The Village at the End of the World: Life on the Island of Niaqornat, Greenland

Niaqornat, northwest Greenland

Niaqornat, northwest Greenland. Photo: David Katznelson

“The way of the Inuit is to struggle with nature and live sustainably from its fruits”. This is Karl, mayor and hunter of Niaqornat, a small fishing village off the northwest coast of Greenland. An island of 59 inhabitants, Niaqornat is home to a community of life-long villagers whose existence is dictated by the changing seasons; Peuqqortinnerani “the time of frost in the air” blends into Kaperlak “the time of darkness”. Foreboding winters and endless summers set the backdrop to life in this remote, arctic corner.

In her debut documentary The Village at the End of the World, Sarah Gavron observes the lives of four inhabitants; Lars, the teenager, longs for life outside the island; Karl, the hunter, feeds his people; Illannguaq, the outsider, views the island from a fresh perspective, and Annie, the matriarch, reflects the island’s history.

Made over three years, Gavron shot The Village with long-time collaborator (and husband) David Katznelson, whose award-winning cinematography captures the beauty behind this uplifting tale of the human spirit. I spoke with Gavron to find out more about the film.

HJ: How did you first come across the village?

SG: It was a bizarre and long journey! David had grown up in Denmark and been to the arctic, so there was already an interest in the area. Then, between fiction projects, we decided to make a trip with our children to Greenland.  We wanted to visit one of the small communities, so we asked around, and after visiting three or four, we settled on Niaqornat. When we arrived, one of the first people we met was Illannguaq, the local sewage collector, who spoke English. He introduced us to the community.

HJ: How long did you spend with the community before turning on the cameras?

SG: After our first four weeks we held a meeting in the school and told the community about our thoughts on making a documentary and asked their permission. We also asked who would like to be in it, and most people were interested.

HJ: How did people react to the film crew?

SG: Some of the people we met were easier than others. Lars was very friendly and keen to be involved. Same with Illannguaq, who, as an outsider, was interested in interacting with people from outside the island. Characters such as Annie were more challenging, and that required more work.

HJ: How difficult is it to direct and interact with your subjects when you don’t speak the language?

SG: It was very challenging! You begin to realise that your interpreter is the director – it’s important to work with someone who understands your vision and “gets” the film. We began working with one old guy from another village, but we would give him questions to pass on to people, and he would just answer them himself! It often wasn’t until we returned to London, and had the audio translated, that we really knew what we’d shot. This is when we found the gems.

HJ: During the film, you capture the arrival of tourists. A development to the island which feels bittersweet. How did they, and you, react to this?

SG: It’s complex. Both emotions confront you. I had to remember that I too was a tourist. At the point in the film when the group arrives, the audience is on the inside of this community. You see it from their perspective. But there are positive aspects to letting people in– it certainly opens peoples minds to this way of life. When we came back from filming, people would ask “what do they eat? how do they live?” and you realise how much there is to learn.

HJ: Electricity only reached the island in 1988, so it’s surprising to see they have internet. Do you think the infiltration of technology will sustain or break the community?

SG: The internet has had a huge impact on Niaqornat. For Lars, in particular, it’s changed his mental landscape. Education on the island only takes children to a certain point, and the Internet can enhance their knowledge. But with that, of course, comes a desire for another life beyond the island. It’s interesting because Karl has since become an MP in Greenland, to be a spokesperson on behalf of small Greenlandic communities. The irony is, though, that he now has had to leave himself.

HJ: Do you think the village can independently sustain itself in the long term?

SG: I hope they do. I’d like to re-visit in ten years and see what’s changed. I think climate change will have had had a big impact. But with spirits like theirs, if anyone can survive, it’s them.

HJ: The film reflects the hostility and violence of nature, a common theme in Herzog’s  films. Did you have any influences in mind when you were making the film?

SG: Herzog is definitely a filmmaker who’s inspired me, but his films often feature his distinct brand of narration. We didn’t want that objective voice. In terms of the film’s rhythm, we looked at films like Être et Avoir and Sleep Furiously. We wanted to make the antithesis of a nature documentary, which focuses on the landscape. We were interested in the human stories.

HJ: How did you fund the project?

SG: We had some great support from Met Film School, and there was a lot of goodwill and work-in-kind given to the project. We did receive some funding from the Danish Film Institute who paid for our Danish composer and sound designer. We also got a bit of money from Film4. The budget for the whole thing was in the region of £200,000.

HJ: You’ve talked about the difficulties of making a documentary in comparison to fiction filmmaking – notably, its unpredictable nature. Has it inspired you to continue in a similar vein?

SG: I would love to. As a filmmaker, I find it really exciting to move between forms. When I’m making my fiction films I watch documentaries to inform my work. I’m interested in social and political issues and documentaries make you confront the real world.

HJ: Have the islanders seen the film?

SG: Yes, I sent each of the main contributors a DVD so they can show their community. In Denmark, there have been a number of social issue documentaries focusing on the negative (but very real) problems facing Greenlanders, so the islanders were happy to see the positive aspects of their community reflected in the film.

HJ: Will it get a release in Greenland?

SG: The film’s already screened on TV out there. There aren’t many cinemas, but we’re screening the film at one in Nuuk. We’re also trying to get the DVD into a supermarket chain, and into village kiosks.

HJ: And finally, can people who have seen the film, and want to visit, reach the island independently?

SG: Yes, as a community they’re very open. They get hardly any visitors, and there are no hotels on the island. We slept in a community hall, and in one of the houses, which had been abandoned by a family who had left. To get there, we flew to Copenhagen, and then to Kangerlussuaq in the North West, then to Ilulissat, then to Uummannaq, then we helicoptered to a village nearby and then onwards to Niaqornat.

The Village at the End of the World is released in cinemas on May 10th.

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