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Behind the fence of a closed atomic city in Russia


By James Dacey

The European première of a documentary recorded secretly within a Russian “atomic city” is among the highlights at Sheffield Doc/Fest, the international documentary festival that gets under way tomorrow in Sheffield, UK. City 40, directed by the Iranian-born US filmmaker Samira Goetschel, takes viewers inside the walls of a segregated city established by the Soviet Union during the Cold War as a guarded location for developing nuclear weapons.

The social model in Ozersk (formerly known as City 40) is reminiscent of what occurred in Richland, the US city near the Hanford site in Washington State where plutonium was produced for the “Fat Man” bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan. In both these US and Soviet cities, the citizens were lavished with higher-than-average salaries and standards of living, such as quality housing, healthcare and education systems. Today, Ozersk is still a closed city with an alleged population of 80,000 and exists officially as a facility for processing nuclear waste and material from decommissioned nuclear weapons.

Ozersk and Richland were the subjects of the book Plutopia, which we reviewed in 2014. But in her new film, Goetschel managed to go a step further than the author of that book by getting beyond the guards and wired fence to gain access to Ozersk itself and film its residents. Clearly, those who speak out against the restrictions on their freedoms do so at great personal risk. Indeed, the trailer (above) makes this point in stark terms: “Residents risk their lives and break their silence.”

Another film within the technology and innovation stream at Sheffield Doc/Fest is There Will Be Water, an investigation of an idea by UK engineer Bill Watts to turn salt water into an energy source, and using large desert areas to produce energy, food and clean water.

Alongside the feature films, the festival will have events and exhibitions dotted around the centre of Sheffield. This will include “Antariksha Sanchar – Transmissions in Space”, a video game inspired by mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and the classical dancer Jayalakshmi Eshwar. The BBC is also involved in the festival by offering attendees the chance to experience a virtual-reality (VR) spacewalk outside the International Space Station. Meanwhile in another VR experiment called “Mars 2030” – created by a consortium including NASA and MIT’s Space Systems – viewers are transported to the Martian surface.

Perhaps the highlight of the whole festival though for science-doc lovers will take place on Monday night, when the iconic naturalist and TV presenter Sir David Attenborough will talk about his illustrious career. Surely he has long since become to biology and ecology what Carl Sagan was to the physical sciences.

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