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Laundry is still hanging on the line and food is still on the tables in restaurants. The doomsday scenario of Chernobyl, now as an HBO TV series.

On 26 April 1986, an explosion occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. To this day, it is one of the most catastrophic disasters caused by man. The effects of the nuclear disaster are felt even today. For many, Chernobyl represents a long-forgotten memory. Places with a macabre history have always drawn people and it is no different with Chernobyl. Today, the ghost town is an Instagram-worthy setting. The disaster-and subsequent events-has all the ingredients that are perfect for an interesting scenario. HBO apparently thought so too and decided to make a miniseries about it: Chernobyl. I already got to watch a few episodes of this fascinating series.

Covered up

When I asked my father what he remembered about the Chernobyl disaster, he replied, "Not much." According to him, little information was available. The Soviet Union tried with all its might to ensure that as little as possible got out about the severity of the disaster. This is also made painfully clear in the series. Chernobyl provides a fascinating chronological overview and insight into the course of the disaster. It is amazing to see how people - the workers, aid workers, the central administration, Communist Party members and Soviet leader Gorbachev - dealt with it. Gorbachev exclaimed during a meeting, "Our power comes through the perception of power." That was what it was all about. At the time, of course, the Cold War was still a reality. Loss of face was then unthinkable. The state is the most important thing. Communism at its best. At such a time, you realise that democracy really is a blessing after all.

Sealed fate

Complete denial results in total secrecy. This requires sacrifice. Both consciously and unconsciously. Emergency services, workers and local people are unaware of their pitch-black future, while a group of miners face their fate with open eyes. They have no choice and the workers themselves realise this all too well. As a viewer, you watch the time lapse of the disaster -with some knowledge of the consequences- with sadness. Ironically, the Cold War meant that Gorbachev and the Soviet State could no longer keep the information hidden; images from US satellites brought the disaster into focus: "The world knows."

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Sense of frustration

Like some of the characters, you feel the frustration and despair bubbling up inside. Every action and advice based on the fact to help is blocked; evacuate people, hand out iodine pills, quarantine. Even when the Russian summit is aware of the catastrophe, everything is still focused on restricting information. Incredible to see how the Soviet Union was willing to sacrifice millions of people for the State and the perception of power. The sense of frustration you experience as a viewer is, also the result of perfect editing. Scenes in which it becomes clear that the uranium core has exploded are succeeded by shots of children playing outside while radioactive particles descend on them. Not to mention the shots of the firefighters slowly decaying inside as they work in the heart of the disaster.

One particular character evoked contrasting feelings. Although she is a victim of the situation-as the wife of a firefighter-she lies and ignores all the advice of the medical staff. She endangers not only herself but also the life of her unborn child. A sense of dubio arises. Should you feel sorry for her or is it more a case of 'he who will not hear, should feel?' A good story creates different and conflicting emotions. There is Chernobyl certainly succeeded.

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It could have ended worse

The realisation of what could have happened also hits like a bomb. Chernobyl dramatically but realistically shows a scenario of the possible consequences. Valery Legasov ( Jared Harris ), a nuclear physicist is the one who makes people realise the gravity of the situation. First, he has to convince stoic deputy prime minister Boris Shcherbina ( Stellan Skarsgård ) - head of the Chernobyl commission. Using comparisons and examples, Legasov outlines a terrifying scenario, both for the characters and the viewer. A comparison is also made with the Hiroshima bomb; the amount of radiation released in 20 hours at Chernobyl can be compared to 40 Hiroshima bombs. What if? If the measures had not helped, the number of victims would have been innumerable. Furthermore, the size of the area affected-among others, Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic-would have been immense.

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Lost future

Of course, the devastating effect of uranium - transported by air and water - had its effect on nature and humans. However, it could have been even more dramatic. Again with the help of editing. Impressive wide-angle shots of flora and fauna and of the wide surroundings of Chernobyl, make you realise how catastrophic the disaster is and how much worse it could have been. This to consider that the radiation meter in Minsk (400km away from Chernobyl) went off within a day and elevated levels of radioactivity were also measured in Sweden. That even the dead are a threat to the living becomes painfully clear when the bodies of the fallen workers and firefighters are hoisted into a mass grave in lead coffins and then poured over with concrete.

The series depicts a race against time. This is beautifully portrayed in scenes where it is clear to see that the residents have been evacuated immediately; laundry hangs on the line and in restaurants the food is still on the tables. A true ghost town.

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Dark, dramatic cinematography and a strong cast (including Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson) make for a haunting and fascinating portrayal of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Good to know: Chernobyl can be seen at Ziggo Movies & Series from 7 May.

 

Annika Hoogeveen

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