LA Film Festival Fri 5.29.2015

Resisting Moonshine and Dumplings—The Story Behind The Babushkas of Chernobyl

Behind every (fill in the blank) great/glorious/funny/scary/sad story told on film is an equally great/glorious/funny/scary (yes, probably sometimes) sad story: the one about how the whole thing went from being an idea in a brain (probably many years ago) to a big screen premiere at a big-time Festival. In this Film/Maker Q/A blog series, our LA Film Fest programmers interview our LA Film Fest filmmakers to discover the stories behind the story.

Film Education Manager and Festival Associate Programer Lee Jameson sat down with writer/directors Anne Bogart and Holly Morris to discuss their documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl. The film follows a community of unlikely heroines who, for nearly 30 years, have lived in Chernobyl’s post-nuclear disaster “dead zone.” Stylish and stubborn, these fascinating women have survived, and even thrived, on some of the most toxic land on Earth. But the babushkas aren’t the only risk-takers: scientists, bureaucrats and even young men called “stalkers” (who break in illegally to pursue their video game-inspired fantasies) explore the dystopian zone and seek out its radioactive grandmas.

What was the genesis of this project? How did you first learn about the Babushkas and their world?
Anne: Holly and I were on a shoot for the PBS show “Globe Trekker,” doing an episode on the whole of Ukraine. I was the director and Holly was the host. The final segment we shot was a day trip to Chernobyl. We had heard from local guides that the mysterious “babushkas” were still living inside the zone in defiance of the government, and of course, common sense. We were intrigued; so after a long day of shooting, we went looking for a babushka, in much the same way people look for bigfoot. To our astonishment, we found Hanna, who ended up being one of the featured characters in the film.

Was there an “aha!” moment when you knew you had something special in regards to the story?
Holly: I returned to the zone shortly after that initial visit to do an investigative print story on the women. Being in an environment where all your instincts–fear, wonder, survival–are on high alert made the women’s spirit, resilience and humanity all that much more spectacular. By the end of that experience, I felt sure that there was a deeper story to be explored on film. But a single moment? Probably when Hanna said to me on that visit: “Radiation doesn’t scare me, starvation does.” That said it all.

Anne: To me, instead of an “aha” moment, it was like a slow realization that it was a story we just felt compelled to tell. We would email each other months after the shoot, agreeing we couldn’t get the babushkas out of our minds. They were haunting us.

What surprised you the most about this story while you were filming?
Anne: What surprised me most was the strength of the women. I mean, literally, physical strength–not just their wonderful spiritual strength—80-year-old women who are chopping wood, pumping water from a well,  and chasing wild boars from their gardens… I felt like a wimp when I was with them. It changed my mindset about what an “old lady” could be.

Holly: Clearly the women were always going to be the bedrock of the story, but I thought radiation and nuclear issues would be a big part of the takeaway. In the end, however, the film is much more about home and its power, than anything else.

It seems like this was a very dangerous film to shoot. What safety precautions did you and your crew have to take during production? 
Anne: We followed all the health and safety guidelines, and never went anywhere without the accompaniment of an officially-sanctioned government guide, armed with a device to monitor hot spots. The danger of the zone is a complicated issue, and there is no definitive medical opinion on what or how much time is safe or unsafe. We did our research, spaced out our shoots, and were mindful of the time we spent in the most contaminated areas of the zone inside the 10km radius, closest to the reactor.

Holly: Yeah, we carried a dosimeter [Geiger counter] at all times and steered clear of un-remediated areas and breezy days that spread contaminants. Most importantly, we did our best to avoid eating local food. We really did. But the babushkas are nothing if not determined. Turning down the moonshine and dumplings of women who had stared down and survived Stalin, the Nazis and Chernobyl is no easy feat–perhaps our biggest production challenge.

Do you have any advice for first-time documentary filmmakers? 
Anne: Learn Excel spreadsheet skills, and never shoot anybody who hasn’t already signed a release form.

Holly: Don’t choose a radioactive zone for your first time out? If the radiation doesn’t kill you, the bureaucracy will. But in all seriousness, love your subject and story. You will have a long affair that will by turns embolden and suck you dry, so you must feel the passion. And, five years: that’s how long you can expect an indie doc to take. At least. So eyes wide open and all that… Lastly, have fun. What a great privilege it is to tell stories about extraordinary people on film.

Finally, how do the babushkas stay so stylish in a nuclear disaster zone? What’s their secret?
Holly: Ah, you’ll have to watch the runway at this season’s Fashion Week. The babs had to sign NDAs but all will be revealed soon…

Anne: The same secret all stylish women have: they dress to please themselves, not others. Also, lots of layers is a good idea in those long, Ukrainian winters.

The Babushkas of Chernobyl is in the Festival’s Documentary Competition and screening on Sunday, June 14 at 11:45 am and Wednesday, June 17 at 6:00 pm. Get your tickets here.

Lee Jameson / Film Education Manager and Los Angeles Film Festival Associate Programmer
I live for the thrill of sorting through submissions and discovering something totally unique. Having been exposed to John Carpenter and David Cronenberg films at a young age (probably too young), I have a proclivity for mind-melting genre fare. I also scour live comedy shows here in LA for talent for our digital section LAUNCH. As an Associate Programmer, it’s been an honor to have the opportunity to watch so many passion projects from new talent and engage in heartfelt discussions with the programming team.