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.”
Inspired by those rich fantasies about Russian life and Soviet history, as well as by iconic images of Norilsk by photographers Elena Chernyshova, Sergey Maximishin and Alexander Gronsky, Jacob resolved to make a film about the city. “The project seemed almost impossible,” he recalls. “How do you obtain permission to work in a city closed to foreigners? And how do you get an invitation to go there from people whom you’ve never met, whose language you can barely speak, let alone finance this?” It took five years of grant writing, research and language study; sleepless nights on the phone—accounting for the 12-hour difference between Montreal and Norilsk—with the FSB (the Russian Federal Security Service, the successor to the USSR’s KGB) to figure out the visa procedure; and finally, Maximishin connecting Jacob with Fotoklub Norilska to make it to Norilsk.
Those interests and influences—personal, political, historical, aesthetic—inform A Moon of Nickel and Ice’s multifarious approach. In moments that call to mind the overtly stylized work of Gronsky and Béla Tarr, austere stills set the archetypal Soviet urban landscape of uniform midrise apartment buildings against Norilsk’s horizon of black-cloud-belching smokestacks, reflecting the strangeness of the city’s very existence. Dreamlike tracking shots of the city’s desolation with ruminative voiceover from one of Jacob’s subjects immerse us in its inhabitants’ interior lives. Yet in other sections, when he’s spending time with regular people either in interviews or social settings, the film takes on the quietly observational feel of the best of direct cinema. No Herzogian ogling here: Jacob says that, “it was paramount for me to make a film not so much about the ‘strangeness’ of that place, which anyone can capture just by spending half a day there, but to make an emotionally realistic portrait of the people living there.”
Even when the stories the older people tell involve imprisonment in the former Gulag, running afoul of the Soviet military, and provoking Russian authorities by publicly commemorating a famous 1953 Gulag uprising, Jacob does not exoticise his subjects. When they reminisce about how cheap flights to Moscow or St. Petersburg were during the Soviet era and admit that they still vote for the Communist Party because it reflects their social values, he is offering us a rare unfiltered gaze into a humanised Russia. The same goes for his younger subjects. The images of Russian youth that filter into Western media invariably involve foolhardy daredevilry, drugs, homophobia, violence and other unsavoury images. By contrast, the teenagers in A Moon of Nickel and Ice are like small-town kids anywhere—they’re a tight-knit community, some with touchingly close friendships; they joke around and go to birthday parties; they love their home even as they dream about leaving.
In spite of the obvious and infamous environmental devastation that Norilsk Nickel has wrought, “It was literally impossible to talk about the environment there in any ‘expert’ way,” recalls Jacob. “We met with journalists in Norilsk who specifically told us that they are not allowed to discuss the ‘ecology’ publicly. The local FSB prevents it.” This is all part of an effort to woo workers by presenting Norilsk as a happy and functioning place, which Jacob sees as “a remnant of the Soviet ways, where all the spheres of life—both private and public—were shaped by propaganda and Party rules.” About halfway through, the film shows another aspect of this programme: a corporate-sponsored pageant, rich with nationalist and capitalist propaganda. In Norilsk, Putin and Stalin are still almost universally respected although Jacob is sure that most of the inhabitants find the propaganda to be clumsy and almost laughable. “When we shot [the corporate pageant] scene, I believed Russia had shifted from communist dictatorship to corporate fascism. Now,” he opines, “I think these are equivalent terms designating the same authoritarian control over life.”
Jacob’s willingness to see Norilsk from a diversity of angles makes A Moon of Nickel and Ice complex—indeed, almost impossible to summarise. “Some will say that the abundance of themes in A Moon of Nickel and Ice weakens the project,” says Jacob, “yet I tend to believe it is one of its strengths. In my eyes, alternating between the mines and factories, the arctic environment, the reality of the Norilsk youth, the point of view of the theatre artists and the Gulag past create a symphony of impressions that help build a more balanced and thoughtful representation of this city than simply choosing to ignore one of these topics.”
It doesn’t get nearly as much play as solar, wind and geothermal power, and certainly far less than the ecologically disastrous oil, gas and coal do. But if any of the teams profiled in Mila Aung-Thwin’s Let There Be Light (co-directed by cinematographer extraordinaire Van Royko) end up succeeding in their experiments, it will be the solution to the world’s energy problem. They say it will be like a miniature sun, fuelled by common seawater heated to 150 million degrees Celsius, and in all likelihood it will be contained in a multinational, multibillion-dollar facility in the south of France. I’m talking about nuclear fusion.
“I got interested in fusion because it is a great untold story in science,” says Aung-Thwin. “I was talking to someone at NASA about this, and she asked me if I had heard of ITER [International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor] in France, the most ambitious scientific experiment ever undertaken. And I hadn’t! I couldn’t believe this was going on, but it wasn’t part of the public consciousness. The reason was that it had been going on so long, and people don’t have the attention span for solutions that take decades and decades to complete.”
Similar to Jennifer Baichwal’s collaborations with photographer Ed Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013), the film advances its investigation aesthetically as much as discursively. Royko’s cinematography is often awe-inspiring, taking in all manner of high-tech facilities and landscapes with a grandeur that is both vivid and contemplative, and in historical passages, the film supplements archival footage with animation. Aung-Thwin suggests both Burtynsky and Russian director Victor Kossakovsky—whose film ¡Vivan las antipodas! (2011) is a true treat for the senses—as influences on that playful visual style. Additionally, he names classic sci-fi films Dr. Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Solaris (1971) as influences on both the visual style and the approach to the subject matter, pointing out that, “this film is a political/bureaucratic drama as much as an environmental film.”
