Brooklyn Girl Journeys To Chernobyl’s Heart

If you are worried that Al Qaeda might use nuclear terrorism the next time it attacks, please, please do not see the new film Chernobyl Heart .

This short documentary, which won an Oscar this year, shows what happens years after a nuclear disaster: mutant children and unthinkable illnesses.

When Chernobyl Heart was aired in the U.N. General Assembly several months ago, a blond head of curls was barely visible above the podium. It belonged to filmmaker Maryann De Leo. A pretty, tough, intense former independent TV producer, Ms. De Leo told the 600 folks in attendance-mostly diplomats and cineastes-that the people affected by Chernobyl wanted Americans not to forget them. “After tonight, I think you never will,” she said.

Coming from most people, that would have been preposterous self-promotion. But not from Ms. De Leo. She put herself in harm’s way to take a camera into the radioactive no-go zone around Chernobyl and tell the world what the fallout from the accident is. She has struggled for years, winning awards for disturbing documentaries without compromising and doing commercial work. Now she’s about to get some prime time.

Chernobyl Heart won an Oscar without ever being seen by the public. In early September, HBO will broadcast it along with Rory Kennedy’s film about the Indian Point nuclear-power plant, located 40 miles from New York City. The broadcast will be a timely reminder that an explosion at Indian Point could well be another Chernobyl, but this time with New York in the wind shadow.

Ms. De Leo grew up in Bensonhurst and Pearl River, N.Y., in a big family headed by a city sanitation worker. She broke into film as an independent producer and reporter for The Today Show , and now is one of a wave of documentary filmmakers doing the kind of fresh, in-depth investigative reporting largely abandoned by mainstream print journalists.

Think Jonathan Demme’s The Agronomist , about a murdered Haitian activist; Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room , on the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera and the Iraq war; Hidden in Plain Sight , John Smihula’s exposé of an Army training school linked to Latin American death squads and massacres; and Errol Morris’ The Fog of War .

A major force behind the docu-renaissance is HBO/Cinemax’s Sheila Nevins, the executive vice president for original programming (documentaries and family), whose uncanny sense of what will fly has brought documentaries back into theaters.

She urged Ms. De Leo to go to Chernobyl and find out what the aftermath of the disaster has been, long after the rest of the world had forgotten.

“Doctors and scientists there said it’ll be 50 years before we find out what’s really happening,” Ms. De Leo said recently, referring to the effects of genetic damage on future generations. When one of the Chernobyl reactors caught fire and blew its top on April 26, 1986-thanks to a poorly designed test sequence meant to determine how the plant would operate in the event of a power failure-the resulting explosion spewed radiation over an area almost half the size of Italy, extending from Belarus and Russia to the Ukraine, exposing some people to the equivalent of a thousand chest X-rays. Seven million people in the region are estimated to suffer from the physical or psychological effects of radiation exposure, according to a U.N. report. Some 4,000 people who took part in the cleanup in the Ukraine have since died.

Ms. De Leo’s Virgil guiding her through the devastation was Adi Roche, the founder of the Irish Chernobyl Children’s Project. Ms. Roche has been bringing medical care for 12 years to children in Belarus, the country hardest hit because it was downwind from Chernobyl that day. The film opens with Ms. Roche and Ms. De Leo in HazMat suits, driving through the 18-mile-wide evacuation zone to the Dnieper River, near the shuttered plant. The dosimeter they lay on the ground clicks and clicks ominously.

Chernobyl is still leaking radiation. Yet the international community still hasn’t fixed the leaks in the reactor’s concrete sarcophagus, which could trigger another explosion.

“It was scary,” Ms. De Leo remembered. “The closer you get, the less vegetation there is. It’s quiet-there are few birds. The villages are abandoned. The Dnieper is the most polluted river in the world.”

During the filming, Ms. De Leo got cesium poisoning. Maybe it was from the meal of potatoes grown in the poisoned soil that she ate at the home of a farmer in the exclusion zone. Cesium, a byproduct of fission, has a half-life of 30 years. It can cause cancer. In the film, a doctor from the Belarus Radiation Medicine Institute sits Belarussian students in a special chair to measure any cesium in their bodies. He also tested Ms. De Leo.

