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Village at the End of the World

How an Inuit community on the north coast of Greenland is pulling together to save their village and way of life.

Last updated: 03 Oct 2013 06:49
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Editor's note: we no longer have rights to air this film on our website.

Niaqornat, a remote Inuit village on the Greenland coast has 59 inhabitants, but the fish factory, the main source of employment, was forced to close.

The ice is melting due to climate change and the government no longer wants to subsidise the ship which brings food supplies. Young people are leaving to seek work so the village is at risk of being abandoned.

Teenager Lars surfs the internet and can not wait to escape, but most do not want to leave their homes and way of life. It is a film about a tiny community pulling together to save their village despite the odds being stacked against them.

Filmmaker's view

By Sarah Gavron

It is an alien place at first look; a hunting settlement, only reached by helicopter, or boat when the ice breaks up, without running water, or vegetation. The Inuit village of Niaqornat is perched on the edge of a vast landmass, surrounded by imposing icebergs, shards of the receding inland glacier - a remnant of the Ice Age.

Other films of Greenland have mostly focused on nature, or the social issues of the cities. We wanted to tell the story of the people we met in the settlement, revealing their resilience, wit and determination.

As we began filming, the population of 59 dropped and the village faced potential closure. We chart their lives across the arctic seasons, as they fight to keep their traditions, battle with the dangers of thinning ice, whilst finding an identity in the modern world.

Niaqornat is a place of extremes - we move from midnight sun to midday darkness, the young craft shaman symbols and also surf the internet, but at its heart this is a story of traditional communities the world over. Our intention is to place the viewer on the inside, to open up the question of whether these communities can survive.

Recently it has been all over the news that scientists are stunned by Greenland's ice sheet melting over a far larger area than expected. Almost the entire ice cover of Greenland has experienced some melting at its surface during 2012, usually only half of the ice sheet melts naturally during an average summer. This further highlights the precarious existence of Niaqornat and makes it clear that Greenland is now the heartbeat of our planet. I hope that Village at the End of the World connects the audience to this global story.

Filmmakers Q&A 

Al Jazeera: Why did you decide to make a documentary about Greenland?

Sarah Gavron: I have always been fascinated by stories from the Arctic. David (my partner and co-director/ cinematographer) had filmed there and crossed the inland ice on a five week trek. We decided to go on an adventure together and spend time in the isolated communities around the edge of the polar ice cap. When we first stepped off the helicopter in Niaqornat I felt I was in the remotest spot on earth; a village of 59 people and 100 sledge dogs living in a lunar landscape surrounded by majestic icebergs.

But Niaqornat is changing; in Summer the ever receding glacier scars the ground, hunting quotas have harmed livelihoods and the fish factory has been closed. If the population falls below 50 the government talks of relocating the villagers to a city. While alien and particular the story of this village also connects with the global narrative of small communities struggling to survive the world over. In Village at the End of the World I was determined to let the inhabitants speak for themselves, I wanted the audience to understand their lives and see the close relationship they have to their extreme environment.

Sarah Gavron, filmmaker:  "It is an alien place at first look; a hunting settlement, only reached by helicopter, or boat when the ice breaks up, without running water, or vegetation."

 David Katznelson, co-director:

"As an adult I decided to travel to Greenland and discover it for myself. What I found challenged my preconceptions. I became fascinated by the country and its people."

David Katznelson: I am Danish, and as Greenland was once a Danish colony and is still closely tied to Denmark, I grew up hearing a lot about Greenland on the news. Most of the stories focused on social issues. As an adult I decided to travel to Greenland and discover it for myself. What I found challenged my preconceptions. I became fascinated by the country and its people and I wanted to make a film that showed another aspect to this country - that told the story of people in the villages.

What were some of the challenges you faced during the making of the film?

SG: Language was the biggest challenge during filming. We had some fantastic translators, but Greenlandic is structured in such a different way from European languages. And the inhabitants' lives are ruled by the weather - which is unpredictable. So you make an arrangement to go and interview a hunter, but then the ice has melted and he is off to catch a whale ... And of course Greenland is a long way to go to film. A country without roads, we had to take three planes and two helicopters to reach the village from the UK.

DK: Yes, I would agree with Sarah, only a few of the villagers spoke Danish. We would ask questions and often not hear the translations of the answers until we were back in the UK. Greenlandic is a very complex visual language, so doing on the spot translations just slowed down the flow of filming too much. As a result we discovered gems in the interviews that we hadn't been able to follow up. So we would have to re-interview ... We had a tiny crew of never more than two or three - a project intended to take one year, took three. I worked on fiction films in between trips to Greenland - but it was always good to go back to it.

How does making a documentary differ from making a fiction film?

SG: Ultimately I am interested in people, in human stories - so that connects the two forms. But in drama it is all about creating the semblance of truth. In documentary you start with a true story but you still have to construct a compelling narrative. In an observational documentary like this one you are filming and simultaneously thinking about how to turn what might be a quite random occurrence into a scene. Situations change and develop as you are shooting which means the story you originally wanted to tell might unravel before your eyes. By the time a fiction goes into production there is a script that often has taken years to write and the story is fixed. With a factual film the editing room is where you find yourself writing the final draft, delving into hours of footage to discover what the story is that you have captured. Both fiction and documentary are extraordinary. I think making documentaries reminds you of the resilience of human nature.

DK: The difference is huge between this documentary and the fiction projects I have worked on. I travelled to Niaqornat between shooting episodes of Downton Abbey. Having two days earlier worked with a camera and lighting team of twenty and lots of equipment, where I sat by the monitor while others did the hard work, I found myself in a completely remote place with only a tiny digital camera, a light weight tripod and a microphone. I had to deal with everything. It was strangely liberating to be on my own in minus 30 degrees... 

What do you hope the audience will take away from Village at the End of the World?

SG: I hope they see a story that connects to the global narrative. I want to move people - we set out to raise some questions - not answer them. I hope it does that. And I hope there is a few laughs in there as well.

DK: I hope people will respond to the place and people as Sarah and I have. It made us reflect a lot on our own lives and it challenged many of our ideas. Denmark is ahead of England in terms of preserving C02 use and it has made me want to bring some of the Danish way of life here - more cycling, solar panels. In Niaqornat they hunt seals but the seals live freely and the hunters only catch what they need and then use every part of it, whilst we eat factory chickens and waste enormous amounts of food. I would say that actually seeing the weak ice was a real wake-up call about the effect our lives are having on that part of the world - the locals respond in a very pragmatic way - the ice is dangerous so they cannot hunt as they have been doing for thousands of years, they do not necessarily question why. But beyond that as we all know the disappearance of the ice has massive consequences for countries all over the world.

In Pictures

Village at the End of the World can be seen from Wednesday, October 02, at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2000; Thursday: 1200; Friday: 0100; Saturday: 0600; Sunday: 2000; Monday: 1200; Tuesday: 0100.

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Al Jazeera
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