Director: Natalia Meshchaninova
Cast: Dar’ia Savel’eva, Polina Shanina, Maksim Stoianov, Daniil Steklov
The irony at the beginning of Natalia Meshchaninova’s debut film is hard to miss. Once the title Hope Factory has faded, we see a young man posing in front of a smart phone and declaring his love for his native Norilsk while being showered by water spurting from a rusty, leaking pipe. A few moments later, we are at a vodka-drenched open-air party of local youths drinking to the “northern character,” and in particular, to the health of the Norilchane. Ominously, the sun is out, but already setting; in the background, we see smoking chimneys against a desolate industrial landscape. Welcome to Norilsk, one of the most polluted and isolated cities in northern Siberia built on the bones of GULAG prisoners in the 1940s and 1950s and still a major pillar of Russia’s metallurgical and mining industry. As the opening scenes suggest, the city has little to offer in terms of hope except for the local metallurgical plant and its fringe benefits.
For Sveta, a seventeen-year-old student nurse at the factory’s health department, staying in “fucking Norilsk” (bliadskii Norilsk) is not an option. She is determined to begin her adult life on the “mainland” (a local metaphor for the urban world beyond Norilsk), even if her ambitions don’t go beyond being reunited with her boyfriend Max, who is seemingly enjoying the good life in some unspecified city in the south. Sveta’s plans of leaving Norilsk arouse sarcasm in her bitchy boss at the factory and disbelief at home. Her parents have even bought her a flat for her upcoming birthday, assuming that she would spend “her whole life” in Norilsk. When she insists on joining Max and moving to the mainland, her father makes an argument that Sveta encounters more than once in the course of the film: “Who needs you there? Life is completely different on the mainland.”
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Establishing the film’s narrative about teenagers’ personal experiences and the lives of her friends and crew, Nataliia Meshchaninova constructs a story about a teenage girl who desperately wants to leave N* (Norilsk), the northern city where she was born, grew up, and in which her family and friends live. The film is full of people who are constantly talking about leaving for other cities: Temriuk, Belgorod, Ekaterinburg, Omsk, Sankt-Petersburg, Moscow, and Voronezh. They dream of living in the mainland (“materik”). Their desire establishes a new imaginary land that exists only in the minds of people who live and work in the new imperial periphery: cities built on permafrost to excavate and to process natural resources.
In this film, Norilsk represents all cities that aim at supplying the post-communist imperial center with money. The huge industrial corporations rooted in Moscow organize the city N* people’s lives to attach them to the plant with good welfare, medical help, and high salaries. This attentive care comes with strings attached: common ecological disasters that damage lives, arduous working conditions at the plant, and an almost eternal winter that lasts more than nine months, three fourths of the year. Working people pay a price for comfortable lives. In every Russian city N*, the endless imperial story is the same: it is simply repeated with new geographical nuances of longitude and latitude. The film director keeps this centripetal motif straight: the periphery exists to supply the metropole. This motif is underlined by the omnipresence of the factory in the film: it appears in the city views and landscapes, and in the citizens’ minds, as the plant determines their future. The film does not show a panoramic view of this industrial monster that breathes the lives of its workers. Almost every shot, however, is filled with background images or signs of the plant: whether it is a city view or natural landscapes. The only natural view that inspires the film’s main characters and represents an inspirational place is the taiga and the slough landscape without an industrial background. The horizon is not sunny or bright: it is grey with a bit of sunshine, but the main point is that it is clear of the smoking pipes that constantly remind people about the purpose of the city’s existence: to serve this plant.
Though even with the omnipresent industrial and sovereign business plant, the people of the city N* live their lives fully and happily. The comfort that people receive with down payments from the industrial shadow, allows them to fulfill their dreams: to become a singer in a local rock-band, to work as a taxi driver for tourists, or as an illusionist in a restaurant, to cook exotic dishes for family in their spare time. These people are happy: they have both comfort and self-realization, and their future is clearly defined; they do not need to look for a job or money. They no longer remember the price they paid for this: their health, quality of life, and years of their lives.
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