‘Village at the End of the World’: Help Wanted?

By
Oct 22nd, 2012

“Village at the End of the World,” a documentary set in Greenland, presents some interesting similarities with “Eat Sleep Die,” the last film I reviewed. Both revolve around unemployment, and the threat it poses to community. Admittedly, the village of Niaqornat in the north of Greenland makes the southern Swedish village of “Eat Sleep Die” look like a bustling metropolis. Still, both films are set in Nordic countries, and feature food processing plants that don’t make enough profit. While “Eat Sleep Die” was a documentary-style movie made by a first-time director, “Village at the End of the World” is a documentary sensu stricto, made by Sarah Gavron, an experienced director best known for her 2007 fiction feature “Brick Lane.” But “Village at the End of the World” is Gavron’s first documentary, and is happily inflected by her work as a fiction filmmaker: this results in a strong focus on individuals and their personal experiences, making for a documentary that revolves around compelling and ultimately universal real-life stories.

The film starts with establishing shots of the local landscape, which juxtaposes stunning, gigantic, ominously shifting icebergs with the tiny corrugated metal houses that cling to the edge of a rocky inlet. Next, the film introduces us to the villagers who will anchor the storyline. Annie, aged 72, is the village’s oldest resident; teenaged Lars, brought up by his grandparents, works with his mother in the local shop; Karl, the village’s most celebrated hunter, may be Lars’s father but refuses to acknowledge him; Ilanngauq is always making his daily rounds, collecting the village’s human waste using a plastic keg and a wheelbarrow.

Thus the film subtly draws the audience inside the community: only then does it turn to its central issue. One of the locals explains that the village’s heart is its fish processing factory: since Royal Greenland decided that the factory was not profitable enough and had to close, the village has been unable to function properly. One family moves away to find jobs elsewhere—a significant loss to a community of just 59 people. The rest get by on subsistence hunting and fishing (halibut, narwhals, sharks, seals and the rare polar bear), supplemented by Danish imports from the village’s only shop. Worried that the village and its way of life will disappear entirely, the locals decide to take their future into their own hands: they apply to run the fish factory as a co-operative, and start to develop their tourist experience.

One of the most powerful moments in “Village at the End of the World” is when it reveals stereotypical and colonialist attitudes towards Greenlanders. Most of the film’s duration is spent among the village’s exclusively Inuit population: when a Danish inspector turns up to visit the fish factory, it comes as a shock. The film makes the audience feel so much a part of the local community that when a boatload of European and American tourists comes to shore, they appear strange and unfamiliar. Western audiences will feel embarrassed to hear one tourist ask their guide whether he feels like going to hunt when a whale comes into view: he replies simply that he doesn’t hunt. Danish visitors, meanwhile, speculate about inbreeding in such a small community, and make smug-sounding remarks about the help their public money provides to this village. One tourist says he hopes this community will never change—it makes him so happy to see a place completely untouched by the modern world. The camera immediately cuts to shots of locals close at hand: a little girl working on a laptop and a teenager dressed in fashionable street gear. Clearly, some people’s preconceptions are so ingrained that it blinds them to the reality right in front of them.

“Village at the End of the World” might appear, on the surface, to be the kind of movie you’d expect about Greenland: snowstorms and huskies, hunting and fishing, small communities and dark winters. Yet the persuasive form of the documentary has the potential to change people’s perceptions even more effectively than tourist visits. Tourists perpetuate old colonialist attitudes when they think of Greenlanders’ lives as static through generations: in reality, like people everywhere in the world, they maintain some traditions but also adopt useful new technologies. In 1988, electric lighting replaced whale blubber lamps. More recently, the internet has allowed lonely teenagers like Lars to make Facebook friends all over the world. In a particularly striking shot, he uses Google maps to zoom from an aerial shot of his isolated home to a streetview of downtown New York: at the same time, he dreams of visiting the city in person one day. Youngsters in Niaqornat face some of the same difficult decisions as millions of others who weren’t born in the world’s biggest cities: is it worth abandoning your hometown, your friends, your family and way of life for the sake of greater opportunities?

The other stereotype this film challenges is the idea that underprivileged communities are dependent on handouts from wealthier nations. Certainly, some of the problems Niaqornat has to deal with are the result of the activities of Western countries, from climate change which affects their ability to hunt and fish, to anti-sealing activists like Brigitte Bardot who reduce fur sales abroad. This doesn’t mean that the residents of Niaqornat look to other countries to rescue them. Greenlanders’ very existence in this harsh northern climate testifies to their resilience and adaptability: by applying these same qualities, they are perfectly capable of dealing with contemporary problems. Still, by showing the impact of both global warming and culturally biased attitudes on individual Greenlanders’ lives, “Village at the End of the World” might encourage others to become more responsible citizens of the world.

***

“Village at the End of the World” was in competition for The Grierson Award for best documentary at the BFI London Film Festival 2012.

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