We talk to Samira Goetschel, the producer and director of the fascinating and terrifying doc ‘City 40’, about her experience filming, undercover, in a nuclear city that has remained off-limits to the public.
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‘City 40’ Review – A Terrifying Portrait of Modern Totalitarianism
We often like to think that we possess an objective view of our lives, one that is able to easily recognize moments of delusion, injustice and propaganda. However, one of the key lessons of the fascinating documentary ‘City 40’ is that we have yet to outgrow our desire for the easy answer, our desire for the easy turning of a blind eye, and our desire for a sense of shared purpose.
In ‘City 40’, filmmaker Samira Goetschel explores one of Russia’s ‘closed’ cities – these are cities where restriction and travel are severely limited: since the cities guard key military and/or nuclear secrets and projects, residents cannot leave, visitors are heavily monitored, and the cities are often not marked on any map. At one point, ‘City 40’ points out that residents don’t even ‘exist’ outside of the city – there is no record of them beyond the city’s walls.
Goetschel admirably takes a hands-off approach to filming, as it is in allowing the residents to tell their stories that the documentary slowly brings you not only into the physical space of City 40, but into its culture and people. In building this empathy, the documentary is able to shock you with its subjects before normalizing their perspectives: you are surprised, at first, to find out that there is a significant portion of the population that wants to live there. They are a group of people that see their life, one of relative ease (everyone in the city has access to goods and services that produce a comfortable standard of living), as a fair payoff for living in a city that is so beset by radioactive material that its lakes, rivers, food and (ultimately) residents suffer from debilitating levels of radioactive poisoning. Even at the moment of this realization, the documentary refuses to cast judgement – these are lives that can be expressed only through the voices and perspectives of the people living them.
On the other side of this divide is the single mother that tirelessly fights for an opening of the city and a public recognition of its restrictions and health risks. ‘City 40’ uses this story to make you understand the daily impact that these larger institutional choices have on people who share our desires for safety, longevity and the freedom of self expression. Overall, Goetschel’s film balances the vast, imposing history of closed cities with the tangible human lives still impacted by their existence. It is in this balance that the documentary is able to make you understand both what drives some residents to resist the institutions that imprison them and how a population could succumb (both physically and intellectually) to the literally poisonous promise of a better life. ‘City 40’ remains a politically relevant and emotionally urgent film, making it a true highlight of this year’s Hot Docs festival.
– Zac Fanni