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Occupational Hazard

Jacob Kohl

Nuclear Nomads (2023)

This depressing documentary by Kilian Armando Friedrich and Tizian Stromp Zargari follows some specialist employees of France’s electricity companies. France’s power grid relies on nuclear power, and that power relies on workers who are willing to risk their long-term health to do the maintenance work needed for the plants to operate safely. Messrs. Friedrich and Zargari wisely allow the subject matter to make its own political points, which allows the movie a breathing space most polemics don’t have.

For a salary of up to 7,000 euros a month, these workers must be prepared to travel to any of the nuclear sites, which can be up to 10 hours apart, at the drop of a hat. Generally this means living in a caravan, and being prepared to experience up to three months’ worth of “safe” radiation exposure in a single afternoon. It’s a grim and lonely existence, which the workers are doing in order to finance other aspects of their lives. Some have bought land and are planning to run their own small farms with the money earned from this work. One man earns enough for his wife to stay at home with their three children and the dog (and if the parallels to Homer Simpson were deliberate, the filmmakers were smart enough not to say so). Others are simply in it for the money due to limited prospects elsewhere. But all of them are risking their lives for their work, every single day, sometimes for decades; and without going on about it, it’s obvious none of them are sure this is the right decision.

Other than some brief scenes in recruitment offices, the movie stays close to the workers’ lives outside of work, in their routines of long drives, smoking in parking lots and video chats with loved ones elsewhere. The pervasive anxiety about the damage being done to their health is another mundane aspect of daily life, like taking out the trash. And as with taking out the trash, it’s better done than discussed, since talking about it doesn’t improve it. The repeated shots of vapor coming out of the towers around the nation slowly raise the question as to whether their sacrifices on display here, both emotional and physical, are worth it. Should cheap electricity for French consumers come at the price these people are paying? Are the high salaries fair recompense for the inexorable problems down the line? Or is it perfectly OK for people to accept this deal, since that’s what the market will bear? Messrs. Friedrich and Zargari leave the answers to the viewers. But in asking Berlinale audiences to consider the nature of this work, it raises some sharp questions about power, in both senses of the word, that linger long after the movie is over.


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