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‘Black Snow,’ Portrait of Russian Erin Brockovich From ‘The Cave’ Producer, Boarded by Cinephil (EXCLUSIVE)

Well-established docu sales outfit Cinephil has acquired world rights to the U.S. doc “Black Snow,” directed and produced by New York-based Alina Simone of Prettier in the Dark Productions.

For her doc feature debut, due to world premiere at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX in the F:ACT competition program, Ukraine-born Simone has teamed up with Academy Award-nominated producer Kirstine Barfod (“The Cave”).

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“I was in the U.S. for the promotion of Feras Fayyad’s ‘The Cave’ when I heard about this project about the ‘Erin Brockovich of Russia.’ I got immediately intrigued,” says New York-based Barfod, involved in her first U.S.-produced documentary through her banner Nordland Pictures.

Director Alina Simone
Director Alina Simone

The film is both an eco-thriller, and an awe-inspiring portrait of Russian mother-turned-environmental journalist Natalia Zubkova. We follow her as she embarks on a perilous crusade in the heart of Siberia, in the name of truth and healthy living, for her family and her community.

Her fight against corruption in the Russian coal mining industry, and the eco-disaster in her Siberian hometown of Kiselyovsk (dubbed the “Death Valley” of Russia by the Wall Street Journal) makes her an enemy of the state. But the reporter simply won’t accept the hyper exploitation of open pit coal mines and lack of filtration that turns snow into an apocalyptic black color and fills the water with worms.

Natalia’s courageous odyssey is set against the turbulent years of 2019 to 2023 when Russia’s clampdown on opposition figures and journalists intensifies, post-pandemic, and war in Ukraine breaks out.

Simone says she first heard about Natalia in 2019, when her video of a group of Kiselyovsk residents pleading with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau to grant them the status of environmental refugees went viral. The group was telling the world about an abandoned Soviet mine, which had caught fire, pushing toxic gas into their homes, yet the government was refusing to resettle them.

“I was curious about this journalistic piece and who was behind it,” says the Russian-speaking Simone, who quickly got hooked on Natalia’s mostly live, self-narrated, mobile videos and decided to tell her story.

“Through my previous career in international development, I had experience of working with NGOs, and grassroot groups across Siberia, but as an activist, Natalia stood out. In her videos she was amazingly brave and confrontational,” the director tells Variety.

Simone who spent 19 days with Natalia, filming by her side, amidst tense surveillance from Russian police, says she will forever be grateful for her colleague’s protective wings and reassuring presence. “I only realized later how much she withstood in order to protect me in Kiselyovsk.”

Banned from returning to Russia, the director helped Natalia upgrade her material and hired a remote shooter in Siberia. “I gave him all my gear so that the look of the film would match my earlier footage,” says Simone, who picked up her filming when Natalia was forced into exile, after years of harassment and intimidation.

“My intention with this film is really to set people’s hearts on fire with Natalia’s spirit, courage and charisma and to spark conversations,” comments Simone, whose own father was blacklisted by the KGB and forced to flee to the U.S. with his family.

The director also praised her closest collaborators, editor Aleks Gezentsvey and most importantly Barfod, “one of the best vérité doc producers in the world, if not the best.” “It was a miracle to have on board the producer of [Syrian-war doc] ‘The Cave,’ which is also about a strong female protagonist under severe threat,” she says.

Barfod says she is planning impact campaigns to raise public awareness on issues including environmental refugees, the human cost of coal mining, authoritarianism and freedom of the press.

The producer acknowledged the decisive involvement of sales outfit Cinephil, who came on board at an early stage, next to 20 philanthropic foundations, film funds and freedom of the press orgs. Those include Catapult Film Fund, the Redford Center, IDA, Sara’s Wish Foundation, Justice for Journalists, Mountain Film, Film Independent, Burnt Umber Productions and the Gotham Film & Media Institute.

“From the moment we saw the first materials, we were fully invested in Natalia and her incredible transformation and battle. Alina is a brilliant storyteller and we’re so honored to be on this journey with her and Kirstine,” Cinephil co-managing directors Shoshi Korman and Suzanne Nodale comments.

“Black Snow’s” world premiere at Copenhagen’s leading international doc festival CPH:DOX is set for March 19. The same day, Simone will share her experience as journalist-turned-doc filmmaker, next to her Japanese counterpart Shio Ito (“Black Box Diaries”) as part of CPH:DOX’s Filmmakers in Dialogue sessions.

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