A Moon of Nickel and Ice / Let There Be Light
Two widely different Canadian documentaries both delve into the relationship between energy and the environment.


Two new Canadian films deal with current global issues in radically different ways. François Jacobs A Moon of Nickel and Ice and Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Roykos Let There Be Light explores the interwoven relationship between energy and ecology from the bottom up, by focusing strongly on individuals and their stories. They do this in an Arctic Russian mining town, the ruins of Basra in Iraq and a huge nuclear reactor in southern France, respectively.

A Moon of Nickel and Ice is François Jacobs's feature film debut, and a multifaceted portrait of the Siberian nickel mining town of Norilsk. Three facts about Norilsk: It is the northernmost city with over 100 000 inhabitants; it is one of the most polluted cities in the world; and it is a "closed city" – foreigners have been denied access since 2001, and it was closed to most Russians even in Soviet times. Norilsk Nickel's smelting plants give the city and surrounding acid rainfall, smog and well over one percent of the world's total sulfur dioxide emissions.

Gulagleir. One may wonder how the government in its time caused 100 people to move there. The answer is that they were forced. Yes, Norilsk was a Soviet gulag camp. The inhabitants of the city and the original workers of the mine were mainly those who had come into contact with the Soviet authorities. Hundreds of thousands of them died – more from pollution-related illnesses and overwork than from regular executions. But some of the survivors and many of their descendants still live in the city, and to this day Norilsk is completely dependent on the nickel mines. In that way, the situation is similar to the one we find in countless places in Canada and in the Rust Belt from West Virginia to Hamilton, except that Norilsk is still in business – whether to pay enough people to stay while being poisoned by their own work fruits, can be called "business".

But why make a movie there? "I've always been weak for Russia and the USSR at all," Jacob says. "It was a special and distinctive society, operating under the Western radar for over 70 years, so I have always felt a strong urge to explore it, and to seize what is left of the" red "mentality – the Soviet vision and their view of the world. I've always had this unsettling impression that in the former USSR, behind every face you met, it would hide a tragic or at least incredible story. For me, Norilsk was the very symbol of this. "

In Norilsk, Stalin is still widely respected.

Finally fit in. Inspired by these fantasies of Russian life and Soviet history as well as by iconic Norilsk photographs by Elena Chernyshova, Sergei Maximisjin and Alexander Gronsky, Jacob decided to make a film about the city. “The project seemed almost impossible,” he recalls, “How do you get permission to work in a city that is closed to foreigners? And how are you invited to get there by people you've never met, with a language you can hardly speak, and – most importantly – how to finance it all? ”

It took Jacob five years of applications, research and language studies as well as sleepless nights on the phone (due to the 12-hour time difference) with the FSB (Russian Federal Security Service, KGB's successor) to find out the visa application procedures. Finally, Norilsk photographer Maximisjin Jacob got in touch with the local photo club, which gave advice on how the Canadian could gain entry into the city.

These interests and influences – personal, political, historical and aesthetic – permeate the lackluster approach that characterizes A Moon of Nickel and Ice. Occasionally the film brings to mind the obviously stylized works of Gronsky and Béla Tarr; rigorous stills place the archetypal Soviet urban landscape with identical high blocks against the Norilsk horizon's black-sky-spewing factory pipes, reflecting the strange fact that this city actually exists. dreamlike tracking shots of the city's decay, accompanied by a gruesome voice-over with one of Jacob's portraits, brings us down and into the inner lives of the inhabitants. But in other parts, when the director talks to ordinary people either in interviews or social contexts, the film is characterized by the quietly observant look from the best in direct cinema. No Herzog flirting here: "It was important to me to make a movie that wasn't so much about the 'otherness' of the place as anyone can get by just spending half a day in the city, but making it emotionally realistic portrait of the people living there. "

Which ever. Jacob does not turn the characters in the film into exotic characters, not even when the stories older people tell are about forced residence in former Gulag camps, about getting on edge with the Russian military or about provoking Russian authorities by publicly recalling a famous Gulag revolt in 1953. When The interview objects mimic how cheap flights to Moscow and St. Petersburg were during the Soviet period and recognizing that they are still voting on the Communist Party, Jacob gives us a rare, unfiltered look into a humanized Russia. The same goes for the younger ones he portrays. The images of Russian youth presented in Western media invariably involve foolish daredevils, drugs, homophobia, violence and other distresses. In contrast, the teenagers appear in A Moon of Nickel and Ice like small-town kids anywhere in the world – they form a close-knit community, some with close friendships; they cheerfully drive around and go on each other's birthdays; they love their homes even when they dream of traveling their way.

