Antipodean: Carry On Katastrofa!

Words by Madeleine Bendixen

Pictures by Simon Cottee

Published on September 3, 2014


The casting call asked for men of Slavic appearance, aged twenty to forty, for ‘featured extra’ roles in a comedy feature film about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. At the screen test, Dan was deemed sufficiently Eastern European-looking by the film’s director — a chubby, oily man named Ainsley. He told Dan the film was sure to have an impressive international festival circulation.

‘It’s a silent film,’ he said. ‘Charlie Chaplin meets Benny Hill meets Cronenberg. In the USSR.’

The film commenced production in July at a location out in central Queensland, around fifty kilometres south-west of Longreach. Dan and a load of other extras were bussed from their roadside motel out to the set — a cluster of trucks and sheds in the beige expanse of Queensland’s dirt plains. Inside one giant iron demountable, a hypertensive set designer/costume designer/properties manager named Old Harry had (with a team of six production design students) constructed two mock-ups of Chernobyl’s unit four reactor hall and control room — one version intact and the other post-explosion, complete with a model of the reactor’s 2000 tonne cement cover plate torn off and flipped to one side by the blast.

Most of the cast were locals, and only a couple were, like Dan, trained actors. On average, they had little to no knowledge of the events in Soviet-era Ukraine that had inspired the film. But there was one genuinely Slavic member of the cast.

Iosif was to play Aleksandr Akimov, shift leader of Chernobyl’s doomed reactor four on the night of April 25-26, 1986, and at the controls in the operating room at the time of the explosion. The Russian actor had grown a thick moustache especially for the film, to more closely resemble the real Akimov. And he turned out to be an astonishing talent. Despite his solemn demeanour, Iosif excelled at the vaudeville style of the script, which portrayed the team in the Chernobyl operating room as a bunch of buffoonish drunks whose bottles of vodka littered the control panel. Iosif’s Akimov took shots with his colleagues while, behind them, red lights flashed, readings soared, and the reactor, visible to the viewer through the control room window, began to emit clouds of steam.

The shoot wrapped for its first day as the sun went down. The actors changed in the costume shed and many went for a smoke, to warm themselves while waiting for the bus back to their motels. Dan walked away from the set and beyond the glare of the lights, until his steps crunched on patches of frosty grass. There he could see the flat country and the horizon uninterrupted by silhouettes of trucks and film crew.

He almost ran into another figure standing in the dark — Iosif, his breath coming in puffs of vapour under his moustache. Dan came up beside him, and after a pause the Russian looked across and spoke.

‘It is strange,’ he said.

They were the first words Dan had heard him speak.

‘Strange making this movie. In this place.’ Iosif gestured towards the plains.

He told Dan he’d been overseas at the time of the Chornobylska Katastrofa, but his brother in Minsk had been on standby for evacuation for days as authorities feared that continued meltdown at Chernobyl would cause further, more devastating explosions.

His brother’s wife had been pregnant at the time. She’d had an abortion soon after, worried that radiation from the nuclear fallout over Minsk would cause birth defects in her child. In fact, Iosif explained, all across Europe, where the fallout reached as far as England, countries where abortion was legal recorded sudden rises in the numbers of requested terminations.

The men turned back to face the film set.

‘It is my first time to Australia,’ Iosif said. He yawned.

In the distance, Old Harry walked from one shed to another, carrying what looked like a khaki space suit.

Dan wondered what it would feel like to be among the last people on Earth.

Madeleine Bendixen is a PhD student currently in Brisbane. She writes about bodies and ugliness, the sacred and the absurd. Her fiction has been published in Stilts Journal and her poetry in Social Alternatives. She is writing a novella called Gibbersmock.

Simon Cottee is an animator and film maker moving to Montreal. Here is a comic about it: