Thursday 16 May 2013

Far north: "Village at the End of the World"

The filmmaker Sarah Gavron was last in UK cinemas back in 2007, with her well-received adaptation of Monica Ali's immigrant narrative Brick Lane. Her new documentary Village at the End of the World suggests Gavron is either naturally curious about people living in some form of exile - or that attempts to fund any fiction follow-up to her breakthrough work have been so fraught that she herself needed to get away from it all for a while. So it was that in summer 2009, she and a small crew pitched up in Niaqornat (population: 59), a bayside community in North Greenland, to film a year in the residents' lives.

As a location, Niaqornat could scarcely be more intriguing: caught between multiple identities (Inuit, Greenlandic, Scandinavian), hooked up to the Internet, yet still vulnerable to polar bear attacks. For the handful of teenagers knocking about, the remoteness is no big deal: Gavron finds them mucking about on the surrounding volcanic slopes and updating their Facebook profiles between shifts tending the bags of Haribo in the village shop, dreaming of the day they'll relocate to nearby Uummannaq, a rather bigger outpost spoken of with much the same level of reverie as the big city is described in American smalltown dramas.

The village elders have greatly more pressing concerns, however: a lack of job opportunities exacerbated by the threat hanging over the nearby fish-processing plant, an aging, dying population striving where possible to pull together, yet evidently being stretched thin. One of the questions raised in this part of the world: when a relationship with the girl or guy next door breaks down, how can you get away or lose yourself in a place of fifteen, maybe sixteen houses? (Similarly: how does anybody find new love? We learn the Internet, as ever, has provided one possible answer.) 

The question of how to film remote communities without appearing to exoticise them has confronted Western filmmakers ever since 1922's Nanook of the North, after which director Robert Flaherty was accused of simplifying his characters' hardscrabble existence. 2001's Atanarjuat The Fast Runner offered a corrective in the sight of Inuit filmmakers taking the means of production into their own hands, and telling their own myths and legends. Gavron, for her part, has arrived at a workable compromise. She's in thrall to her subjects' words, turning to them wherever possible for narration, testimony, context, listening in as they swap tales, adorning her images with the Greenlandic names for the seasons.

But those images are entirely the director's own, further demonstrating the eye for colour she revealed in Brick Lane. We're shown a line of schoolroom smocks hanging out to dry in a pleasing chromatic order; the camera notes the blood left in the icy water after the successful slaying of a shark, and picks out the hi-vis jacket of a dreamy sanitation worker as he completes his rounds amid the gathering winter gloom. Every now and again, an image tells a much wider story: an electric mosquito-zapper surrounded by weeks, if not months' worth, of casualties, a slow pullback that reveals a figure isolated on the ice fields.

As winter blows in, obscuring what remains of the sun, what becomes clear is not only the extent to which this community is at the mercy of the elements, but also that to which Gavron is alert to the issues heading her subjects' way. This isn't some unspoilt, earthly paradise, but a real place facing up to encroaching threats: the interviewees speak of the pressure they feel to pack up and move away, or the rising suicide rates among young adults. The waters are further muddied with the arrival of a cruise ship containing greying Danish tourists, overheard betraying some of the colonial attitudes Flaherty was accused of, even as the locals turn out en masse to have their photos taken and sell these gawpers Inuit tchotchkes.

There would perhaps be a more crusading, nuts-and-bolts documentary in here about the Niaqornat community's attempts to form a co-operative with which to retain control of the factory and thus a modicum of control over their territory; Gavron instead goes for the wider, human story, which isn't going to hurt her film's chances in the long run. This film remains romantic, without losing track of what's going on at ground level, and humorous, without being condescending. If the director's aim was to drop a pin in a map, and by doing let the world of cinema know where she's been these past few years, she's very much succeeded: someone should bring her in from the cold now.

Village at the End of the World is in selected cinemas.

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