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DOXA Festival Review: Moon of Nickel and Ice

“Norilsk Nickel has erased its brutal history from the collective memory.”

Seldom does a place feel as otherworldly as the city of Norilsk as carved out in the aptly titled Moon of Nickel and Ice. A self-isolated city, a Siberian desert of cement and forgotten graves, Norilsk is a former gulag city, now run at the mercy of Norilsk Nickel, a mining corporation who essentially owns the city.  The film introduces us to it slowly, a cold open into archival footage and snippets of interviews giving way to a long drive through the snow.  Shrouded in darkness and a wailing wind, latticed transmission towers looming over the landscape like skeletal giants, with only the faint orange glow of headlights granting light, the journey is ominous and otherworldly. The city itself fares little better at night; streetlamps faintly glowing like orbs suspended in space over an industrial wasteland.  

The camera glides through empty streets, delves into tunnels and mines, exploring as if for the first time, making discoveries along with the audience. Yet, even as the film is rooted to the city itself, returning to a particular frame of its smokestacks puffing in the distance like a leitmotif, it only begins to take shape once it establishes a recurring group of characters to follow around: students on the verge of graduating, engineers, graphic designers, a WWII survivor who was tortured and accused of being an American spy, a theater director, a full spectrum of people. And, unlike Tolstoy’s famous aphorism, it seems as if everyone is unhappy in the same way. A dark cloud hangs over them, both literally and figuratively.

Norilsk was built through oppression. In 1935, the first 1200 prisoners were brought here, as one interviewee straightforwardly states that “eternal ice is their graveyard.” Of the 650,000 total prisoners sent up to work here between 1935 and the early 1950s, 250,000 died, from the gnawing cold, hunger, or the slave labor. It’s a history which has been all but erased by Norilsk Nickel, yet remains silent in everyone’s minds.  One activist angrily gives an account of their approach: ““Norilsk Nickel has erased its brutal history from the collective memory: the exploitation of free labor. They replaced the troubling slave history with myths of the Communist Youth and stories about eager newcomers.”

Stories are told about building sites where the mass graves of prisoners, long forgotten, are discovered by construction workers, and we see a man literally dig out an ancestor’s grave from the snow so he can pay his respects. The past is buried.

The present has one foot in the grave already, with no signs of the future on the horizon. Teenagers in Norilsk don’t know any other life, but all want to leave, even the ones lured to say by the high mining wages. Adults talk of leaving for years but can’t quite seem to escape, and others are resigned to their lives here, comfortable with the friends they make; glimpse of karaoke, theatrical performances, and dinner parties reveal the warmth and generous human spirit of people within a cold and inhospitable place.  The film slowly peels down one path after another, telling a dozen stories at once, some overlapping, others rhyming visually.

Moon of Nickel and Ice is a documentary that seeks not an objective point of view, but to capture the nature of the place and its inhabitants through the eyes of a stranger. The film doesn’t pretend to be a fly on the wall, or capture candid moments of Norilsk and its inhabitants, but constantly reminds us of its presence. It’s an auspicious beginning for François Jacob – this is his first feature film – even as it gets a bit lost in its own ambition; the sheer weight of the past is a burden for any filmmaker to take on, even as Jacob does so admirably.


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