Was it foolish to enter one of the most radioactive environments on earth? Ms. De Leo doesn’t think so. “The cesium I got was small, he told me-but you shouldn’t have any,” she said.

The poisoned air, water, soil, crops and people led her into hospitals and mental asylums. There, she saw unimaginable deformities.

“Is this from the radiation?” she asked everywhere. “I found it hard to get information.” She often spent nights crying in her hotel room.

On camera, Ms. Roche cradles children with tumors the size of turbans. One toddler’s brain hangs off her head like a white cabbage. To hold this girl, named Juliya, she cups the brain in one hand and her body in the other.

Eighty-five percent of the children in Belarus are born unhealthy, Ms. De Leo discovered. The poorest nations on earth have healthier children.

“I had to make it short. You really couldn’t watch more.” At the end, an American surgeon saves the life of a 13-year-old girl with holes in her heart, a condition so common in Belarus it’s called “Chernobyl heart.”

“She likes to focus on what people deny,” said Ms. De Leo’s good friend, Ellen Hilberg.

The film’s link between radiation and illness is controversial, since few studies are conclusive. Illnesses induced by radiation exposure have a long latency period. Of all the conditions shown in the film, only childhood thyroid cancer has been confirmed as increasing: In some areas of Belarus, it is 100 times greater than before the accident, according to the U.N. Its nickname is the “Belarusian necklace,” after the scar the surgery leaves on the neck. Caught early, it isn’t fatal.

Radiophobia is common, Ms. De Leo reports. “People live with an insecurity about everything. Everything is poisoned.” In the film, a teenager learns that the jam he’s cooked from berries in the forest contains cesium. The fear on his face when he is told that he is contaminated too is difficult to watch.

Ms. De Leo’s other films-about Bellevue’s psychiatric emergency ward (2001), four people who chose alternative medicine for their terminal illnesses (1996) and a rape-crisis center (1991)-share a compassion for the wounded.

“I was extremely shy. I used to hide under the table as a kid and listen to what the grownups were saying. In a way, I still do that-being a fly on the wall.” But this crusader usually gets what she wants.

A month after the U.N. screening, however, she wasn’t succeeding. People told her that all she had to do to get a free camera was call Sony and say she’d won the Oscar. Sony turned her down, as did Panasonic.

So there she was, in sandals and jeans at B&H Photo-Video on Ninth Avenue, hoisting a $22,000 Sony E.N.G. (electronic news gathering) camcorder on her shoulder-the sort of camera she used in war zones for NBC. (Always in harm’s way, her mother complained.) She fiddled with the lens aperture and compared it to a Panasonic campro, a $3,500 video camera between a consumer and a professional model. “I like a warm picture-not video-y.”

In several months she is starting a new film, The Boys of Baghdad , about young Iraqi children, and she’d promised herself to look at a new camera which would make footage more easily transferred to film for theatrical display.

Half an hour later, she left sans camera. Maybe she’d use her old one after all. In a Subaru Forester, she drove off to her rent-stabilized Lower East Side apartment, where the film-editing equipment crowds out all but her bed. Her private life is a little skimpy, she admits. The Spanish boyfriend who first challenged her to film Chernobyl is long gone. “Even my plants are gone,” she said. “I’m away too much, working.”

News keeps trickling in of which children in Chernobyl Heart have died.

“When I began editing, I saw how difficult it was to watch some of the children. I had to figure out how to make it a film people would not want to turn off. We’ll see if I’ve succeeded. I also felt a responsibility to the kids. I wanted to make a film that would get help for them. I felt like I couldn’t, on their behalf, let the film fail. There were many times I thought the film would not work.

“I had this guilt about leaving them behind. Walking away-it just didn’t seem right.”

Baghdad could be another shock. Ms. De Leo hasn’t been back since the 1991 Gulf War. “I’m interested in survival there, and the victims of this war, like the war orphans. It’s on boys, because they don’t let the girls out of the homes.”