Every cell in Sebastian's body is infected with cancer. He lies down the whole day, writhing in pain. When Amudhan, the director of the documentary film, “Radiation Stories” reaches his house, he implores: “Can you help me use the bathroom?” The pain in his eyes tells not only a story of suffering and loss, but also a disease that leaves him humiliated. “There is no one to take care of me. My older daughter died of cancer some years ago,” he says, and every little progress in his story is marked by the refrain, “God has no mercy.” What makes me deserve this punishment, Sebastian wonders, every moment of his life.
This is a true story of Sebastian, a fisherman from Kanyakumari. He has been affected by Indian Rare Earths Limited's (IREL) excessive mining of monazite sand (from which thorium is extracted) for the last 30 years. One of IREL's divisions is in the Kanyakumari Panchayat town Manavalakurichi.
Presented by Pedestrian Pictures, noted documentary filmmaker Amudhan R.P.'s “Radiation Stories” was screened in Bangalore last week. The film documents the stories of people who have suffered a fate similar to Sebastian's.
Kanyakumari has the highest number of cheek cancer patients in the world. Women suffer from cancer of the breast and uterus while men suffer from pancrea and lung cancer. Children suffer from debilitating disabilities such as retarded growth, under-developed bladders, speech defects and deformed feet and hands. Exposure to thorium can cause cancer and disabilities due to changes in the genetic material of body cells. Thorium also produces plutonium that is used in making atom bombs.
According to a social worker, protesting fishermen were co-opted by IREL as contract workers. “IREL refuses to help. No one listens to our grievances,” said one contract worker who is suffering from cancer. “Despite there being an International Cancer Centre, health support is minimal. Patients are given some money by the Government, but once that is spent, they are asked to leave the hospital. People take ‘private loans' at high interest rates to pay off huge debts incurred due to expensive medical treatment. Individual bishops and priests support them, but that's not enough,” says Amudhan.
Amudhan was threatened against shooting the film. “Some villagers opposed the film for fear of losing their livelihood. Political parties and NGOs are silent on the issue.” Not a single study by the Government or an NGO has been conducted on this issue. Amudhan says, “Some simple study should be done. Students can visit these areas and do some research.”
The film has no voice over nor any stylised shots. It is sensitive without being sentimental. “When making a film, I follow my instincts. I am not a stylised filmmaker and like to tell my story in the simplest way possible.”
IREL representatives are conspicuous by their absence. Their versions have not been documented by the director. Many critics may argue that the film presents only one side of the story. Amudhan is quick to reply: “I don't give any balance in my films. I don't think the guilty are innocent, they know that what they are doing is wrong.”
The film highlights that nuclear energy is as dangerous as nuclear weapons. “It's high time we stop believing nuclear energy is harmless. Awareness of this truth should spread,” says filmmaker K.P. Sashi.
Besides being a documentary film maker, Amudhan is a media activist. “I choose topics that are unattractive to run-of-the-mill filmmakers. My films aren't glamorous, safe or trendy. The whole idea of making films like ‘Radiation Stories' is to bring unknown issues to the people. I never use commentary. I tell my stories through interactions,” he says. Fame, money and awards don't motivate Amudhan. “All I want is people to accept the reality of issues shown in my films. Once that happens, action can be taken.”