‘The Babushkas of Chernobyl’: LAFF Review

Holly Morris and Anne Bogart’s documentary profiles the elderly women who continue to live in the Chernobyl “Exclusion Zone” despite the presence of deadly levels of radiation.

There may be no tougher people on the planet than the titular subjects of Holly Morris and Anne Bogart‘s documentary about the elderly women who stubbornly continue to reside in the “Exclusion Zone” that was evacuated after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster nearly three decades ago. Profiling these unlikely heroines who somehow manage to thrive amidst radioactive contamination that would terrify anyone else, The Babushkas of Chernobyl delivers a haunting sociological study.

Roughly 100 elderly women — the men have all died off, proving indeed that they’re the weaker sex — live in the otherwise largely abandoned area. Despite their advanced age and a conspicuous need for better dental care, they seem to be thriving, with fishing, farming and livestock providing their primary sources of food. One of their dietary staples is vodka, with one pointing out, “This is not to get drunk but to heal.” Considering their longevity, it’s a hard point to argue.

The Bottom Line

A haunting and strangely uplifting doc.

The primary health concern is apparently thyroid cancer, with one of the women having had to get hers removed a few years after the nuclear incident. Despite the official ban on living in the area, their presence is tolerated by the government. As one observer points out, “They figure that old age will kill them before radiation does.”

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Concentrating on several of the women, including 72-year-old Valentyna, who attributes her good health to the healing properties of herbs, the film also introduces us to various non-residents who periodically enter the Zone to attend to them, including a pair of cheerful soldiers who address each of them as “grandma” even while marveling at the area’s high radiation levels and a 23-year-old female government representative who forces herself to eat at least small portions of the food offered to her by the babushkas who would be deeply offended if she refused.

More disturbingly, the restricted area is frequently entered into by young men known as “Stalkers,” inspired by a video game of the same name, seeking radiation-defying thrills. We see self-photographed footage of them taken during one of their trespasses.

“It has a high uranium aftertaste,” one of them jokes after drinking the local water.

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Seen engaging in such activities as attending to the graves of family members and entering a rundown church for the area’s sole religious ceremony, Easter midnight mass, the babushkas are clearly a hardy lot: “I’m not afraid of anything,” one declares. But that doesn’t make them immune from the ordinary travails of modern-day life, as evidenced by an amusing scene in which one struggles to continue her cell phone conversation.

“Can you hear me now?” she asks, as if auditioning for the familiar television commercial.

The filmmakers, who actually had to revolve their duties so as to avoid too lengthy exposure to the deadly radiation, clearly have a strong affection for their indomitable subjects. By the end of the film, viewers are likely to feel the same way. After all, who can resist the babushka who cheerfully toasts, “Goodbye, brains … see you tomorrow!” before downing a shot of vodka.

Production: Hedgebrook, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Fork Films
Directors/producers: Holly Morris, Anne Bogart
Executive producers: Nancy Nordhoff, Lynn Hays, Jill Mazurksy, Stacy Sherman, Billy Ray
Director of photography: Japhet Weeks
Editors: Richard Howard, Mary Manhardt, Michael Taylor
Composer: Rob Teehan

Not rated, 71 min.