My production partner Anne Bogart and I stumbled across this story of an unlikely community of women living in the shadow of Chernobyl while filming for the PBS series Globe Trekker in 2010. We knew immediately that we were witnessing an important story that was vanishing.
“The Babushkas of Chernobyl” is about an extraordinary group of women who live in Chernobyl’s post-nuclear disaster “Zone of Alienation” or “Dead Zone.” For more than 25 years they have survived – and even, oddly, thrived – on some of the most contaminated land on earth. Are they sick? Are they crazy? How do they protect themselves against the wild animals that have returned to prowl the forests around Chernobyl? Do they weigh the relative risks of isolation and radiation – knowing that even now the crumbling cement cover over reactor #4 could collapse at any time? How have they maintained their fiery spirit having lived through the worst atrocities of the 20th century (Stalin, Hitler, and Chernobyl). These are the questions we wanted the answers to when we began this project.
I went back to Chernobyl at the end of 2010 to write an in-depth print piece on the babushkas for More magazine. I'm now versed at moving between print and film/television - but it's a skill I've learned over time. The deep digging and deep thinking it took to write that article really set a strong foundation for making the documentary. By the time my co-director/producer Anne Bogart and I set out to do the doc, we were, as they say, loaded for Bear. This put us way ahead of the game when it came to filming under difficult circumstances (radiation and bureaucratic regulations make this a tricky doc to produce.) When it comes to making a documentary, a filmmaker often finds the story in large part after the film is shot. I think that by understanding the big issues and knowing the characters beforehand, we were able to hit the ground running.
As with all independent writing and film, funding is a challenge that requires as much creativity as the project at hand. “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” is an underdog story – it’s about a community of old ladies standing their ground on the most contaminated land on earth! – but of course this spirit, in the bizarre context of Chernobyl's “Dead Zone,” is what makes it so important and interesting. These are incredible voices that are a whisper away from vanishing. We’re determined to preserve them.
We've got just days left in our Kickstarter campaign, which will fund our capturing and honoring the story of these women. If you share our passion for this story and want to join the effort please have a look here – http://kck.st/OeaH9J – and spread the word via FB, Twitter and more!
[Photo credit: Japhet Weeks]