30 years after Chernobyl, an unlikely class of intrepid survivors has returned home to the Exclusion Zone.

Like many, I am utterly intrigued by the aftermath of the catastrophic Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which irradiated over 1000 square miles in the USSR (now Ukraine) and forced the immediate evacuation of a small but thriving city in 1986. I remember when, years later, eerily haunting images and videos of the empty, long-abandoned city of Pripyat became a viral phenomenon of the Internet Age. Since then, Chernobyl and Pripyat have become the subject of widespread fascination, and channeled through popular culture — most notably through video games Call Of Duty 4 and the STALKER series, but also in movies like The Chernobyl Diaries, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and A Good Day To Die Hard.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl serves as a grounded counterpoint to such adrenalized, entertainment-focused fictional depictions of a very real and ongoing situation.

Heading into the film, I didn’t actually know the definition or translation of the word “Babushka”, but the image it conjured up was a stereotype of an elderly Russian granny wearing a handkerchief over her head. Turns out that’s exactly, literally what it means — the word can mean “grandmother”, “elderly woman”, or oven the headdress itself.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl documents the lives of elderly women who have returned to the exclusion zone — the irradiated area generally considered uninhabitable. While the filmmakers point their cameras to only a handful of these women, there are apparently some 200 of them.

Why have they returned to one of the most remote and dangerous places on the planet? How do they make a living? Where are the men? Some, but not all, of those answers are provided. (I’m still not clear on where the men are, but the implication seems to be that they were more likely to be working in and around the epicenter of the disaster, and therefore their life expectancies more drastically affected).

Cell phones offer a connection to modernity — when they can get a signal.

We watch the Babushkas eke out a hardscrabble existence, farming the lands and relying on each other and a few infrequent outside visitors for community. Because of their advanced age, remote lifestyle, and poverty, it’s easy to mentally size them up as “simple” or out of touch, but that prejudice is quickly challenged. One describes in academic detail the medical implications of the disaster, and we learn that she was a medic called into emergency response on that fateful night in 1986. These are women who have lived, loved, dreamed, had husbands and families, and in most cases survived them.

In evacuating their homes, many of them found themselves displaced, unwanted, and robbed of their lives and livelihood, and chose to simply return home. It’s a toxic environment that’ll kill you over time, but many are simply old enough that they don’t seem to care about that anymore. They’re tough; They’re strong; They’re already beaten the odds.

On the Easter menu: homebrew

Much of this is empowering and inspiring, and the women display immense courage and faith. There are even great moments of levity in the storytelling. I laughed aloud when the women — who make their own alcohol including moonshine and wine — toast “Goodbye brains”, or when one recounts when asked if there are any men, “Well, there were two worthless ones”.

On the other hand, much of this is immensely sad. A particularly heartbreaking scene finds one solitary woman visited by the crew, who discover her injured from an accident and confined to her bed, weeping at her misfortune. A somber intertitle informs us that she died shortly thereafter.

Construction of a large sealant structure which will be used for containment.

The documentary mostly focuses on the women and their lives, and how they attempt to keep in touch with both each other and the outside world. But it also turns its attention to the Chernobyl incident and its aftermath including cultural depictions, the rampant eco-tourism of thrill-seeking adventurers who risk their lives to enter the prohibited areas, the ongoing containment initiative, and scientific studies of the effects of living in the irradiated wilderness — of which the Babushkas play an important role.

Government and medical officers study the residents of the Exclusion Area.

Incredibly, their life expectancy has outpaced that of evacuees who never returned — a testament, one wonders, to the immense power of being home.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl is currently available on VOD platforms including Amazon and Vudu. A DVD version is forthcoming.

Watch the Trailer:

A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon (Digital):

Note — all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from a private screening link provided by the distributor and do not reflect how it may look on commercially available streaming platforms (particularly in consideration of the black-framed subtitles).

Previous post Community Cinema in Austin: Movies for a Cause & June Programming!
Next post Requiem for a Lost Summer at the Movies