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A Toxic, Closed-Off City on the Edge of the World

Nov 08, 2017 | 831 videos
Video by Victoria Fiore

Every day for two years, filmmaker Victoria Fiore tried to gain access to a toxic, closed city in Siberia with no ground transportation connections to the rest of the world. Located nearly 250 miles north of the polar circle, Norilsk is home to 177,000 people, many of whom are employed by the world’s largest mining and metallurgy complex, Norilsk Nickel. It spews more than two million tons of gas into the atmosphere per year. As a result, life expectancy in Norilsk is ten years shorter than Russia’s average (and twenty years shorter than that of the U.S.).

After a dozen failed attempts at a visa and multiple trips to Moscow to meet with mining representatives—who were, in turn, holding meetings with the FSB, the successor to the KGB—Fiore was finally granted entry into the industrial wasteland. She was stunned to find that the residents of Norilsk were proud to call it home. Her short documentary, My Deadly Beautiful City, captures what Fiore describes as “the hypnotic mysticism of a city on edge of the world.”

“It is really impossible to emphasize just how otherworldly this place was,” Fiore told The Atlantic. Despite its well-documented health concerns, including rates of cancer two times higher than the rest of Russia, “most people, including the city's nuns and head doctors, claim that those from Norilsk have better health,” Fiore said. “And this is without mentioning that all nature in a radius almost the size of Germany is dead from severe air pollution. I already knew that the people of Norilsk loved their hometown, but I didn't expect them to so openly contradict medical findings.”

Making the film caused Fiore to become concerned about the long-term effects of alternative facts. “If we are fed a narrative for long enough,” she said, “it becomes true.”

For more haunting images of life in Norilsk, Fiore recommends Russian photographer Elena Chernyshova’s World Press Photo Award-winning series. This film was originally produced for the New York Times Op-Docs.

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.