Sunday 8 May 2011

It's in the soil: "After the Apocalypse"

Between the end of WWII and the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union embarked upon a program of nuclear weapons testing in the Polygon region of Kazakhstan - testing the effects, over time, of nuclear fallout on the local ecology. On the local population, too, who were effectively asked to do their bit for the country's military might by staying put as armageddon was unleashed in their own backyards, increased social-security stipends providing not just compensation, but a kind of official state recognition of what was going on in the area. Antony Butts' chilling documentary study After the Apocalypse interviews those who were raised and who continue to work on this land, where radiation levels peak upwards of 240 on an average day; in case you were wondering, the normal is just 15. These faces bear not just the lines we'd readily associate with individuals trying to survive in harsh climates, nor indeed - to be more specific still - those downing vodka by the bottle in the (unfounded) belief it serves as some form of anti-radiation shield; they have warps, deformities, mutations.

This, we soon gather, is just the tip of the glowing iceberg. Soon after we're introduced to the locals, Butts plunges us into the horror of a Polygon maternity clinic - not all that far removed from the wards in Lars von Trier's fictional hospital The Kingdom - where dead foetuses are preserved in bell jars, and even the doctor in charge is forced to concede, gesturing at a cycloptic foetus that never made it to full term, "this is a monster". It's this furious-yet-wearied figure's job to advise the populace not to conceive, so as to avoid filling up more jars in his study lab. I don't think I've seen more upsetting footage in a recent documentary: touring an orphanage overrun with reject-kids, babies born without arms and legs, or stuck with radioactive deformities between eyes that are, by anyone's aesthetic measure, too far apart, we overhear a nurse lamenting for the good old days of such relatively minor, correctible defects as harelips and cleft palettes. The isotopes are, all too plainly, still in the soil.

At the centre of the film is Bibigul - a woman of unguessable age, with a pronounced facial mutation - who is herself pregnant; her progress, fearful to watch as it is, points up just how lax and primitive public health care remains in this part of the world. "Are you a stupid woman?," Bibigul is asked by one midwife. "Who told you a baby starts moving in the third month?" A neuropathologist casually refers to one of his patients as "that girl with the frightful face", and uses the term "monster" once again. Over at the Museum of the Polygon Region, stocked high with deformed animal organs, the chief exhibit - sitting right there, without so much as a "Please Do Not Touch" sign, in the middle of the room - is a lump of granite drawn from the epicentre of one explosion, which itself turns out to have a radiation level six times higher than the norm. (Blue Peter badge winners may want to give this institution the widest of berths.)

A work of considerable bravery, venturing into territory anyone valuing their own fertility probably wouldn't go near, Butts' film insists on its status as a human story, and not as some freakshow we might be allowed to gawp at. It does this by pursuing twin lines of inquiry: that of the mother-to-be, as she awaits the tests that will decide whether or not her child will emerge healthy; and, perhaps even more critically, those of the doctors caught between the professional urge to treat these patients as test cases (as did their predecessors in this field), and the humane one to intervene (by bringing in "genetic passports"), on both fronts risking the accusation that they're conducting a mass eugenics experiment. Playing out to the insidious crackle of the Geiger counter, it is, after Fukushima, yet another startling demonstration of the perils of atomic energy, and a wholly compelling real-life Frankenfable, illustrating what exactly was permitted to go on behind the Iron Curtain - and those elements of science even the clenched fists of tyrants could not control.

After the Apocalypse opens in selected cinemas from Friday, and will screen on More4 later in the year.

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