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Metamorphosen: the secret of Mayak radiations

A very well kept secret, this is what this story is about. In the southern Urals there is a highly radioactive region of about 20,000 square kilometers: the air and water are contaminated by nuclear materials, accidentally escaped from the Mayak factory and poured out into the surrounding rivers. The factory was built on this site in 1948 and used to build nuclear weapons.

The region is now considered the most highly uranium-contaminated in the world, but no one knew about the disaster for more than 30 years. “The radiation is invisible, it doesn’t smell” says one of the protagonists of “Metamorphosen”, a documentary by the German director Sebastian Mez, who decided to put this story on the screen.

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In 2011, after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, media all around the world were estimating the consequences for people and nature by the radiation that was set free. Comparisons to Chernonbyl in 1986 were done at the time by experts and scientists. I was surprised no one was talking about Mayak in the south Uralstates the filmmaker.I realized that even today, one of the worst nuclear disasters in history is still unknown to a wide public. I thought this should be told, therefore I decided to make a film about it”.

Managing to convert deceitful, invisible radiations into something visible through the eyes, faces and voices of people living there is the challenge of the film, shot in black-and-white. “Instead of having an investigative character with his scandolous-like mood, with a lot of fact and information, I wanted the attention of what was really necessary for me – the people. I tried to find proper images for their stories, their experiences and that combined with the sound creation provoke a feeling of something that is not visible nor perceptible. I want the audience to feel danger that lies within the images despite showing a radiation counter all the time”.

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As a matter of fact the men, women and (above all) kids in the film seem to lead a normal life: children play, laugh, sing and dance like every other child in the world. But the contrast with long silences, immobile landscapes and even the protracted details of people’s houses reveal something is wrong.

The eyewitness account of the accident in which the reactor Ludmilla almost exploded, the tales about sick people and animals exposed to a vast increase in radiation… they just confirm what images suggest. Besides, the plant remains in operation and is contaminating the surrounding area, even as people continue to live there due to inadequate attempts at evacuation. “We live here like guinea pigs, they want to see how long we are going to survive” tells with an astonishing composure a couple living close to the river.

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Here comes the importance of spreading the story with the powerful strength of cinema. “Metamorphosen” has been selected for several environmental film festivals all around the world and received many awards inside the Green Film Network: the Prémio Juventude at CineEco Seia 2013, the Best International Feature Film Award at Planet in Focus 2013, the Grande Premio Cora Coralina a melhor Obra at FICA 2014, the GreenDox Award at Dokufest Prizren 2014, the Special Jury Prize at Green Film Festival Seoul 2015, the Best International Feature Award at Ecozine Film Festival 2015.

Indisputable tributes to a documentary whose credit is to fill an enormous gap in the environmental field, and to create a collective awareness where the silence rules over a forgotten land.