Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Recently saw two HBO documentaries for the first time, one gut-wrenching, the other unintentionally hilarious.

The first was the one about Chernobyl today, almost 20 years later. I was expecting a depressing little version of an A&E travel documentary, with radiation. But there was surprisingly little travellogue--only about a third of the program, which consisted of uninteresting scenery of one decaying Soviet-era Ukrainian or Belarussian village after another, all filled with befuddled-looking people telling the camera that they have nowhere to go and that they feel fine, until the narrator tells them that the cesium-137 from the 1986 accident remains in their body and will be passed on to their children, at which time they get a very odd, not quite sad, very Slavic look of resignation on their faces.

The documentary is completely objective--it doesn't have any agenda at all, which is both good and unfortunate. It's unfortunate because too many people--probably a majority of those who see it--will look at it and think, "Damn, nuclear power is so horrible." Instead of "Damn, Communism is so horrible." Because the latter is the real lesson of Chernobyl. There are nuclear plants in dozens of countries, but the only one that's ever killed people--let alone produced a worldwide disaster that killed dozens and irradiated millions--was in the Soviet Union. And this is not a coincidence. But explaining why that is takes a bit of a lecture about the nature of collectivism and individual responsibility that many people won't get. Hence it's much easier to blame nuclear power.

But the other two-thirds of the documentary was the gut-wrenching part, with scene after scene from hospitals in Minsk of deformed kids, the worst of many being the girl with an empty skull, her brain having grown outside the skull cavity and connected to the head by a thin membrane of skin. Just one horribly ruined child after another. After about five minutes of this I was in tears. This was immediately after the Terri Schiavo mess, and I could very easily see some kindly doctor from the Netherlands coming in and euthanizing the whole population "for their own good," and many people approving.

But the very end of the documentary was what made the thing remarkable. That was when the American doctors arrived. I will never forget the look on the faces of the parents when the Americans tell them, in translation, that the holes in their childrens' hearts, which had been diagnosed "irreparable" locally (meaning death within a few months) will be repaired in what for them is a relatively simple operation. You can sense a bit of pride among the Americans when they talk about it later, but hell, they earned it. As Dizzy Dean said, it ain't bragging if you can do it. If a documentary about horribly deformed kids can be said to have a happy ending, this one does.

And the funny documentary was the one about Air America. My favorite scene was where the AA general manager explains to all the employees whose paychecks aren't clearing, "Let's not dwell on the past. The important thing for all of us is to focus on the future." Because, you know, the future is important cuz they're progressives and all.

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