The Power of Home: the director Holly Morris recounts The Babushkas of Chernobyl

Shoot us and dig the grave; otherwise we’re staying”. When Soviet government officials objected, Hannah Zavorotnya’s response was determined and unmovable. It didn’t matter if the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor No 4 had blown up; it didn’t matter if all of the inhabitants had been ordered to leave the area that laid within an 18-mile radius: she had tried to stay away from her land and she hadn’t liked it. Therefore she decided to go back and live there with her family, just like some other women who still live in the “inhabitable” exclusion zone.

The filmmaker Holly Morris, who directed together with Anne Bogart the documentary film The Babushkas Of Chernobyl, reports this anecdote in an article on which the film is based. The success of the movie- narrated in a peculiar, original way- continues raising, also inside the Green Film Network: after receiving the Audience Award at San Francisco Green Film Festival and CinemAmbiente 2016, it won the Black Sea Docs Competition at the Romanian festival Pelicam 2016.


But… who are the babushkas (a Russian word that means ‘grandmother’ but also refers to ‘old countrywomen’) and why telling their story? “The heroines of this story – a marginalized group living in the shadow of the nuclear plant – have lived through Stalin, the Nazis, and Chernobyl; theirs is an extraordinary story with many environmental overlaysHolly tells us, kindly answering our questions. “But the film is not only about great resilient characters and nuclear issues – it’s also about lesser discussed issues such as Relocation Trauma, Environmental Refugee-ism, and even – perhaps most operative in the babushkas’ story – the power of Home.

Yes, because these elderly ladies have a common certainty: despite the radiations (400 times as much as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima), they prefer to stay in the area instead of experiencing some extra-years of bad life away from home. Even more in light of the fact that life close to Chernobyl, where nature is still luxuriant and generous, goes on unexpectedly joyful.

holly morris a pelicamThe director Holly Morris at Pelicam International Film Festival

I wanted to capture/celebrate/ preserve this little-known, important – and incidentally very feminist! – story. It was important to me that the women were not simply portrayed as victims. They are victims in some ways of course – but it was vital that their agency and self-determination take the fore. It’s not every film that allows old women be the narrators of history, the voices of authority, carry full agencythe director continues, speaking of the documentary film and its style.

It was both a simple and very complicated story. The setting – site of nuclear disaster – is inherently political (and scientists and activists hardly agree on anything). The style reflects the value that the the babushkas story would be the lead and the b- stories (including the Zone as character, the Stalkers, etc), informed their story, and accurately reflect a complicated place; the women’s home, but also a place at the cross-hairs of political debate. While I have strong, skeptical feelings personally about nuclear power – I knew to be true to the women’s reality that this could not be a polemical film”.

Actually, Polemical Tone- as well as Sadness or physical and psychological Pain- is a character who doesn’t take part in the documentary film. The women stay together, and sing, and toast. From time to time, they are given mandatory medical examinations due to radiations, but their age allows them to make peace with possible consequences.

solar plant

Nowadays, 30 years after the tragedy, there is a plan to transform part of the exclusion zone in a solar power plant, in order to bring back some life and activity in a wasteland, populated only by wild animals. Besides reminding us the disaster, The Babushkas Of Chernobyl shows that actually in the so-called dead zone life has never fully disappeared.