Two exceptional documentaries of magnificent story-telling by women directors – one about Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and the other about a small group of elderly women who have lived for 30 years within the forbidden zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster – will be screened in free, public presentations later this month by the Utah Film Center.
Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, a 2013 film directed by Pratibha Parmar, will be screened April 20 at 7 p.m. in the Jeanne Wagner Theatre of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Parmar and Walker will attend and participate in a Q&A session following the screening, which will be moderated by Doug Fabrizio, host of KUER-FM’s RadioWest.
On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, The Babushkas of Chernobyl, a 2015 award-winning film directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart, will be screened April 26 at 7 p.m. in the City Library auditorium. Morris, who will be in the Ukraine at the time, will participate in a Q&A following the screen through Skype.
Parmar’s biographical documentary of Walker, which is as much a powerful testament of oral history as it is a complex, intricately detailed account of her development as a writer, has had an enduring run on the international festival circuit since its London premiere in the spring of 2013 during International Women’s Week. The film also was screened as part of PBS’s American Masters Series.
It will soon be made available in a comprehensive educational DVD package that includes extra video footage and curriculum materials about Walker’s literary work. Parmar, in an interview with The Utah Review, says she and her colleagues are in the process of clearing the music rights for the DVD. “There have been so many requests for a DVD both for home and schools,” she explains. “We are hoping to be able to make sure that every college, university and school will have access to the film and its story about one of America’s most important contemporary literary figures.”
Parmar manages with immensely satisfying results in giving voice and imagery to Walker’s life story without it ever seeming rushed or incomplete within the span of just 85 minutes. Walker, now 72, was born on a Georgia cotton plantation and Parmar fills out the author’s comments and memories with photos and videos paralleling her formative years, as the civil rights movement was beginning to take shape. Walker states unequivocally in the film that the widespread institutional racism and, in particular, the grievous police brutality against innocent black citizens, constituted terrorism – a line that resonates strongly in the work of the ever more visible Black Lives Matter movement.
During her 20s, Walker was active in civil rights and voting rights efforts, crediting her influence to the late Howard Zinn, who also is featured in the film, during her days at Spelman College in Atlanta. She transferred to Sarah Lawrence College and then returned to the South in 1965, where she worked in many grass roots community organizations and voter registration drives in Mississippi. She and her husband, Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, were Mississippi’s first legally married interracial couple.
Parmar, who has known Walker personally for more than two decades, also handles two of the most sensitive episodes of the author’s life with the utmost balance of candor and discretion. The first surrounds the tremendous waves of brutal criticism – particularly from black men – that Walker faced for The Color Purple, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 and subsequently was made by Steven Spielberg into the critically acclaimed film starring Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
The film includes archival footage of some of the protests both at its Los Angeles premiere and on various talk shows. More than thirty years after the fact, while some viewers might be surprised, if not stunned, to see the acute magnitude of the vilification Walker endured for the book, Parmar says the episode still has deep painful roots for the author. “Indeed she had to retreat for a number of years because of how deeply wounded she was,” Parmar says, “and it was five years before she could speak about it. Even when we sat down to discuss it for the film, it was perhaps the only time that I had ever seen her almost speechless for a moment. For someone so incredibly erudite and articulate – a poet who expresses herself so beautifully – it is a sign of the deep pain she experienced.”
Adding a nice bit of contemporary context, Parmar includes an excerpted interview with Sapphire, whose 1996 debut novel Push also made into an Academy Award winning film more than a decade later. In Sapphire’s book, Precious, the main character, is inspired by Walker’s The Color Purple. While Sapphire’s Push engendered controversy, it transformed relatively quickly into more constructive discourse and debate than what The Color Purple had endured.
The second incident concerns the estrangement between Walker and her daughter, Rebecca, who also has come into her own identity as a gifted writer. Parmar says that both have recently reconciled and are communicating and spending time together again. In approaching the topic for the film, Parmar says that “we needed to address the elephant in the room,” adding that it was an opportunity to counter the predictable, gratuitous angle one often finds especially with celebrities and tabloid journalism that emphasizes disputes and estrangements among loved ones.
As with every other issue and topic raised in the film, Parmar expands upon the context, emphasizing the difficulties that Walker experienced, like many other young women at the time who were pursuing careers as writers and as social justice activists while being single parents of young children (Walker had divorced Leventhal after nine years of marriage in 1976 when Rebecca was barely seven years old). Like her colleagues, Walker had to make difficult sacrifices.
Parmar’s upcoming appearance in SLC will be the first connected with the film since she appeared last summer at the Newark Black Film Festival to do a Q&A after the screening. “It was an incredible experience in Newark,” she recalls. “More than 95 percent of the audience was African American, and there were especially many women with children. And it was right after the death of Sandra Bland [the young black woman who was found hanged in a Waller County, Texas jail cell just two weeks before]. Many women spoke with great love about the healing effect of the film, many of them saying that it showed how beautiful ‘we are as African-American women and how much we have to offer.’ It was an experience I will never forget.”
Parmar, a British filmmaker born in Kenya whose first film was a short experimental tribute to a young Indian woman murdered by white racists in London, lives, works and teaches in San Francisco. Her films focus on underrepresented groups including African-American women in the 1970s, survivors of female genital mutilation and gay communities in Asia. Her current project is a narrative form of documentary exploring the life and work of Andrea Dworkin, which centers around rape and violence against women.
