Chernobyl, Ukraine – In April 1986, Alexander Rodnyansky was living in Kiev as a young documentary filmmaker. When the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded 60 miles north of the Ukrainian capital, most of the citizens of the Soviet Union were not informed. It took the government 18 days to reveal exactly what had happened, but Rodnyansky had filmed the disaster area from the day after the disaster.

What he witnessed after the Chernobyl explosion – and the Soviet government’s botched response to it – has haunted him ever since.

“It was probably one of the most important events in Soviet history and my personal history,” Rodnyansky said in a telephone interview.

Rodnyansky became an award-winning director, producer, and television manager. His long-term ambition to make a feature film about Chernobyl was fulfilled this year with the release of “Chernobyl 1986”, a historical drama that was supposed to focus on the lives of the people who were known as the “liquidators” and who prevented them The fire spread to the other reactors, preventing an even greater catastrophe.

The film, which recently appeared on Netflix in the US, follows the critically acclaimed HBO 2019 miniseries “Chernobyl,” which received critical acclaim for its focus on the failures of the Soviet system.

Chernobyl 1986, which was partially funded by the Russian state, has received some criticism in Russia and Ukraine for failing to emphasize the government’s missteps to the same degree. But Rodnyansky said that was never his intention. When he saw the HBO series twice, his film was already in production and he wanted it to focus on the people directly affected by the disaster.

“For years people have been talking about what really happened there, especially after the Soviet Union collapsed and the media was absolutely free,” Rodnyansky said, adding that most people understand what happened in Chernobyl a Failure of the Soviet system was. Everyone involved in the disaster was a victim, he said – “they were hostages to this system”.

While the HBO approach has been to analyze systemic flaws in the Soviet system that led to the disaster, Russian film does something familiar with the country’s cultural tradition: emphasis on the role of the individual, the people’s personal heroism and the Commitments to a higher cause.

Before the disaster, Rodnyansky had “lived a fairly stable life, and then something happened that made me think about the system, that does not allow people to know about the disaster that can kill hundreds of thousands – this is not a fair system , “He said, referring to the government’s silence immediately after the explosion.

Thirty-five years later, Rodnyansky said it was clear that the Chernobyl explosion was one of the major events that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It “changed the perception of life, the system and the country,” he said and made “many Ukrainians, if not the majority, reflect on Moscow’s responsibility and the need for Ukraine’s independence.”

Today the power plant site has fewer than 2,000 workers waiting a huge sarcophagus over the site to ensure that no nuclear waste is released. This month Ukraine celebrates the 30th anniversary of its independence from the Soviet Union. The anniversary comes as the country tries to defend itself against Russia after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and supported separatist militants in eastern Ukraine.

Although the shooting of this film had a special resonance for Rodnyansky, he has dealt with epic historical films before: In 2013 he produced the film “Stalingrad”, a love story that takes place in the battle of the same name in World War II, and “Leviathan” . which was awarded as the best screenplay in Cannes in 2014.

In 2015 he got the script for “Chernobyl 1986” and sent it to Danila Kozlovsky, a prominent director and actress who was on the set of the film “Vikings” at the time.

Kozlovsky, who was born the year before the nuclear disaster, was initially dismissive. But in a telephone interview, he said the more he read the script, “the more I understood that this was an incredible event that shaped the history of our country, which is still a rather complex subject.”

In the film he plays the protagonist Aleksei, a fireman and bon vivant. When Aleksei meets a former girlfriend in Pripyat, where most of the people who worked in the Chernobyl facility lived, he learns that he has a 10-year-old son. Despite being interested in his son and ex-partner, he makes promises he doesn’t keep until he and his fellow firefighters are dragged into the horror and devastation of the blast.

“For me it was important not just to make another pseudo-documentary fiction film,” said the actor, but to tell the story “of how this catastrophe broke into the life of an ordinary family”.

Kozlovsky said he spent a year meeting former liquidators and displaced persons from the Chernobyl area in preparation for the role. As a sign of the political change in the former Soviet state since the disaster, Kozlovsky was unable to visit the protected 1,000 square mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where the reactors and the abandoned city of Pripyat are located, because Russian men of military age are among the countries entering Ukraine ongoing conflict.

The film dedicated to the liquidators struck a nerve in some people who survived efforts to prevent further explosions and then clean up the radiation-contaminated area. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 240,000 people were involved in the cleanup in 1986 and 1987.

Oleg Ivanovich Genrikh was one of those people. He was working in the fourth reactor when it exploded, and today he makes regular appearances in documentaries and speaks to student groups to make sure younger people understand the gravity of what is happening.

The 62-year-old said he was delighted that the new Russia-produced drama explores the disaster through the experience of one of the people who came to see the disaster.

“It is important that the film shows the fate of a person who has shown his love and commitment to his profession,” he said in a telephone interview and remembered his fight against the fires not only because of the environmental crisis that could arise, but also because his wife and two young daughters lived nearby.

“I know for sure that we did everything that night to protect our city, which was three kilometers from our train station,” he said. “And we understood that our families, our loved ones, our children were in danger.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed the reporting from Moscow.