J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Chain ’19: Motherland (short doc)


The Soviet state was determined to prevent the existence of this film (and many others like it). When disaster struck the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the primary goal of the socialist regime—led by Mikhail Gorbachev—was to contain the truth, rather than the damage. They did neither. Several survivors of various ages attest to this fact in Colby Blackwill’s short documentary, Motherland, which screens tomorrow during the 2019 Chain Film Festival.

As one survivor explains, her brother-in-law happened to be fishing when the explosions rocked Chernobyl, so he rushed home to evacuate their family. Fortunately, he had a good idea of what trouble at the plant meant and how the Party would respond. They were probably one of the last cars out, before the Soviets blocked the roads, trapping the rest of the city of Pripyat within reach of Chernobyl’s deadly radiation.

Eventually, some of the elderly citizens were allowed to return to their homes in the surrounding Exclusion Zone, despite the lack of electricity, running water, or basic services of any kind. Frankly, it was probably considered a means of “disposing” some of the refuges who became a troubling embarrassment to the Soviets. Yet, they continue to live on defiantly. In what might be the most poignant moment of the film, one such octogenarian “babushka” ruefully laments the likelihood she will outlive her grown children in their early 50s, because they have long exhibited signs of radiation-related sicknesses.

Motherland is not the definitive document on Chernobyl, but it collects some valuable oral history. Blackwill presents it with great sensitivity and takes the ribbing of one of the babushkas with good humor. There is plenty of truth to be found within, despite the Communist Party’s best efforts. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about Chernobyl after the terrific HBO miniseries, Motherland screens tomorrow (8/12), as part of a program of short documentaries at this year’s Chain Film Festival.

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