'The Babushkas of Chernobyl' Directors Explain How to Shoot in a Nuclear "Dead Zone" (Exclusive Video)

Holly Morris and Anne Bogart's documentary centers on women living in the area surrounding the nuclear accident.

Every documentary faces shooting difficulties, but it's not often they include filming in the radioactive area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident of 1989, one of the most disastrous nuclear events in history. It's the rare challenge Holly Morris and Anne Bogart faced with their feature debut The Babushkas of Chernobyl.

The film, which will premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 14, centers on women in the area who returned to their homes or refused to go after the evacuation. While their husbands died and their neighbors relocated, they continued growing their own food and holding onto their traditions in a lifestyle that "feels like another century," says Bogart. The Hollywood Reporter exclusively debuts the trailer for the documentary.

Shooting in the Exclusion Zone, or "Dead Zone," was possible through the limited access the Ukrainian government gives tourists and other visitors. But it was difficult due to both radiation and governmental restrictions, like the 5 p.m. curfew, the filmmakers say. "It wasn't the kind of film where you park for three months and shoot cinema verite," Morris tells THR.

Their days would start in Kiev at sunrise, when they would take the two-hour drive from the Ukrainian capital to the Exclusion Zone checkpoint and past the armed guards. "Then you're in there, with crumbling roads and no infrastructure," says Bogart.

"It's a little bit of a dystopian paradigm," she says. "It’s beautiful nature, thanks to the fact there's no humanity. There are rules, but then people don't follow the rules."

The rule breakers include the Stalkers, young people who breach the most highly restricted areas of the zone. Some are looking to reenact parts of the 2007 video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R., set in the zone. But others break in for more complicated reasons. "They're interested in seeking out the center of a tragedy that has defined their lives, something they've never seen but that might've taken the lives of their parents or grandparents," says Morris. "I think they're really the next generation of Chernobyl."

To tell their story, the filmmakers negotiated with anonymous Stalkers for some of the footage the young men shot in the zone. "It tested our skills as filmmakers with cultivating relationships and having our boots on the ground," says Bogart.

The directors filmed for 18 days in the zone in three shoots over 18 months. They divided the crew so no one spent the entire 18 days exposed to the radiation in the zone, and they toted a Geiger counter the entire time. "If we happened into a hotspot, then it went off. Then you get out fast," says Morris. On their way out, they were tested daily for radiation in a machine at the checkpoint (they were clean every time).

"There was always a little pressure. You were always wondering if you were going to pass," says Bogart.

The documentary examines why the women might have survived within the zone, while examining whether conditions like relocation trauma might affect the evacuees in addition to radiation. "There’s been plenty of death and plenty of suffering inside the zone, that's all very real. But what you realize is there are other things at play," says Morris. "There are these nuanced reasons for why the realities exist." 

But the directors say the specter of radiation isn't the center of the film. "The film's ultimate takeaway is home. The thing I think people understand, even if you’re not Ukrainian, is that yearning for home many of us have lost or never had," says Morris. They both were moved by the enthusiasm with which the women welcomed them into their homes and lives over the shoot.

"I’m still very touched by it. I miss them," says Morris.