LA Film Fest Review: The Babushkas of Chernobyl, by David Bax
Not only is The Babushkas of Chernobyl a great title for a film, it’s one that will never be accused of false advertising. The subjects of Anne Bogart and Holly Morris’ documentary are every bit the classic ideal of the babushka, tough but sweet old ladies who are as colorful in their character as the multi-hued scarfs they wrap around their heads. And they do indeed live in the almost completely uninhabited are outside the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where a reactor disaster took place 29 years ago.
In the days after the reactor exploded, everyone in a 30 kilometer radius was evacuated and told they could never return. It wasn’t long, though, before some people – mostly women and mostly of older generations – snuck back in to resume residence in the place they’d called home long before the power plant was even there. The Ukrainian government tolerates and even aids their technically illegal presence because, as one scientist admits, “old age will kill them before the radiation will.” Now they are in their 80s and 90s and very few of them are left – fewer than 100 in the entire Exclusion Zone.
It’s easy to see why these women have survived so long. Down to the person, they are tough as nails. They fend for themselves, fishing the radiated waters, farming the radiated soil (one of them cheerfully gives a tour of her large garden, then shuts the gate and says, “Stay out!”) and they love vodka (“Goodbye brains! See you tomorrow!” goes one toast).
As far as why they returned, it would be simply and not entirely incorrect to say that they were just too stubborn to change their way of life. The reasoning runs deeper and more fundamental than that. These women knew the risks and returned because they made a decision that the quality of their life would be more important to them than the quantity of it. Now, all these years later, they’ve had both. They remain, like living museum exhibits, vestiges of a dying way of life. Were you to ask the babushkas, though, whether they returned for themselves or for their history, I doubt they’d recognize the difference.
So these women remain and remind Ukraine of its past. Most ignore them. Some work to care for them, delivering pension checks and arranging doctor’s visits. To another, younger, portion of the Ukrainian populace, though, Chernobyl has taken on a different meaning. Young men (exclusively men as far as we see in the film), calling themselves “Stalkers,” after a popular video game, sneak into the exclusion zone to revel in its decrepit beauty. One of them calls the ghost town of Pripyat a “post-apocalyptic romance.” To them, the past is something other than reality. It’s a story or a legend. To the babushkas, it’s as vibrant and immediate as the rising sun. The Babushkas of Chernobyl beautifully and nobly captures the moment in time that these two worlds overlap.