PastForward Preview: Holly Morris, Filmmaker, Writer, and Television Host

By Colleen Danz posted 09-18-2017 16:43


Holly Morris newest documentary, The Babushkas of Chernobyl, premiered at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival and earned her the Jury Award for Directing. Lauded by reviewers, the film, which focuses on a defiant community of women who live inside Ukraine’s radioactive “exclusion zone,” is based on Morris’ award-winning and widely syndicated eponymous essay (also published as Ukraine: A Country of Women) and her popular TED Talk. Follow her on Twitter @hollymorris.

We asked Morris a few questions in preparation for her upcoming TrustLive: Health presentation at PastForward 2017. Register to attend the conference, in person or via livestream.


Your film, The Babushkas of Chernobyl, tells a story about the powerful effect of place on the mental and physical health of three women. What do you see as the connections between place and well-being? 

At the start, I thought this film would be about nuclear power and disaster, told through the eyes of the women. But what emerged, to my surprise, was a story about home—the fierce ties to, and even palliative powers of, home.  

Of course when home is a nuclear wasteland, the stakes are higher and the lessons are starker. In the babushkas’ (grandmothers’) home, Chernobyl, the soil, water, and air, are among the most highly contaminated on Earth. The tightly regulated exclusion zone, or dead zone, is essentially a nuclear police state. No human being should be living anywhere near the dead zone, but the babushkas do. The questions we tend to ask are: Why did they return to such deadly soil? Were they unaware of the risks, crazy enough to ignore them, or both? The thing is, they see their lives and the risks they run decidedly differently.

The babushkas confirm that commitment to place—in their case, to the ancestral soil of their motherland—is deeply tied to well-being. They are marginalized older women living active, self-determined lives under extreme conditions. They are isolated and reliant primarily on one another, yet are seemingly happier and arguably better off than those who accepted relocation after the accident.

There are health hazards associated with relocation trauma and the disruption of social networks, which we see in relocated peoples everywhere—higher rates of depression and alcoholism, for example. When a Chernobyl doctor was asked why those who left may die sooner than those who stayed, despite the very real health detriments of radiation, he said, “Quite simply, they die of anguish.”

It’s not that the women haven’t suffered enormously or that nuclear contamination isn’t bad—they have, and it is. But the babushkas’ avoided relocation trauma and their unlikely survival raises fascinating questions about the palliative powers of home and even the tonic of living a self-determined life. Theirs is just one story illustrating the connections between strong ties to place and community and mental and physical health. These are ideas emerging in the popular dialogue—and research—right now.

You have said that you film “risk-taking, contemporary women around the globe.” What draws you to their stories? Are there other stories as strongly connected to place as the babushkas’?

I’m drawn to stories of risk-taking women because in risk, I believe, lies our full potential. Women see what they are capable of in other women—they see their own potential in the stories of others. That is why it is so important to cultivate and celebrate unlikely heroines and diverse role models in our media.

The common denominator in the lives of women—grrls, divas, babushkas—that I present in books, television, and film is a pursuit of their authentic passions—be they for social change, for creating art, or for their motherland. Once we arrive at ourselves, we can go on to change our communities and the world.

A strong connection to place is characteristic of many of the women featured in my work. For example, Kiran Bedi, India’s first female cop, revolutionized the police and prison system via meditation—a mission born from her home culture’s belief that social justice and spiritual “anchors” are inextricably wed. Author Keri Hulme’s fierce ties to her Maori culture on New Zealand’s South Island are legendary. I had a hard time convincing her to leave her house—let alone her community—to film with me.

What do you want PastForward attendees to consider prior to hearing your TrustLive presentation?

It would be interesting for attendees to give some thought to what risk is to them, in their own lives. Why do we avoid risks? And what can taking them do for us? 

They should also think about what home is to them. What lengths might they go to in order to create or maintain this place, this state of being in their lives?

If you are participating in the PastForward Challenge (Gamification) for points and prizes, please enter the following passcode for the "Learn more about Holly Morris" challenge: HEALTHMORRIS.

Colleen Danz is the manager for Forum Marketing at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#health #Chicago2017 #PastForward

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