After the Apocalypse
Antony Butts (UK, World Showcase)
Friday, May 6, 7:15 p.m.
Cumberland 3 (159 Cumberland Street West)
Saturday, May 7, 7 p.m.
Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex Avenue)
There are certain issues which, if not treated properly, risk feeling like emotional porn when committed to film. The choice of the women affected by the radioactive fallout from Soviet Era nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan to give birth is one of them.
Antony Butts’ documentary, with its stylized ’90s computer font flickering intertitles and driving base soundtrack, doesn’t tread lightly around the issue. On one side of the debate is a doctor, Toleukhan Nurmagambetov, whose office is filled with jars of what he calls “monsters”—the deformed stillborn and aborted fetuses of women affected by the radioactivity in the region. He argues that women in the area should be screened for radioactivity in their blood, and that only those with a clean bill of health should be granted a “genetic passport”—i.e. the right to bear children. It sounds barbaric, and so he takes the crew on a tour of the local orphanage. Filled with abandoned children suffering from everything from Down Syndrome to severe genetic mutations, this is the ground zero in his case to “breed out” the radioactive blood which can be passed on for upwards of four generations.
On the other side of the debate is Bibigul, the daughter of a woman who saw the Soviet nuclear testing first hand, and who is genetically mutated herself. When she and her husband become pregnant, Bibigul finds herself discriminated against and all but bullied into having an abortion.
Butts’ camera doesn’t shy away from the subject matter in all its grim detail. And despite giving a voice to Dr. Nurmagambetov the documentary clearly sides with Bibigul, contrasting the former’s theoretical arguments with shots of domestic comfort at Bibigul’s home, with her two other healthy children. Others in the community, from local farmers to scientists disavowing the radiation’s effects to a man who was part of the nuclear testing are woven throughout the documentary. However, their overall impact is minimal in contrast to, say, Bibigul giving birth.
Clearly the subject matter is timely as the world waits to see what the long term effects the nuclear disaster in Japan will be. More broadly, the debate over a woman’s right to choose to conceive and give birth is an interesting one—but in this case, it might have been handled a tad less forcefully.