A Moon of Nickel and Ice

A Moon of Nickel and Ice

François Jacob | 
Canada |
 2016 | 
110 minutes

The Russian-Siberian city of Norilsk is a city of extremes. Notorious for its freezing cold temperatures (it’s located in a continuous permafrost zone in the Arctic Circle) and its toxic pollution caused by nickel refineries (the city alone produces 20% of the world’s nickel), Norilsk is the thing dystopian sci-fi novels are made of. “Here it feels like living on the moon,” says a 17-year-old novelist who describes life in Norilsk as an “endless tunnel.” As if that weren’t harsh enough, the city is also home to a very grim secret. Described as a prison city, it remains closed off to most of the rest of the world even today. Prisoners of the Soviet Gulag originally built Norilsk in 1938 when more than 650,000 prisoners were sent north to work in forced labour camps, resulting in at least 250,000 deaths. Slave labour has long been outlawed, but throughout the city there are no historical sites or memorials that acknowledge its brutal beginnings.

French-Canadian filmmaker François Jacob captures life in contemporary Norilsk with a roaming camera, depicting the city and its residents with care and curiosity. A former prisoner/labourer, an impassioned dramaturge, and a group of frisky teenagers are some of the residents who call the place home. In their own way, each resident is motivated by the desire to unearth the past to ensure that it’s not erased from the collective memory. A mix of black and white archival footage and a minimalist piano score softens the industrial-strength grimness. Social gatherings also help to ward off isolation and offer a place of refuge. Whether it’s singing karaoke, taking an icy moonlight swim, or braving an arctic storm to see a local play, life in Norilsk can be harsh, but as one burly miner puts it: “You could be low on money, but never on friendship.”-SC