To that end, the environmental and scientific issues are just two parts of a film that also, at one end, provides a soapbox for a few remarkable characters and, at the other, details some daunting financial and organisational hurdles. Of the former, “The budget for the project (about $20 billion) seems really enormous,” says Aung-Thwin, “but it’s really small based on what they are trying to achieve. They are trying to build an artificial star! If you compare it to the Apollo project (over $100 billion in today’s dollars) or annual U.S. defence spending ($600 billion a year) or even the World Cup in Qatar ($200 billion) then what they are trying to do is very underfunded. So that makes the whole project really hard to manage, because they have to cut costs everywhere.”
Though ITER has had organisational issues in addition to those financial ones, Aung-Thwin has confidence in the new leadership. “I like Dr. Bernard Bigot a lot,” he says. “I think he is a dedicated leader. He might also be one of the only people in the world who can do this. He has worked very hard to turn the ship around and make management work better.”
As the world’s highest-profile experiment in nuclear fusion, ITER is the film’s centerpiece. But one of the film’s treats is when it moves away from there to smaller-scale labs, including a hilariously convoluted one hosted in a storage locker in New Jersey. And, says Aung-Thwin, there are many more that he would’ve liked to include: “I went to MIT’s lab right after they lost federal funding, but I didn’t use those scenes. There’s a machine in England called JET, which is very close to passing the breakeven point of fusion; it is a smaller scale version of ITER. Then there are some more secretive private initiatives like Tri-Alpha Energy, and Lockheed Martin’s fusion device.
“In general in the fusion community,” he goes on, “everyone is aware of everyone else’s work and likes to talk and gossip about it.” It will take the diverse strategies of that community to make the breakthroughs that will enable fusion. That and tens of billions of dollars.
Ann Shin’s My Enemy, My Brother updates her acclaimed short film of the same name, which gained rare prominence when it was featured on The New York Times’ website as an Op-Doc two years ago. “The overwhelming positive response totally took us by surprise,” says Shin. “It was viewed by hundreds of thousands, got nominated for an Emmy, and was shortlisted for an Oscar.” The feature is both an expansion and a sequel. Just like the short, it’s tremendously moving, and Shin uses the feature’s larger canvas to supplement the earlier incarnation’s pure catharsis with more ambivalent and frustrating developments.
It’s an incredible story of humanity and chance set against the background of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and present-day Vancouver. Two veterans—the Iraqi Najah and the Iranian Zahed, linked by an astonishing act of heroism and separated by time and imprisonment—reunite by sheer chance in the waiting room at the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture. The reunion is cathartic, and the two become as close as brothers. Where the concise short film limits itself to telling this story through interviews and animation, the feature intercuts it among Najah’s and Zahed’s respective attempts to return to their home countries and reconnect with the families they’ve lost. Najah wants to find his wife and son, who he has not seen since he went to war; Zahed wants to reconcile with his father, who is dying.
Often compared to World War I both for its trench-based tactics and its result—little in the way of political change, much in the way of devastation of lives and landscapes—the Iran–Iraq war has been largely forgotten in the West, overshadowed by subsequent events: Kuwait, Gulf War I, dictatorship, Al-Qaeda, oil, WMDs, Gulf War II, chaos, ISIS. Echoing one of Najah’s relatives commenting on the wreckage, migration and institutional decay in Basra, Shin remarks, “It’s staggering to think that…Iraq has been subject to continuous conflict for more than 30 years.”
It’s not giving too much away to say that neither quest quite comes off: Back in Basra, Najah has to settle for copious hugs and tears with long-lost relatives and contemplative wandering around his old neighbourhood; Zahed, for political reasons, never makes it to Iran, so he ends up meeting his sister and her family in an Istanbul hotel and talking with his mother and father on the phone and Skype. Harrowing stories abound: Zahed relays a story of his father forcing him as a baby to drink his mother’s milk for three days—after she’d been killed. Najah’s trauma is of a somewhat quieter variety, wandering around muddy, once-paved streets and bombed-out husks of familiar buildings in a search he knows to be quixotic.
“Iran has arrested citizens for political and ideological views—even former citizens visiting from abroad,” says Shin. “Toronto filmmaker Mostafa Azizi and Ottawa professor Homa Hoodfar are only two of many Iranian Canadians who have been detained by the Iranian government for their artistic or ideological views. Zahed has spoken out against war and about the traumas of having been a child soldier and was and is concerned his comments could be interpreted as politically motivated.”
Though it can be frustrating to see the subjects’ efforts thwarted, it makes a certain aesthetic and political sense. Shin has also spun the story off into a web series, and is now developing a VR iteration with Navid Khonsari (director of the video game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, set in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, as well as multiple entries in the Grand Theft Auto series). It won’t just be Najah and Zahed anymore; rather, it will be abstracted into more of a social experiment. Shin describes it as a “multi-player VR game/ experience that forces you to make the split decision of whether to trust or distrust another person. For example, is an injured person in a bunker an enemy I should shoot to kill, or a fellow human being I should attempt to save? This game isn’t just about situations of conflict; it’s also about a person you might meet in an alley, the bully in the schoolyard, the person sitting next to you in a waiting room. It’s meant to reflect situations in our society where we make judgments about another person based on their skin colour, religion or political background. With more than one person interacting in the game, we want to explore how things can escalate into conflict, or turn to peaceful resolution, based on each player’s decisions and actions.”