Hot Docs 2016 Interview: Samira Goetschel Talks “City 40”


The best part about interviews is when you get a chance to talk to someone who has lots of knowledge about something that may help your readers to learn something new and valuable. “City 40” examines and brings up everything you need to know about the seemingly average Soviet-era city where people have let themselves, as one of the participants of the film compared, to living in a zoo.

Samira Goetschel has taken a risky step in order to accomplish what has been accomplished in her movie. However, after you read the interview, you will realize that there is something more than that. It is not just a film made by a filmmaker, bur rather by an intelligent person who perfectly knew the right balance of information needed to be provided to you.

During the Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto, I had, I must admit, the great pleasure of talking with Samira Goetschel, who left me satisfied after having a highly intellectual interview, which I am sure you will find very interesting to read.

MOVIEMOVESME: You’re an Iran-born American filmmaker, so how did you find out about … City 40?

Samira Goetschel: I actually start my films with questions, so I never really have a story in mind. So the question for me was the whole issue of nuclear terrorism at the time and still to this day it’s used by the governments and international media. So I was thinking how realistic is this threat. I didn’t want to go to the same media that was promoting this whole idea; I didn’t want to look at the available literature to look for the answers. So I wanted to search for the answers myself. I went on a journey that took me to Russia and then I ended up in the closed city or City 40.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you plan the film?

Samira Goetschel: It has taken a lot of hard work, blood and sweat. It wasn’t that easy because when I formed the question, I did a year of research just to understand even the science of it. When I ended up in that area of Ozersk, there was the question of non-state nuclear terrorism which is very clear that the threat was real. I felt like it was science fiction but real. Then the question went to the background the more I learned about what was happening in this city, to these people. There were so many layers to the story that I decided instinctively you need to let yourself be and let these people decide if they want to talk to you. I did three completely different parts of the film, because every time I did one part I realized the structure of the narration. I was putting attention on one subject matter, so that was very important ot me that this becomes the story of these people. At the same time it was very important to put this story in a historical-political context so that the audience understands all the different elements that come into play. I want the audience to have an understanding of the reality.

MOVIEMOVESME: Why did you decide to include Myak and the plutonium subject?

Samira Goetschel: That’s where they produce plutonium. They actually built that place to produce their first plutonium based bomb. So I could not have not mentioned plutonium. I wasn’t even interested in ….; that was not even on my radar. That was a big story but I didn’t even care about it. Luke Hardy is the authorotative figure on it from The Guardian. I’m not a journalist but a storyteller and so what happened was the nuclear scientists and other people started talking about …. And I don’t speak a word of Russian. Then they gave me information that I could not use in the film. I chose not to use it in the film because it’s a big issue between the UK and Putin. I had promised the people that I will tell their story and not allow anyone to manipulate the story for their own agenda.

MOVIEMOVESME: How did you convince people to talk because it was risky for them as well?

Samira Goetschel: It was very risky for them because they are the ones staying there except Nadezhda Kutepova. These are instinctive decisions that you make and as a filmmaker you have to reinvent the situation and the solution as you go in places like that instinctively. You cannot think about this, you cannot have a plan. You cannot have a roadmap dealing with films like this. A lot of Russians who see this, they understand it the most because they know they can be executed; they’re not allowed to even talk to their own family about what they do. They asked me where’s your crew. I told them I don’t have a crew, I’m an independent filmmaker, I don’t have a broadcaster. It was very strange for them. In the beginning they thought I was a spy but they couldn’t figure out who I was spying for. So two things happened, one is that I learnt without knowing I had learnt and used it instinctively. The city was surrounded by a barbed fence. Once you get into it what is difficult is getting access to the mind of the people through the psychological barbed fence they’ve built inside their heads.

I’m going to answer with a metaphor: If you go in a stormy ocean and somebody’s boat is broken up and everybody’s sinking while you’re sitting on your boat and ask them, “Hey, tell me how you’re feeling when you’re sinking?” They will say, “Go away!” They will be resented by you and not even bother to look at you. You have to jump in with them in the stormy ocean and show them by action that you’re in it with them and understand what they’re going through to create that connection for them to trust you. Then they will talk to you and tell you things. Then you promise them, “If I make it back to the shore, I will take your story back and I will not allow anybody to manipulate your story.” Then you’ll be surprised how they start talking to you, somebody who doesn’t even understand their language!

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