Almaty resident who dreams of film career helps Americans make ‘Babushka’ documentary18 august 2011, 15:47
When the American university students Abigail Hook and Gabi Chennisi decided to do a documentary about grandmothers in Almaty, they couldn’t have picked a better interpreter for the filming than Zhenya Kechina.
Zhenya, who’s been a friend for three years, is a 21-year-old actress and aspiring film maker who knows what it takes to make a good movie. Plus, she’s empathetic and compassionate – qualities that put the babushkas at ease when she interviewed them in Russian during the shooting of the film in the summer of 2009.
The documentary “Babushka,” which was released this year, is attracting attention in Kazakhstan, the United States and elsewhere because of its universal appeal about love, overcoming tough times and hope.
Hook is a student at Harvard University, Chennisi at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Before the former high school classmates began filming, they thought the documentary would be about the lonely, difficult lives of older women with small pensions and no remaining family members.
There is that, of course, but Zhenya said it’s more a movie about the five women’s lives and loves during their younger years – and from that perspective, it offers many uplifting moments.
“We interviewed them about their whole life – their childhoods, the war (World War II), their loves, their opinion about life nowadays,” said Zhenya, who spent hours after the filming doing English-language subtitles for it.
“The movie’s made so nicely,” she said, “that the audience changes from crying to smiling” many times while viewing it.
When the sad moments surfaced, “local people really felt it deep because we could hear it in Russian,” Zhenya said. But English-speaking audiences were touched as well, she said, by the combination of the emotion the babushkas displayed on screen and their words in subtitles.
But “There were really funny moments (in the film), especially when they’re talking about their lovers,” said Zhenya, who is trying to raise the money to attend a film-making school in the United States next year.
One of the light moments was when a babushka talked about meeting her future husband at a wartime class on how to disassemble grenades.
The movie makes you “start thinking about many things – like how did this happen and how can we help them,” Zhenya said.
Hook came up with the idea for “Babushka” after hearing her mother Penny’s stories about helping the grandmothers. Penny Hook, whose husband Richard is an oil-company executive in Almaty, was a volunteer with the Hands of Mercy charity that Zhenya said ministers to 300 grandmothers in the city.
The group does excellent work, Zhenya said, helping the babushkas meet their food and medical needs and taking them on excursions into the countryside so they don’t feel so cooped up.
Zhenya said the reason the film took such a long time to release was a lengthy editing process. Forty-five hours of film had to be boiled down to a 45-minute movie – and it had to be around Hook and Chennisi’s university classes.
Zhenya said she was impressed with the talents of some of the grandmothers. One is a great piano player, said Zhenya, who in addition to acting is a singer and song writer.
Another babushka plays the traditional Russian instrument the balalaika.
Zhenya said one moment during the filming that she’ll never forget is when a babushka who had been blind for 20 years was given a radio that would allow her to keep in touch with the outside world for the first time in two decades. “She cried” when receiving the gift, Zhenya said.
The woman was stunned, Zhenya added, when she learned that America had a black president. “Her reaction wasn’t a sign of prejudice -- she just never thought such a thing would happen,” Zhenya said.