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The real Chernobyl Diaries: notes from Ukraine

What struck me the most about the film ‘Chernobyl Diaries’, which I had put off for as long I could, was the shameless insensitivity it shows towards the hundreds of thousands of people who have suffered and continue to suffer from the 1986 nuclear disaster.  The film portrays Chernobyl’s victims as deformed flesh-eating zombies who haunt the abandoned city of Prypiat, which lies near the destroyed reactor in north Ukraine.

The controversy of the film has been expressed by charities who work with Chernobyl victims. Chief Executive of UK charity ‘Chernobyl Children’s Life Line’, Dennis Vystavkin told me how he thinks “the film is disgusting, it’s doing our heads in”.

Why then, with something so obviously tragic, does a film like Chernobyl Diaries exist?

The answer, in part is based on a latent Orientalism, a perception of Eastern-Europe as somehow backward, strange and ‘other’. One only has to look at recent films such as Borat(2006), which portrayed Kazakhstan as primitive and racist, or Hostel (2005) where once more Eastern-Europe was presented as a place of savage post-socialist depravity. Not to mention ‘A Serbian Film’ (2010).  The recent coverage of Euro 2012 continued this negative portrayal, with ITV commentator Peter Drury exclaiming after Poland scored an equalizer against Russia: “from president to peasant, they’re all cheering!” – reinforcing the tired stereotype of Slavic people.  You can imagine Drury preparing that line before the game ‘What do Poland and Russia have in common? That’s it – peasants!’.

With this ‘othering’ comes a fascination with disaster. Where people’s ‘otherness’ becomes more important than their humanity. But zombies? Well there are some modern disasters that even zombies steer well clear of. Chernobyl – the worst technological disaster in human history, is for some reason not one of them.

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