Husband and wife team Sarah Gavron and David Katznelson bring the Village At The End Of The World into the limelight of global warming and globalisation.
Hamlet by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Filmed in a village of less than fifty inhabitants in Northern Greenland with her husband, cinematographer and co-director David Katznelson, Sarah Gavron’s Village At The End Of The World couldn’t be further from Brick Lane. Swept away to the arctic austerity of documentary, her latest film exposes the lives of some of Niaqornat’s inhabitants, battling to survive the melting ice floes using traditional hunting methods and as a community, bringing back the fish factory to encourage emigrants back to the village. Over the course of five seasons and through the eyes of four villagers, The Village At The End Of The World is a heart-warming and cleverly constructed glimpse into modern living.
Niaqornat in Greenland has only 59 inhabitants. But with the Royal Greenland fish factory closed, there is not enough work and families are leaving. If the population drops below fifty, Niaqornat will no longer receive subsidies from Denmark, so the race is on to keep the village alive. Our understanding is shaped by the testimonies of four of its inhabitants; Lars – a teenager connected to the rest of the world through the internet, but unable to find a girlfriend or work besides in his mother’s shop; Annie – the eldest woman in the village and related somehow or other to everyone around her; Karl – Lars’s “absent” father and a hunter, sustaining the community as his forefathers did before him and Ilannguaq who moved north for love, the only English speaker and guide to visiting tourists, who picked up the last job emptying the village latrines. Four portraits which combine to provide a glimpse into the community’s history, problems and hopes for the future.
As we see the bloodied pelt of a polar bear dragged across the ice, it feels a long way from the comforting environmentalism of a David Attenborough documentary. Even Brigitte Bardot is persona non grata in these parts, her “bleeding heart” animal rights advocacy no match for the blood, sweat and tears of an Inuit people sustaining themselves on hunting traditions they’ve lived by for generations. And yet, Sarah Gavron’s film is almost purposefully shocking, provoking the viewer into uncomfortable areas of conflict – a baby whale excavated from the belly of its dead mother, or the absurdity of buckets of excrement poured out in front of a vista of majestic ice. Sea levels are rising as icebergs collapse into the sea, making the hunt dangerous across thin, unpredictable sheets of ice, but Niaqornat, the victim of both global warming and globalisation, is surviving. Just.
The villagers exist in a dark, sunless limbo, “What is our future” etched as bluntly onto the school blackboard as it is onto the inhabitants of Niaqornat’s minds. But as Peuqqortinnerani “the time of frost in the air” gives way to to Kaperlak “the time of darkness”, there are glimmers of hope; a ship filled with Danish tourists arrive to soak up the unchanged oldworldiness of Niaqornat, not knowing Ilannguaq has paid the villagers to dress up in traditional costume, nor seeing the girl playing on her laptop. And by the end, after months of negotiation with the Department of Fisheries and Royal Greenland, Niaqornat can finally reopen the fish factory as a village co-operative, offering skills and jobs to its inhabitants and encouraging those families who left to return. Where there’s life there’s hope.
Remnants of a previous world linger on, with stories of shamans replenishing the seas by combing the mother of the sea’s hair to free the mammals caught there, with watery spirits conjured up through the groans of shifting ice and with tupulaiks – little icons of walrus tooth and seal skin which ward off evil. But it’s a spirituality awkwardly juxtaposed with a material need for food and jobs and a modern vision of the world as seen through Google Earth. At times, Gavron and Katznelson’s documentary can make Niaqornat’s inhabitants seem somewhat simple, entertaining themselves with ‘musical chairs’ in an undermined vein of innocence beyond worldly mediatisation. But getting under the skin of this hamlet in Greenland, Village At The End Of The World is funny, charming, poetic and profound, revealing just as much about the world at the end of the village.
The Village At The End Of The World is released on 10th May in the UK