City 40: film lifts veil on secretive nuclear town

The film centres on the Russian city of Ozersk, or City 40, a secretive town surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards that sits next to a plant that produced plutonium in the Cold War and continues to process nuclear waste.

Iranian-born Goetschel, who smuggled herself and a film crew into the town, tells the tale of ordinary people living in one of the most contaminated and deadly places in the world whose inhabitants are led to believe they are the nuclear shield and saviours of the world.

Lifting the veil of secrecy on the town, Goetschel and her team encounter a string of willing participants who risk their lives to warn of the perilous and precarious lives of the town’s inhabitants. Goetschel described the the town as a “twilight zone”, in which its citizens live in a “different dimension, a different concept of time and reality”.

Harding kicked off the Q&A with a discussion of the difficulties Goetschel faced in entering the town which at one time was so secretive it did not appear on Russian maps. Goetschel explained that she and the crew stayed in a sanitarium outside the city and made contact with inhabitants in an effort to convince them to help them enter. “The worst that can happen is that they’ll shoot me dead,” Goetschel said.

The willingness of the documentary’s contributors was also discussed. Goetschel explained that the physical barbed wire that surrounds the town had translated into a psychological fence that could only be broken by telling their story. “You have to understand their mentality,” Goetschel said. “They have lived behind barbed wire fences and that’s their identity. They are not supposed to talk and that’s their identity. They have been told they would be killed. But then there was a click that made them decide to talk. The most important thing was that they knew they were risking their lives. They were thinking we are dying anyway and they trusted me for whatever reason.”

Nadezhda Kutepova, a human rights activist and single mother whose story is at the heart of the documentary, has since been forced to flee to France after she was accused of industrial espionage. Asked if she felt guilty that her film may have played a role in forcing Kutepova to quit her home, Groetschel said: “No, she made a choice and she’s on a crusade. She’s a tough woman and she knew what she was doing. The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) had harassed her and her children and she knew the risks.”

The editing process also posed a challenge for Groetschel and she cut the film three times from scratch in an effort to “create a narrative which would be helpful and would have meaning”. Groetschel said that no one in the city had seen the film because internet and TV is so tightly controlled but she hoped to show it to Kutepova in France.