Three new Canadian films take on contemporary global issues through radically different lenses. Stopping off in an Arctic Russian mining city, the ruins of Basra, Iraq and a massive thermonuclear reactor in Southern France, François Jacob’s A Moon of Nickel and Ice, Ann Shin’s My Enemy, My Brother and Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Royko’s Let There Be Light investigate the entangled issues of history, war, energy and ecology from the bottom up, through intense focuses on individuals and their stories.
Quebecois director Jacob makes his feature debut with A Moon of Nickel and Ice, a multi-faceted portrait of the Siberian nickelmining city of Norilsk. Three facts about Norilsk: It’s the world’s northernmost city with over 100,000 inhabitants; it’s one of the most polluted places in the world; and it’s a “closed city”—foreigners have been banned since 2001, and it was closed to most Russians as well during the Soviet era. Norilsk Nickel’s on-site smelting facility gives the gifts of acid rain, smog and fully 1% of the world’s sulfur dioxide emissions.
You may be wondering how they got 100,000 people to move there. Answer: they forced them. Yes, Norilsk was the site of a Soviet Gulag. Those who had run afoul of Soviet authorities were the city’s main inhabitants and the mine’s original workers. They died in the hundreds of thousands—more from pollution-related diseases and overwork than outright execution, in Norilsk’s case.
But some survivors and many of their descendants are still there, and to this day Norilsk is still completely dependent on the nickel mine. In that respect, it’s like any number of Canadian and Rust Belt locales, from West Virginia to Hamilton, except it’s still functioning—if paying people enough to stay while poisoning them with the fruits of their labour can be called functioning. But why make a film there?
“I have always had a soft spot for Russia and the USSR at large,” says Jacob. “It was such a distinct society, operating under the western radar for over 70 years, that I have always felt strongly inclined to explore it today and to capture what remained of that ‘Red’ mentality, culture and vision of the world.
I always had this nagging impression that in the former USSR, behind every face you would cross on the street there would be a tragic story, or at the very least an incredible one. “Norilsk of course was the epitome of that for me.”
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