For several long months of the year, Niaqornat, in northwest Greenland, is a cold, dark and demanding place to live. In winter, night falls and stays fallen, with a muted twilight the closest thing to sunrise and sub-zero temperatures fixing the landscape into lunar-like permafrost. The only ways in and out are by sea or air, and the supply ship that brings the village vegetables, kitchen roll and anything else that can’t be fished from the sea or hunted across the polar ice is forced to pause its service 'til spring.
When winter ends, thermometers climb above freezing and flora battles to make the most of its brief opportunity to flourish. Daylight returns but does not leave, the midnight sun shines around the clock. What's more, the relative warmth carries dangers of its own, as unstable ice sheets make hunting risky.
Whether frozen or thawing, it is a challenging environment to call home; a landscape of stark contrasts presenting its populace with a precarious future. Most troubling is the settlement's declining population, exacerbated by the closure of the local fish factory a few years prior. With scarce employment options remaining, families increasingly sought work elsewhere, and Niaqornat started its seemingly inexorable shrink. By spring 2009, only 59 people remained.
It's a fascinating subject for a documentary, though when director Sarah Gavron, along with her husband and cinematographer David Katznelson, first visited the community, it wasn’t with the express intention of prepping a project. "My husband is Danish, and he’d been to Greenland and made a documentary there some years ago," explains Gavron, speaking by phone from her London home. "He was really keen for me to go with him, so we went on an adventure." But while filmmaking may not have been front of mind at the outset, their "tiny idea" quickly grew and took shape.
"We ended up visiting a few tiny hamlets, and I was immediately drawn to them – it was just a world apart from anything I'd ever encountered before," says Gavron. "When we went to Niaqornat we were greeted by Ilannguaq [the town's affable sewage collector], who was the only one who spoke English. He was really our way in – he explained the whole mechanics of the village, and we spent time there and were made welcome."
The filmmakers quickly identified the denizens with the most vivid personalities and stories: in addition to Ilannguaq, the 'cast' includes town mayor and hunter Karl; Annie, the village's oldest resident; and hoodie-wearing teen Lars. "After that first trip we thought, 'perhaps there is a story here,'" says Gavron. "One that tells of a traditional way of life fighting for survival, which will connect, perhaps, with a global narrative of small communities all over the world fighting for their existence." But despite the alluded-to global context, Village at the End of the World avoids turning Niaqornat into a universalised emblem. Its inhabitants may be struggling first-hand with the effects of climate change, globalisation and other planet-wide concerns, but they are living, breathing individuals, not representational vessels – though that's not to deny the village's microcosmic potential. "I think part of what is interesting about these tiny communities," notes Gavron, "is that everything, including relationships, is kind of heightened, because you've only got 59 people and you're living in such close proximity to one another. Life is just more extreme in every way."
While largely comprised of slice-of-life vignettes matched to the seasons – whale butchery in the gloom of winter; visits from haughty Danish tourists in the lighter months – two key strands structure the narrative: the first follows attempts to reopen the factory as a co-operative and thereby save the village from extinction; and the second, hip-hop loving Lars's dreams of moving to somewhere more cosmopolitan.
When Gavron first started filming, did she have any pre-conceived expectations about where these threads would lead? "Well, that's the big difference between documentary and fiction," says Gavron, best known for dramatic work such as the Bafta-winning This Little Life and her 2009 adaptation of Monica Ali's Brick Lane. "You can't control where the story's going to go. At the beginning, we knew that the fish factory was closed and that it had caused people to leave in droves. And we knew that there was a young boy who had his eye on travelling the world. But we couldn't predict the outcome of either, so our guiding principle was instead to follow the dramatic, extreme seasons, and to focus on those people who seemed to encapsulate some aspect of the themes and stories we were trying to tell."
“I think part of what is interesting about these tiny communities is that everything, including relationships, is kind of heightened” – Sarah Gavron
Over the following 18 months, Gavron and Katznelson returned to Niaqornat several more times. For three of the trips, the couple brought their young children with them, even celebrating their son's first and second birthdays in the village – an indication of just how accepted the family were made to feel. "The Inuit communities are traditionally very welcoming of kids," says Gavron. "Kids have a very free and nice existence in those villages, and I think that it helped break down barriers – because they welcomed us into their homes and the kids made connections with them."
In-between visits, Gavron set about imposing order on the reams of footage they'd amassed. "It took an enormous amount of time," she recollects. "Something that I hadn't really appreciated is that if you film in a foreign language, then you've got the added job of translating – and [it's] a language that no one in England speaks, so it wasn't like we could find a translator here! There were people in Copenhagen who came across and sat in the edit suite and went through [the footage with us], finding the little nuggets within the interviews."
Also complicating the edit was the early decision to eschew formal narration. "As a fledgling documentary-maker, I now know that that's a huge challenge," Gavron laughs, "because it means you have to find ways of telling what's going on without exposition. Initially we thought we might not even have interviews – in sort of the same way as Etre Et Avoir [Nicolas Philibert's portrait of a rural French primary school], we thought we might just follow life. But when we showed really early cuts to friends they'd say, 'But how does it work and what do they eat and who are they and what do they feel?' We realised that, to make it an interesting and engaging film, we needed to give people some insight into those things – it wasn’t enough to just observe." The result is something semi-observational, with no attempt to deny the filmmakers' presence and influence, but nothing as disruptive as a 'voice of God' voice-over to encroach upon the audience's engrossment.
Gavron's next project – an ensemble biopic of the suffragette movement ("I’d like it to see the light of day sometime soon but we don't yet know when production will start") – will see the director move back to her comfort zone of scripted and acted drama. I ask whether her work in one mode of filmmaking influences her approach to the other. "It's kind of a different muscle in lots of ways, but obviously one does feed into the other," she replies. "I think as a fiction director I find it very important to constantly observe the real world and life around you, because in a way you're trying to create truth – you know, what would someone do if they're told that piece of news, how will they respond... And I suppose in documentaries you've got the truth laid before you, so you're just capturing what's there." In the case of Village…,"what's there" is an absorbing snapshot of a community in flux; a rewarding glimpse into an increasingly rare way of life; and heartening proof that, often if not always, where there's a will, there's a way.
Village at the End of the World is released 10th May.
Article written for The Skinny.