The Controversial Babushkas of Chernobyl Opens Today at the LA Film Festival
One of the innumerable dangers of filming a documentary on the remarkable resilience of the octogenarian women who are essentially illegal squatters on their own land in the “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear accident site is that taken out of context, it plays right into the hands of rightwing extremists and Fox News – and for that matter, the nomenklatura left over from the Soviet regime who mismanaged the disaster. “Look, that clod from Kiev just drank from the Pripyat River that runs right past the nuclear plant – and he didn’t die! And he says the water tastes better than it does in Kiev!”
Holly Morris and Anne Bogart’s new film The Babushkas of Chernobyl makes its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival at 11:45 AM today at the Regal 14 and repeats there at 6 PM Wednesday, June 17. On the surface, it’s a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit. It’s also a chilling study in the psychology of denial. It’s a surreal, funny, and very disturbing portrait of the strange characters who’ve gravitated to the deadliest place on earth outside of Japan. It also raises the question of whether subtle, objectively inclined show-don’t-tell filmmaking leaves itself open to dangerous and potentially deadly misinterpretation. On one hand, the film’s only egregious inaccuracy is quoting one journalist’s claim that thyroid cancer is the only form of the disease that’s been definitively linked to the calamity. On the other, is it safe to leave it to the viewer to possibly assume that since a few hundred subsistence farmers can survive on toxic land and fish from a toxic river for thirty years, we can, say, build luxury condos across the street from Three Mile Island?
The women portrayed in the film are touching, and endearing. They’re all widows. They’re as dirt poor as villagers in the third world, yet they hang on, socialize with each other when they can, distill moonshine, drink a lot, sing ancient folk songs and celebrate the seasonal village holidays centered around the harvest cycle. And they’re batty. The most articulate of them – a first-responder on the fateful night of April 26, 1986, when Reactor #4 exploded – credits her vegaquarian diet and regular use of herbs for her longevity. Another brags that the women who snuck under brush and through barbwire to return to their ancestral land are more robust and longer-lived than their contemporaries who were evacuated scores or even hundreds of miles away and never returned. A physician in the area – who, in one of the film’s most most chilling scenes, keeps his thoughts under wraps even as he measures significant levels of cesium poisoning in one of the babushkas – credits the power of positive thinking, people content to be in their homes rather than miserable in exile.
The exclusion zone itself is a misnomer. Until the past decade, the other reactors at the Chernobyl plant were in use. In a twist of considerable irony, the area is now a dumping ground for nuclear waste from other area plants. Scientists regularly visit to gather samples and assess the longterm consequences, and there are regular guided tours. The film’s most surreal character is the chipper young tour guide. Like many of the area workers, she’s fond of the babushkas, visiting them and sometimes bringing provisions. How does she react when confronted with the risk of contamination from the spread one of the old women has put in front of her? “Eat and drink only the minimum,” she blithely observes in her fractured English, munching on a pickle that may well be coated with cesium, strontium or even plutonium isotopes that are virtually as lethal as they were the night the reactor blew up.
The film’s greatest strength is when Morris and Bogart let area workers speak. Doctors and scientists shake their heads:”These people are not living in reality,” one laments. Death lurks in the background everywhere: what’s implied but never addresed is that the “liquidators” sent in to collect and bury the most lethal debris, and the emergency personnel sent to the plant, were dying off fast just months afterward. And while the contamination isn’t spread evenly over the area, “safe” spots on the forest floor lie inches from soil that pins the needle on the geiger counter.
That clod from Kiev who drank Chernobyl river water – whose illegal camping trip in the exclusion zone was modeled on a popular video game – described the area as a “postapocalyptic romance.” It remains to be seen how long the romance will last for him beyond its fenced-off perimeter. If there ever was a documentary that screams out for a sequel, this is it.
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