Of all the vantage points possible in documentary film capable of transporting the viewer to rarely seen spots and circumstances, the rooftop of a Chernobyl apartment block is one of the few – still – to retain an exclusive air. Mostly because the prospect of slow illness and death still lingers, but that hasn’t slowed the few person-shaped specks seen down below. These are the elderly “Babushkas of Chernobyl,” women who evacuated their homes in the 1986 nuclear meltdown in Ukraine, but subsequently snuck back in to live out their days on home soil – with a healthy dose of radiation as well.
The women could be the subjects of the kindest bedtime fable out there. First-time directors Holly Morris & Anne Bogart keep their focus on three women in particular – Hanna Zavorotyna, Maria Shovkuta, and Valentyna Ivanivna – and track their unique circumstances. Acknowledged but allowed by the Russian government to remain within the radioactive villages around Reactor 4, they live off pig fat, moonshine, and pickles before occasionally gathering with relocated women who actually obeyed the government’s wishes.
We see zero men living in the Exclusion Zone, although we hear there are some. But the film’s selection of widows keep pictures of their husbands prominently displayed, as well as fond, nostalgic recollections of how they married. The actual men that do visit – government officials and scientists testing radiation levels or bringing food – are quickly shooed away and playfully insulted; this dynamic leads to the film’s funniest scenes, as the women tear down incoming visitors with a well-timed phrase or raised eyebrow.
There’s another group of men as well, one of a growing breed: “Stalkers,” trespassers equipped with GoPro cameras and influenced by the Chernobyl-set video game “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.,” who trek as deep as possible into the area’s contamination zone for bragging rights, and to come face to face with their country frozen in time as it was in 1986. Morris and Bogart cut away from the Babushkas to track the progress of one specific Stalker outfit heading toward Pripyat, and link with it a sense of the encroaching outside world – modern day Ukraine – threatening to dismantle the Babushkas’ lives.
The film is in fact a potent, immersive conflict of Ukraine’s past and present. When we’re with the Babushkas, it feels as old-fashioned as the postcards and other relics littered around abandoned Chernobyl apartments; the opening scene shows Valentyna going fishing, talking about the pollution in Kiev “releasing the entire periodic table into the air.” If you didn’t hear their medical realities later on, you’d be close to climbing onboard with their entire rationale, so calm and assured their demeanor stays.
Technology rarely factors into the women’s lives – only the occasional cell phone call from one Babushka to another, spoken mostly in yells due to weak signals, shows a reliance on the modern device. Morris and Bogart keep their footprint to a minimum in this regard despite bringing film equipment – Hanna, Maria, and Valentyna are natural on-screen presences, and feel open to sharing their experiences of the Chernobyl evacuation and the traumatic toll that it took on them and their close friends.
“The Babushkas of Chernobyl” both comments on and cuts through the Area 51-esque nature of the region, providing incredible depth and access to a situation that anybody who’s hesitated before leaving an old neighborhood can believe. As the women and their friends die of old age before the heavy radiation starts to really take its toll, it makes us rethink the dangers and reasoning for the Babushkas’ way of life. When Hanna must reluctantly travel outside the Zone to pick up her pension, we understand the need to get back to home turf. [A-]