Complex strength. Despite the obvious and notorious environmental destruction Norilsk Nickel has caused, "it was literally impossible to talk about the environment there in any sort of 'expert way'," recalls Jacob. "Journalists in Norilsk told us that they are not allowed to discuss ecology publicly, which also prevents the local FSB. This is part of the effort to make a difference for the workers by presenting Norilsk as a happy and well-functioning place, ”says Jacob. He regards it as "a remnant of Soviet methods, in which all areas of life – both private and public – were shaped by propaganda and party rules." Halfway through the film, it shows another aspect of this program: a corporate-sponsored beauty contest, full of nationalist and capitalist propaganda. In Norilsk, Putin and Stalin are still almost universally respected, although Jacob is sure that the esteemed inhabitants think the propaganda is clumsy and almost ridiculous. "When we recorded the company's beauty pageant, I thought Russia had gone from communist dictatorship to corporate fascism. Now I think they are equal terms that describe the same authoritarian control over life, ”he notes.

Jacob's willingness to see Norilsk from many different angles does A Moon of Nickel and Ice into a complex movie – and almost impossible to summarize. "Some would say that the plethora of themes weakens the project," Jacob says: "Still, I would rather not think it's one of the film's strengths. The way I see it, it is that the alternation between the mines and factories, the Arctic environment, the reality of the youth in Norilsk, the theater people's point of view and the past gulag creates a symphony of impressions that helps to build a more balanced representation of the city than if you had chosen to overlook one of the elements. "

We met journalists in Norilsk who explicitly told us that they are not allowed to discuss ecology in public.

Merger Vision. It receives almost the same attention as solar, wind and geothermal power, and clearly less than the environmentally damaging energy sources oil, gas and coal. But about any of the research groups presented in Mila Aung-Thwins Let There Be Light once successful in its experiments, it will mean the solution to the world's energy problem. I'm talking about nuclear fusion. In all likelihood, a possible breakthrough will take place in a multinational multi-billion dollar plant in southern France.

"I became interested in fusion because it's a great, but untold story in science," says Aung-Thwin. “A NASA woman I spoke to asked me if I had heard of ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in France, the most ambitious scientific experiment ever launched. And I didn't! I couldn't believe this was really happening – but then it wasn't part of the public consciousness either. The experiment had been going on for so long and people couldn't keep up with the solutions it takes decades after decades to find. "

Environment and science. Like Jennifer Baichwal's collaboration with photographer Ed Burtynsky about Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013), explorer Let There Be Light its substance as much aesthetic as discursive. Royko's cinematography is often awe-inspiring, bringing in high-tech facilities and landscapes with a magnificence that is both vivid and contemplative, and in historical sequences, archival footage is complemented by animation. Aung-Thwin suggests that this playful visual style is influenced by both Burtynsky and Russian director Viktor Kossakovsky. The latter's movie Vivan las antipodas! (2011) is a true delight for the senses. In addition, he points to the performance of classic sci-fi movies such as Dr. Strangelove (1964) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1971). It applies to both the visual style and the way he approaches the material, and he emphasizes that "this film is a political / bureaucratic drama as much as an environmental film".

The environmental case and science are simply two parts of a film that also serves as a pulpit for some notable characters, and which provides details of some deterrent financial and organizational obstacles. “The budget for the project (about $ 20 billion) seems huge,” says Aung-Thwin, “but this is really the small thing about what they're trying to achieve: building an artificial star. If you compare the project with the Apollo program (over $ 100 billion in today's dollars) or the US defense budget ($ 600 billion a year), or even the World Cup in Qatar ($ 200 billion), you will see that the project is very under-budgeted. They have to cut costs everywhere, making it difficult to manage. ”

About one of the research groups in
 Let There Be Light Success in their experiments will mean the solution to the world's energy problem.

Breakthrough? Although ITER has also had some organizational issues to contend with, Aung-Thwin has faith in the new leadership. "I like Dr. Bernard Bigot very well," he says, "he is a dedicated leader, one of the few people in the world who can accomplish this. His effort to turn around and make management work better has been enormous. ”

As the world's most profiled nuclear fusion experiment, ITER is the centerpiece of the film. But one of the Let There Be Lights goodies are when the film moves to small scale laboratories, including one that is almost insanely complicated and is in a New Jersey wardrobe. There are also many other directors willingly shown: "The scenes from the lab at MIT right after they lost the federal funds, I chose not to use. In England, there is a facility called JET, which could be the site of a breakthrough for fusion; a smaller version of French ITER. There are also some secret private initiatives, such as Tri-Alpha Energy and Lockheed Martin's merger.

"In the fusion environment, it is usually the case that everyone knows what everyone is doing and likes to talk and gossip," Aung-Thwin continues. All the different strategies are needed to create something that makes fusion possible. That, and tens of billions of dollars.

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