Litigating Disaster. Ilan Ziv.
Reviewed by Ritika Shrimali
Published on H-Environment (December, 2005)
Bhopal Gas Tragedy and Justice
<cite>Litigating Disaster</cite> is a documentary film on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Amidst the various perspectives that could have been used, director Ilan Ziv follows Rajan Sharma, the counsel for the gas victims in the civil suit in the U.S. District Court of New York, who voices the thus far unheard cries of Bhopal survivors. Seeking justice on their behalf, he claims damages for the environmental contamination in Bhopal. With new evidence being disclosed around the issue of corporate responsibility and negligence, Ziv used the New York litigation as the narrative thread for the film. The evidence is clear and can also be read in an article by Ravi Rajan in a book edited by Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susanna H. Hoffman and called <cite>The Angry Earth</cite> (1999). Ziv has very methodically and effectively raised the issues involved in the political ecology of siting of polluted facilities in city centers, and looked at the role of corporate responsibility in such situations. However, at times, Ziv just skims through the surface, leaving people watching the film wanting more! <p> December 3, 2004, marked the twentieth anniversary of the catastrophe that took place in Bhopal around midnight in 1984. The event has been described as the worst industrial disaster ever to befall a peacetime civilian population. A pesticide plant leaked some 27 tons of a toxic chemical, methyl isocyanate or MIC, over the sleeping city in the form of a cloud of toxic gas. The plant belonged to an Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide (henceforth, U.C.), an American multinational corporation. In 1991, the Supreme Court of India approved a settlement between the government of India and U.C amounting to $470 million to discharge all claims for compensation against the U.S. company, a fraction of the nearly $3 billion that India had claimed as damages in its complaint. If U.C were found guilty of the offenses with which it is charged, an Indian court could order the company to pay fines as restitution to the victims of its crime under the country's Criminal Procedure Code. <p> In this film, Rajan Sharma discloses his evidence of corporate negligence of U.C. In fact, Bhopal was not just an accident but also the worst manifestation of "callousness toward human life." <cite>Litigating Disaster</cite> is shot like a case in progression, with the lawyer for the plaintiffs (Bhopal Gas Survivors) making the opening statement in a 'mock' courtroom setting: "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury we will show that in this case, the industrial disaster at Bhopal was not just an accident but a systematic, endemic, sustained, apathetic and reckless behavior on the part of the defendants (Union Carbide). In course of the case, you will see some of the key evidence that has been collected in order to hold U.C. responsible for the disaster. Even though U.C. has tried to move ahead and would want to close Bhopal, we would not rest unless they answer for the criminal code of their conduct." <p> The opening shot of the film is of the abandoned U.C. plant at Bhopal, surrounded with tall grass and a slum-like residential set-up. Rajan Sharma follows a policeman to the industry premises and walks around the space. The images are juxtaposed with the narrative of the tragedy. From the introductory note of the lawyer, it becomes apparent that he is passionate about his case. What then follows is the revelation of hard facts through the evidence and witness testimonials to hold U.C. and its officers responsible for the gas tragedy. The director has captured some stark images, which promise to haunt you. For instance, archival footage of a helpless doctor, a girl crying for her dead father, and Warren Anderson (Chairman of U.C.) shamelessly sending his "love" to his family through television when he was granted bail. The film also features an interview with the former assistant manager of safety at the company in Bhopal, images of shock and awe coming back while he was remembering the golden and tragic days of association with U.C. <p> Like any other case in court, there are witnesses and exhibits in the film. There are four witnesses, which are part of the contemporary Bhopal set-up--Hamidia Bi (survivor), Satinath Sarangi (Bhopal group of Information and Action), Kamal Pareek (former assistant manager of safety at Bhopal Plant), and Rajkumar Keshwani (Bhopal journalist). Archival interviews of Chairman Anderson, former CEO and other officials associated with U.C. at the time are also used as witnesses. Therefore what we have in the film is an interesting mix of evidence, which at one moment provides the experience of both the present and past of the company. Apart from this, some really interesting documents have also been collected by the investigating lawyer as evidence. For instance, old sales films prepared by the company to promote products from Carbide, films cautioning people to handle "gas from air" during World War II, as well as operation manuals, budget proposals, and initial planning decisions. However, what becomes increasingly clear is that Union Carbide at Bhopal was being given sub-standard technology, and there were signs of corporate negligence. <p> The episode of corporate negligence and irresponsibility has been filmed in eight conscience-provoking sections. Each section highlights a different type of evidence that has been collected to prove that the disaster took place because of systematic failures in decision-making at U.C., United States. Section 1 recreates the horrific account of what happened (and how) at Bhopal on that fateful night through archival footage and personal account of Hamidia Bi and Satinath Sarangi. Section 2 deals with the evidence of how U.C. shirked its parental responsibility and exercised extremely discriminatory behavior towards U.C. India Limited. For instance, the officials maintained the position that the subsidiary plant in Bhopal had its own way of functioning--and that the main authority was at arm's length distance from it. However, the evidence in the film reveals that the U.C. headquarters in the United States was actually making all the key decisions. The third point raised by the lawyer is why an industry as hazardous as chemical and pesticide industry should be allowed to be located in a city center. What were the possible reasons that prompted U.C. to make that decision? Investigating those reasons, the lawyer finds more evidence of corporate greed and negligence at the cost of poor and vulnerable economies. At this point in the film, the director has taken some close shots of the tank from where the gas actually leaked, leaving the viewer with a very eerie feeling. <p> The next few sections deal with the yet more callous attitude of the company, which did not ensure any kind of safety plans for the people living around the industry. The company had no evacuation or awareness plans in the area where the plant was built. However, keeping the moral responsibility of the disaster at bay, U.C. manipulated the economic situation of the victims and ensured that the case was sent to India, where they were not liable to be present for any proceedings. What U.C. has left behind for survivors is a strong toxic legacy. Section 6 of the film shows that more than 20,000 people were exposed to the aftermath of the tragedy. The ground water was severely contaminated due to land filling of toxic waste. <p> Another focus of the film is on raising consciousness about the disaster and corporate liability in general. While reviewing the film I was constantly trying to question myself to understand why is it important for me to know why a film was made. However, while trying to seek answers, I realized that perhaps the film on its own was unable to communicate this. In one of my e-mail conversations with Rajan Sharma, he very candidly wrote back that his biggest reason for involvement in this project was to try and build a historical record about the truth of U.C.'s role in causing the disaster. And I feel that the film has done justice to this cause. As stated earlier, there could have been various other perspectives of the tragedy that one would have wanted to watch: the role of Indian bureaucracy, the state government, and rehabilitation efforts by NGOs to name a few. But understanding the focus of the film, perhaps it was not needed. <p> I would highly recommend this film to be shown in a classroom setting for stimulating discussions on issues of environmental justice and corporate liability. The film is well structured and easy to understand. In fact, it might become an interesting exercise for students to collect information regarding the policies and plans of the big corporate houses in their areas. This will help them understand the political and ecological nuances involved in any environmental decision making processes. The "environmental" films that I have watched in India are largely of a documentary nature. They usually tell stories of specific communities, wildlife conservation, wildlife natural history, and environment conservation. <cite>Litigating Disaster</cite>, however, is a different kind of documentary. Not only is the motivation behind it innovative, cinematically it also has some dramatic value, which makes it enjoyable. Of course, it is the content of the film that leaves a deeper impression in the mind.
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