53rd Chicago Int’l Film Fest #7: “A Moon of Nickel and Ice” (Canada)

“A Moon of Nickel and Ice” (Canada)
Directed by François Jacob

M.-Nickel-Ice-4Half historically focused, half experiential, François Jacob’s new documentary, “A Moon of Nickel and Ice”, is a film that will affect you more in the looking back on it than in the viewing of it. That may sound like a dig, but I assure you it’s not. As proof I give you “Leviathan” (the 2012 fishing doc, not the 2014 Russian film). I’ve probably never hated a screening experience more than “Leviathan”, and yet I think about it all the time, so remarkable was its imagery. “Moon” offers much more than “Leviathan”…mainly historical context and interesting personalities…but like “Leviathan”, it’s the images that will linger long past whatever one feels while watching it.

Focusing on the Arctic mining city of Norilsk, a Russian city foreigners aren’t allowed to visit, Jacob illuminates the lives of present day residents framed by the context of Norilsk’s creation as a gulag (forced labor camp) during Stalinist-era Soviet Union. And while the historical aspects are interesting and intriguing, the real conflict within the film comes from something more elemental…man’s attempt to adapt to such extreme weather – hellacious storms, ridiculous wind chills, and snow so deep you can literally disappear if you step off the road. That many of its residents are quite happy living there is astonishing…and, luckily for the filmmaker, very intriguing.

Aided by a terrific score, the film is at its best when exploring the sights and sounds of Norilsk. To that end, with the exception of a couple moments, I much preferred when the interviews were used as voice-over instead of talking heads. It seemed to match up more accurately with the emotions brought on by the visions of the city itself. That said, the face-to-face interviews with the city’s teens…and its oldest resident…were tremendously effective.

Just be aware that this is a slow, meandering film, which it ultimately must be to have a lasting effect. You’ll wish, in the moment, to know more about the city’s past…for it to be just a bit more investigative. Unfortunately, as explained by the director in a talk-back after the film, the Russian government made it practically impossible for him to do so (which is kind of astonishing given the three decades that have passed since the fall of Communism).

Listen, I didn’t love this film as I watched it. In fact, if I wore a watch, I might have been checking it. But in the five days since I’ve screened it, “A Moon of Nickel and Ice” has left a profound mark on me, and when it becomes available, I’ll be there to get my copy.

Written on 10/19/2017


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