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Nuclear Nomads (Nomades du Nucléaire)

Two German filmmakers quietly register the insalubrious lives of power plant inspectors in France, in this gently disturbing documentary - from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival


Many of us control our daily calory intake. With the advent of smartphone apps, fitness aficionados track the number of steps and kilometres that they have walked in a single day, week, month or year. The “nuclear nomads” of France keep record of a far more sinister metric: the number of millisieverts to which they have been exposed during a specific period of time. This international unit indicates the health risk of ionising radiation. “Sometimes I get my monthly quota in just one morning”, explains one of the workers.

These people live in mobile homes, often with their partners and children. But this is not the caravan of your dream holiday. Our film subjects are within a stone’s throw distance of the towering nuclear plants that turn the environment into some sort of post-apocalyptical film setting. It looks vaguely like Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), which was also filmed in the surroundings of a power plant (in Estonia). The sky is almost invariably grey, and even ground level is often choked by smog. Large amounts of pollution billow incessantly from the menacing structure.

The sense of horror is accentuated by a sound score blending muffled banging with ominous humming. These visual and auditory sensations are just a harbinger of the real killer: the invisible, odourless and silent radiation that intoxicates the area. Cars are covered with reflecting pads in order to diminish the effects, however these people may suffer the consequences of the poison in their bodies for the rest of their lives. These low-skilled workers find comfort in a monthly wage ranging from €5000 to €7000.

The two directors follow a small group of workers as they carry on with daily duties, which involve mostly driving around the facilities and occasionally cleaning them. We never see them in extreme proximity of the power plants, perhaps because the directors wished to avoid too much exposure themselves. The outcome is an eerily quiet, non-narrative film. It is the sensory experience that prevails. We never learn the names and the backgrounds of the workers, perhaps in an attempt to remind viewers that these people are profoundly dehumanised by their occupation.

The film is dedicated to the people who devote their lives to power plants “so that the rest of us can have electricity”, falling short of making any explicit political statements. It doesn’t need to. The disturbing imagery does the dirty job.

Nuclear Nomads just premiered at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, as part of the the German Cinema Perspective section.

By Victor Fraga - 25-02-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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