Rather serene for a documentary set in an area where few would would dare to live, “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” paints an affectionate portrait of a group of women who, after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and evacuation, returned to the exclusion zone surrounding the nuclear power plant and have resided there — semi-officially, we’re told — for years. Directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart capture some surprising footage of the women going about their rural, isolated routines as if there’s nothing unusual about where they’re picking berries or raising livestock, and the doc amasses enough interesting material to pique curiosity about questions it never sufficiently answers in 71 minutes. Further fest play reps the most likely future for a film with clear environmental and cultural hooks.
The pic opens with one of the babushkas, nurse Valentyna Ivanivna, going fishing, and remarking that the air there is probably cleaner than in Kiev, where, she says — with no hint of irony — people “eat all sorts of chemicals.” Hanna Zavorotnya cares for her sister, Sonia, and the two of them spend Easter with Maria Shovkuta, who recalls putting soil in her mouth when she returned home and vowing never to leave again. Reminiscences of wartime only further suggest that, for these women, the possibility of radioactive contaminants is small potatoes.
Morris and Bogart give viewers another point of entry in Vita Polyakova, a guide for a governmental body that regulates visits to the exclusion zone. She explains some of the dangers there (what shouldn’t be touched, for instance). She also visits the babushkas, who, according to Polyakova, become “lethally insulted” if guests don’t eat their food. (She eats the minimum she can get away with.) We also meet scientists and a postal worker who delivers late pensions. Mary Mycio, author of “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl,” notes the incongruity of the placid surroundings and the dangers of the environment — whether from eating mushrooms or from hot, dry weather that spreads radioactivity. “This forest,” she says. “It looks like a storybook to me. But there’s a deeper story.”
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Another, eerier thread, which might have made an arresting movie of its own, deals with young men who sneak into the exclusion zone, apparently inspired by a first-person videogame. In what looks like the explorers’ own camera-phone footage — the faces are blurred — we see them venturing through forbidden areas and egging each other on. (“Come on, now — drink the water. Then film me and I’ll drink some too.”)
Although the danger of the surroundings is suggested through the constant presence of beeping meters, “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” could have done more to shed light on its subjects’ health. Ivanivna, we’re told, was at the reactor site the night of the disaster and had her thyroid removed two years later. Late in the film, she receives a test (briefly interrupted by a ringing cell phone, in an endearing comic moment) in which she learns that her cesium level is elevated but that she’s within the “maximum average dosage.” What does that mean, exactly? The movie implies that the women’s happiness has been a great benefit to their well-being.
While the lack of authorial intrusion helps Morris and Bogart to maintain an uplifting focus on the grandmothers’ resilience and independence, this is a case in which more of a first-person approach might have added clarity. “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” leaves you wondering whether the filmmakers themselves were ever prevailed on to eat the local pickles, and how the footage of the stalkers was obtained. (Morris has also written journalistic accounts of her experiences in the zone.)
Tech package — replete with the usual violin-heavy score to evoke Eastern Europe — is standard.