In a small house in rural Ukraine, three old women gather together, having a blast. They dig in to a spread of home-cooked dishes and share less-than-sentimental reflections on their late husbands (“Now he’s gone and I have everything”). The babushkas sing, and clap, and dance a little, as much as their aging limbs allow. They also drink. A lot. “Goodbye brains!” one of the women crows as she downs a shot of vodka. “See you tomorrow!” It is an endearing scene, complicated somewhat by the fact that it unfolds in one of the most toxic places on earth: the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
This gathering of Ukrainian grandmothers plays out at roughly the midway point of The Babushkas of Chernobyl, an affectionate, stirring documentary that follows a group of elderly women who returned to their homes after the infamous explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. When Reactor Number Four erupted in April 1986, releasing massive amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly evacuated from the surrounding area for their own safety. An “exclusion zone” of about 1,003 square miles was declared uninhabitable, its structures and vegetation laden with nuclear contaminants. But around 1,200 people returned to the region, in spite of the risks. Some 100 are alive today, most of them aging women.
The powerful, and sometimes incomprehensible sentiments that impelled them to return to their contaminated villages lie at the heart of Babushkas, which was directed by Holly Morris. The filmmaker and journalist stumbled upon the babushkas while reporting from Reactor Number Four during the 25th anniversary of the disaster. Given the radioactive fallout that has saturated the area, Morris was determined to get out as quickly as possible. But she soon noticed smoke rising from a chimney in the distance and decided to investigate.
What Morris discovered was nothing short of astounding: a widely-dispersed constellation of elderly women, who lived off Chernobyl’s toxic soil and drank its toxic water. Their bodies had absorbed large quantities of radiation. And yet, they survived. They thrived.
In 2012, Morris wrote a long-form feature detailing the lives of Chernobyl’s resilient residents, but she also wanted to explore their experiences through film. Along with her co-director Anne Bogart, Morris spent an additional 18 days in the zone over a period of 18 months. She was required to carry a Geiger counter, which measures ionizing radiation, and was accompanied by a government minder at all times. The film’s crew and transport vehicle were scanned for radiation levels before they could leave the area. It was a laborious and risky shoot, but to Morris, it was a necessary one.
“I felt this sense of urgency … because clearly, radiation or not, the women in the zone were at the end of their lives,” she said during an interview with Women in the World. “It seemed really important to capture their stories … before they were gone.”
The Babushkas of Chernobyl offers up a fascinating portrait of the exclusion zone, with its strange, eclectic cast of characters. Traipsing about Chernobyl are wild animals, researchers, government workers, and so-called “stalkers”— young adults who sneak into the zone looking for a thrill and, perhaps, an understanding of the disaster that blisters like a canker on their national history. At the center of it all are the babushkas themselves.
The stories of three women in particular form the backbone of the documentary’s narrative: Hanna, Maria, and Valentyna. For this plucky trio, the pull of home — of the lands where they grew up, where their parents, siblings, and children are buried — is an overwhelming, inevitable force. Detaching from their ancestral villages is tantamount to a death sentence. “I won’t go anywhere, even at gunpoint,” Valentyna proclaims. Maria cannot speak of the evacuation from Chernobyl without bursting into tears. In one scene, she says that when she snuck back into her village, she grabbed a handful of soil, stuffed it in her mouth, and vowed never to leave again.
“Ties to their families and their immediate community are what they love and what is most important to them—their gardens and their homes,” Morris explained. “Something that really struck me is that home is the entire cosmos of the rural babushka … [T]hey very much feel this connection to home in a more complex way than I think most of us [experience].”
Tangled up in this fierce attachment to the “motherland,” as the babushkas call their villages, is a tragic, difficult history. The women featured in the film lived through the brutal Holodomor—an artificial famine imposed on the Ukraine by Stalin’s regime—and through a Nazi invasion of the country during WWII. Having endured these acute horrors, the babushkas refuse to be displaced by the invisible menace of radiation. “Radiation doesn’t scare me,” Hanna says. “Starvation does.”
But life on the motherland is not easy. Some of the documentary’s babushkas have suffered from well-known side effects of radiation poisoning, like thyroid cancer, and may be at high risk of developing cancer in the future. Extreme isolation is, perhaps, a more immediate threat. Villages in the zone are often occupied by only one or two old women, and parts of the region are inaccessible during winter, when heavy snows clog the roads. Wild boar and wolves pose a constant risk, but human contact is limited. Throughout Babushkas, Valentyna babbles to herself in the third person. “Babushka talks to herself,” she mutters at one point, “because she has no one else to talk to.”
The Ukrainian government allows the babushkas to live in the exclusion zone semi-legally; long past the age of child-bearing, they pose no risk of passing radiation-induced defects on to future generations. But by and large, they are left to fend for themselves. In Babushkas, we see an elderly woman crying because her government pension has not arrived for several months. Another is shown weeping in bed, dying and alone.
The babushkas’ insistence upon living in the zone in spite of these challenges can, according to Morris, be chalked up to the “subjective nature of risk.” The women featured in the documentary understand that their health is threatened by radiation, but have chosen to end their lives in a place that makes them happy. It is impossible to say whether or not this decision has helped many of the babushkas live into old age in relatively good health, but it is known that the forced evacuation from Chernobyl proved to be a highly traumatic experience for survivors who never returned home.
“It’s an interesting equation around happiness,” Morris said. “Relocated peoples suffer higher levels of anxiety, alcoholism, unemployment … and unhappiness. I’m a believer that if you’re miserable, you’re less healthy. So [the babushkas] avoided all of that.”
Though Babushkas of Chernobyl is peppered with expositions on the dangers of radiation, and though the frenetic beeping of Geiger counters form an unnerving soundtrack to many scenes, the babushkas’ self-determined pursuit of happiness emerges as the true heart of the film. The documentary often lingers on the abandoned forests and bucolic little villages of the zone, which are lush, serene, and beautiful. The babushkas, content in their homes, are gregarious and funny. The nearly-toothless Maria explains how her husband wooed her by offering her a sausage: “The sausage was like the magnet he pulled me in with,” she says, and then cracks up. During an Easter church service—the only one to be held annually within the contaminated region of Chernobyl—a grinning Hanna procures a bottle of moonshine so it can be blessed by the priest.
The babushkas’ humor was, to Morris, one of the most surprising elements of a rather exceptional filmmaking process. “When one is reporting a Chernobyl story, you don’t think you’re going to walk away with something like that,” she said. “It’s all [the babushkas]. They’re high spirits. I want to stress that there is a lot of suffering and misery, but there is also a wonderful, positive spirit that the women have.
“And also, when one goes to do a Chernobyl story, you can assume that it’s really going to be about radiation and the accident,” Morris added. “But in fact, this one is about home, I believe. In the end, it’s about the palliative powers of home.”