As part of an event in London to mark the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, I was fortunate to be invited to attend a screening of 'Babushkas of Chernobyl'.
Described by the event's organisers as a 'haunting, affirmative documentary', the film focuses on a group of elderly women who have returned and continue to live in the isolated villages of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
For a western audience, the babushkas' antics are full of humorous moments: from their resolute attempts at fishing, to their homemade moonshine which they try to get blessed at the Easter midnight Mass service. The film succeeds in showing a side to Chernobyl which would more often than not be forgotten - the beauty of the surroundings; surroundings which were lure enough to bring this group of women back from evacuation to live off a land toxic with radiation. The power of the 'rodina' - motherland - is felt strongly in the women's determination to live, and die, within the exclusion zone. The authorities, we learn, allow the babushkas to live in the zone on a 'semi-legal' basis, on the assumption that the effects of old age will do more than the radiation ever could.
Whilst the film hovers dangerously on the verge of painting an idyll of the exclusion zone and its comic-book inhabitants, you are brought firmly back to reality by following a group of 'stalkers' - young thrill-seekers who break into the zone in order to bask in the glory of experiencing the forbidden. The constant, neurotic peeping of the Geiger counter shows to what extent they take their young lives in their hands (radiation takes more of a toll on the young than the old). As a viewer you have a physical urge to reach out and throttle them, as they risk their health for no reason, when others were not afforded the luxury of that choice.
If the film can be criticised at all, it is for the fact that despite all the peeping Geiger counters and the scare-mongering stories about the radiation which is going into the babushkas with every mouthful of food, it does little to show the very real impact which Chernobyl still has on thousands of people. Chernobyl's effects show up in generation after generation of babies born within the large area which was hit by the radiation. Whilst the situation of this group of a dozen or so old women is incredibly touching, it does not quite show the enormity of the disaster.
Despite that slight criticism, the film does make refreshing viewing. Rather than terrifying the viewer with harrowing images of blackened skin and wasting bodies, it takes a much more humane look at the disaster. It is also a resoundingly successful reminder of the strength of a sense of home; your motherland will always be your motherland, even if that land is one that retains one of the most notorious reputations of recent history.
Watch the trailer here.