THE BABUSHKAS OF CHERNOBYL
In 2011, at the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, Morris had researched and written an article for More magazine that would help organize the foundation for the documentary: She wrote,
Why would the babushkas choose to live on this deadly land? Are they unaware of the risks, or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? These are reasonable questions for Westerners who might stand in a grocery-store aisle debating whether to pay the extra $3 for organic almond butter. The babushkas see their lives, and the risks they run, decidedly differently.
The Babushkas of Chernobyl is not a story of ethnographic eccentricities or curious oddities. Lucid, concise and exquisitely balanced in emotional and scientific considerations, the film expounds upon a broader theme that has reverberated elsewhere in the aftermath of natural and manmade tragedies including Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. Amidst the growing acknowledgment of the long-term psychological and physiological effects of such events, Morris’s film brings into focus the enduring meaning of home and its essence as one of the most fundamental aspects of human rights, respect and dignity.
Morris, who will be in the Ukraine for programs marking the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, says she is anticipating the reaction of the women who are featured in the film – and are still alive, nearly all of them either in their late 70s or well into their 80s. In fact, not only will the subjects see the film for the first time, the documentary is being screened in the Ukraine for the first time.
More than 1,000, almost all of them women, returned to live in the exclusion zone after the accident. When Morris did her research and filming several years ago, there were approximately 230 residents left. “Now, there are less than 100,” she says in an interview with The Utah Review. “Radiation or not, they are nearing the end of their lives so part of the urgency in this closing window of time is to capture such an important story. These women carry a distinct part of Ukrainian culture and when they pass that culture will go with them.”
Morris demonstrates with tremendous impact the fearless stubbornly visceral and uncompromising spirit of these elderly women, who do not necessarily see the environmental disaster and potentially deadly contamination of their surroundings as the worst or only crisis of their long, difficult lives. They already had endured decades of the lasting effects from one of history’s biggest failures in agricultural economy when Stalin forced Ukrainian farmers into state-owned collectives. The women have survived famine, a brutal war, the suffocating grip of Soviet hegemony, and, more recently, Chernobyl.
The women have children and grandchildren living well outside of the exclusion zone but they persevere, growing their own food, meeting with each other, sharing meals and celebrations such as Orthodox Easter. One is caring for her disabled sister. They proudly maintain their own households and some viewers might even flinch at their unabashedly dark and sinisterly satirical humor. The women often are paradigms of stoicism – an inextricable element often associated with the stark realities of life as a peasant. One particularly emotional scene shows one of the elderly women crying in frustration about the inexcusable delays (up to four months) in receiving their modest pensions. Morris is wise and astute, letting the women speak for themselves, plainly showing their life in all of its blemishes, challenges and complexities, not helped in any shape by a corrupt bureaucracy that barely seems to care for easing their circumstances.
The film raises many important questions, including one articulated by Morris in her magazine article before she began the documentary project:
Their return illustrates the controversy among scientists and laypeople about exactly how living creatures cope with radiation. Do they adapt (as some scientists—and babushkas—claim people do)? Is survival of the genetically fittest at work? It’s likely to be decades before we know. Scientists have discovered DNA mutations in the species that have returned, and a few physiological anomalies (one example: Bird brains are smaller).
Morris intersperses scenes highlighting the women, who can be just as hospitable and welcoming as they can be nonchalantly pragmatic, with those focusing on doctors, scientists and experts. There is no doubt that the women are being exposed to radiation constantly. One was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and treated for it, and continues her life pretty much the same. She was working at a bread factory at the time of the accident and was tasked with picking up the wheat from the town (undoubtedly contaminated) so that people working at the disaster site would have food. Some medical professionals are at a loss of explicable words to comprehend why these women would subject themselves to such enormous health risks. Yet, quite remarkably, the women generally are managing the expected conditions of their age, including osteoporosis, arthritis and other infirmities.
Morris does not use the film to make any definitive points about the practical sense or wisdom surrounding the issue of nuclear power as a viable alternative energy source. Nor does she seek to make a political statement about the widespread corruption in the region. However, the film draws light upon the longer-term questions that delve into the physical and mental health impacts arising from Chernobyl and other disasters in which the trauma of relocation dominates the lives of those being unexpectedly displaced. One of the most memorable lines from one of the medical professionals interviewed for the film is that those who did not return and did not survive, died of “anguish.”
The silent risk of radiation always is apparent in the film, underscored by the occasional rapid clicking sequence of the dosimeter, which gauges levels of contamination. It can be as unnerving for the audience as it can for those who step into the exclusion zone for various reasons.
Morris features briefly the young stalkers who, inspired in part by a video game about passing through the most heavily contaminated with no consequences, have broached heavily guarded checkpoints to get as close as possible to the accident’s ground zero surroundings. “They are from the next generation and they have never seen the village,” she says, adding that she is planning to make a follow-up documentary about them.
While other documentaries focused on the political, medical and scientific dangers and risks associated with Chernobyl, Morris set out to make a film celebrating the women and the deep-rooted camaraderie that has sustained them for 30 years. “Going into the project of doing a film about Chernobyl, the biggest surprise for me was the theme of home and its deeper meanings,” Morris explains. “The resilience of these women who insist on spending the remainder of their lives in the area where they have been entirely penetrates throughout their story. It is the palliative powers of home that overtook the film.”