If there is an award for most bizarre documentary, the 2016 award would most certainly go to Tickled. However, I have managed to find a documentary from 2015 that is equal parts strange as it is wonderful. That film is The Babushkas of Chernobyl, one of the most delightfully weird and touching documentaries of recent years, and a film that is utterly original in both its subject matter and its approach to that subject matter.
The plot of The Babushkas of Chernobyl is incredibly simple – in the radioactive zone surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, all life is doomed to die, and no human is permitted to live within a close proximity to that zone. Logical people obviously stay away, because the Chernobyl disaster was not a laughing matter, especially not in recent years, where the effects still linger. Of course, as with every rule, there are those that enjoy breaking them – and in the case of the law banning settlement within the proximity of the radioactive epicenter, the rebels are a group of elderly women that refuse to vacate their homeland. These women, affectionately known as babushkas (“grandmothers” in Russian) hold onto their land with the strong belief that some dangerous radiation is not enough to prevent them from leaving the lands that they spent their entire lives on.
What was the purpose of The Babushkas of Chernobyl? That is a question I can’t quite answer. There isn’t anything socially, economically or politically relevant about this story. Of course the Chernobyl disaster is one of the most shocking historical events in history, and much is still written about it today – but why make an entire documentary concentrating on a small group of people who just live their lives as normal on land that they are not supposed to live on? Here’s the answer – because it is fascinating and this is a story that didn’t need to be told, but I am so damn ecstatic that it was, because in a world where documentaries have some undeniably overbearing message, a film about a dozen elderly Ukrainian going about their lives, seemingly not bothered by the presence of life-threatening radiation is just the kind of story that isn’t made very often or really ever. It is an essential film, but one that you don’t realize the importance of until you actually know it exists.
There isn’t much to say about The Babushkas of Chernobyl other than the fact that the subjects of this film are some of the most extraordinarily interesting and undeniably charming people ever put onto our screens. The film is centered around around a dozen different babushkas, but there is focus on only about three of them. Most of this film’s marketing was around the central three – Hanna Zavorotyna, Maria Shovkuta, and Valentyna Ivanivna, three women that may be advanced in age, but more than make up for it in utter defiance and incredible good-humour. One important lesson I learned from The Babushkas of Chernobyl – every country in the world is wasting their money and resources on training a military, when the true secret weapon to any country’s success in war are clearly the babushkas, because I have yet to see more resilient, audacious and brutally strong-willed group of people than those in this film.
The key to any great film is to have a very important commodity – personality, or soul. To be completely honest, The Babushkas of Chernobyl has personality to spare several times over. It is a quirky, often hilarious and very idiosyncratic documentary, but also a very serious and solemn portrayal of the life of people before, during and after the Chernobyl disaster. Not only is The Babushkas of Chernobyl a film about the old women who inhabit the area around the disaster zone, it is the story of how they survived the disaster and rather than fleeing to safety, decided to take the risk and return to their motherland, where their roots remain. It is a moving documentary that is as heartbreaking as it is entertaining, and like any great film, it should be able to make you feel an entire panoply of emotion.
I am not sure what drove me to watch The Babushkas of Chernobyl – I just happened to stumble upon it. What I thought was just an interesting concept actually turned out to be one of the more haunting and moving films I’ve seen. Utterly wonderful from beginning to end, The Babushkas of Chernobyl is such a terrific film. I highly urge everyone to seek it out. Interest in a film like The Babushkas of Chernobyl will get more audacious and original projects like this made, and it would be a great service to the legacies of all the souls lost in the disaster, and a great way to pay tribute to the highly resilient and utterly captivating story of the babushkas who just refuse to stay away. Please see this film, it is truly wonderful.