“City 40” documents a “hidden” city processing nuclear weapons material in Russia; the US has one, too


Name: City 40
Director, writer:  Samira Goetschel
Released:  2016
Format:  HD
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant Video
Length 72
Rating NA
Companies: D.I.G., Cinephil
Link: official site

City 40” is a compelling documentary (72 min) by Samira Goetschel, about the closed city of Ozersk (or Ozyorsk, in Chelyabinsk Oblast), Russia, in the southern Urals, housing people associated with the plutonium processing plant at Mayak.


The documentary starts by recounting the US’s own efforts to build close communities around its nuclear weapons program in the late 1940s, especially Richland WA near the Hanford reactor. There are the visual invocations about loose lips, long before the days of cyberwar.


Stalin responded by building a closed secret community for scientists called simply City 40.  He tried to make the place a paradise for the workers there, as very little travel was allowed and the city was not put on maps until after the fall of the USSR at the end of 1991.

The city sits on a large lake which has over time become polluted with radioactive waste.  There have been numerous accidents and deaths of workers and premature cancers of residents over the decades.

The film, near the end,  reviews the murder of Litvineko  (as in the 2013 film “Poisoned by Polonium”).  It also provides an unflattering portrait of the authoritarian leadership of Vladimir Putin.

The film could be compared to the short about the city Norilsk (Nickel plant), “My Deady, Beautiful City” or “The Hidden City”, reviewed here June 28.

The film seems relevant to documenting the worldwide risk from unretrieved nuclear waste, especially within Russia and the former Soviet Union.  I was under the impression that much more of this was scattered around the county, not just around this city.  Besides the NTI docudrama “The Last Best Chance”, a couple of relevant Russian films are “The Return” (set in NW Russia) and “How I Ended This Summer”, set at a monitoring point in NE Siberia.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of the closed city of Mercury, NV, P.D.  located near Las Vegas, still with a residual population.   I was last in the area in 2000.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Richland WA in the early 1950s, P.D.I was most recently near there (Yakima) in 1996.  The film says that the Soviets built Ozersk in response to our Richland, and loose lips gave away we had the city.

By Sergey Nemanov – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

(Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 11 at 10:30 AM EDT)

Update: March 23, 2017

I saw the film again at the DC Environmental Film Festival at the Carnegie Science Center, paired with shorts “Nuclear Winter” and “Triad”.

I thought it was interesting that so many of the nuclear pollutants spill into the Arctic Ocean.  There is a lake near Mayak that is six times as polluted as water near Chernobyl, and Mayak seems to have the highest concentration of nuclear waste in the world. In 1994, Russia (under Yeltsin) allowed mention of Ozersk and allowed the city to be named on new birth certificates, but would not allow old ones to be changed.  Putin’s government has persecuted dissidents for speaking out against the secret cities, of which there are about 40 all over Russia (three in former republics).


“The Islands and the Whales”: Faroe Islands (country) faces moral dilemmas in sustaining its way of life



Name: The Islands and the Whales
Director, writer:  Mike Day  (Scotland?)
Released:  2016
Format:  1.94:1  film or HD video, very high quality
When and how viewed:  AFI Docs, 2016/6/26 at Landmark E St. sold out
Length 84
Rating N.A. (PG-13?);  Danish, Faroese, English
Companies: Roco
Link: Site

Mike Day’s documentary “The Islands and the Whales” (taking five years to make) presents the moral dilemmas faced by the Faroe Islands  , a tiny country of 48000 people (and autonomous part of the “kingdom of Denmark”) geographically comprising an archipelago between Iceland and Scotland in the far north Atlantic.

The country’s biggest industry is, understandably, fishing and this includes whaling.  That poses two major problems.  The first is that the people are gradually getting exposed to more mercury in the seafood, which can cause gradual mental dulling in kids  The second is the whole ethical basis of the pilot whale hunting.  People include whale meat in their diet, but much less than in the past.  Now, all goods can be imported into the modern country, but in the 1950s whale was actually a major protein source.

The movie has brutal scenes of the killing of the whales once captured.  Pilot whales have a complex social structure similar to that of dolphins and orcas, and their intelligence may approach that of these other “animals”.  It’s interesting to remember that, before the oil and gas industry developed, back in the 19th century, people used whale oil for lighting. Now, cetaceans are understood to have the intelligence comparable to elephants and primates, and even a more communal sense of self.  Orcas may have intelligence fully equal to humans.  Hunting them is more objectionable than would, say, hunting big cats (which cause an international uproar in the case of Cecil the Lion) because we have come to appreciate the intelligence of most carnivores, whether as pets or large in the wild.  We feel their lives, if separate from us in the wild (like the grizzly bear) should be respected.

In the QA, Day said that the residents of Faroe would probably compare whale hunting to agriculture and hunting in the American West, which used to be socially and morally acceptable.  Information about the intelligence of whales is more recent and not accepted by everyone.  More discussion of the “non human person” concept is here.

The film focuses on a particular family, with an attractive father probably in his 30s with wife and  two daughters, taking the medical tests for mercury.  The father has more mercury than the others but no symptoms.  The family debates cutting down or out on eating whale meat.

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200
VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

The film also shows the “sea warriors” who show up to protest and disrupt whaling activities, and get arrested.  It also shows a street fair in Torshavn in late summer.  The climate is marine, with little snow at sea level but heavy snow at over 1000 feet in winter, and cool summers.  The scenery, of lava flow glaciate rocks and greenery, with sharp peaks and plateaus, is spectacular.  There are a few towns and densely populated areas.  The people talk about the coming of electricity after WWII.

Curiously, the Faroe Islands have one of the highest fertility rates in Europe.

Another environmental issue is the dwindling population of a spectacular bird, the Puffin, which is also hunted.


Many other parts of the world have done whaling. The Smithsonian Folklife exhibit on Basque culture refers to it off the coast of Spain in the past, associated with the modern sport of estropadak, or rowing.

Q and A follows





Here is Carl Nielsen’s “Rhapsody Overture: An Imaginary Trip to the Faroe Islands”.

Related feature films would include “The Cove” (2009, “Racing Extinction” (2015, both Psihoyos), “How to Change the World” (2016, Rothwell, about Greenpeace), “In the Heart of the Sea” (2015, Ron Howard, about “Moby Dick”).

Wikipedia attribution link for Faroese landscape    by Vincent van Jeigst, under CCSA 3.0.


The feature was preceded (at AFI Docs) by a short “My Deadly, Beautiful City” (previously titled “The Hidden City”), 13 minutes, by Victoria Fiore. It was sponsored by the New York Times (largely in Russian with subtitles).  The film showed Norilsk, Russia, an industrial city in Siberia 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, polluted by nickel mining. Norilsk is the world’s northernmost city with a population over 100000, but it is usually closed to non-Russian visitors.  But Putin has been offering free land and housing to families who will settle in Siberia and have lots of babies. But is this city Vladimir Putin’s shame? So much for how well Soviet communism and now ultra nationalism takes care of people.

Here’s an interview with a Russian journalist on the most polluted city in Russia.

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of landscape near Norilsk, by Grain, public domain.

(Published: Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)

(Last picture is from Aquarium in Baltimore, dolphin show, November 2009, mine)