakers working on their first documentary would be to just dive into it and keep the camera rolling. There were many occasions where I wished I kept the camera rolling, but for whatever reason it wasn’t and I missed a really poignant moment. Also, there’s never any way to know what to expect when you start out on a documentary so one should prepare as best as you can by coming in with a game plan, but most likely that game plan will turn into something new, hopefully something much more profound and interesting. I’d say 90% of my documentary was unplanned but I just rolled with it and in the end I was very proud of what I was able to capture and the story I was able to tell.

Luis Pedron: What is next for Van Maximilian Carlson and for your film “Bhopali?”

Van Maximilian Carlson: I’m currently developing scripts for a couple of narrative features. One is a script I’m developing with my producer, Kirk Palayan, about whaling off the coast of Japan. The other I’m developing is about about a magician living in Chinatown, Los Angeles. I’m also keeping the door open for future documentary subjects.

For Bhopali, I hope that it is able to reach a wide audience and raise awareness for the ongoing disaster in Bhopal, India. There is still a lot of work to be done in Bhopal and the more people that are aware of it, the more that will hopefully lend a hand to help. There is a message that the people of Bhopal stand behind, and that is, “No More Bhopal’s”. They don’t want to see a disaster of that magnitude occur anywhere else in the world, and there’s no reason that one should occur.

“Bhopali” website: http://www.bhopalithemovie.com/

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