Director Sarah Gavron on shooting her new documentary in Greenland
After wowing audiences with her feature film Brick Lane, British director Sarah Gavron now returns to the big screen with her new documentary Village at the End of the World.
Talking to KFTV, Gavron sets out the challenges she faced when filming in the world’s most secluded place – a village in the far flung corner of north west Greenland.
Natural beauty can be overwhelming, as you feel when looking at the stunning landscape that surrounds Niaqornat, a village where dogs outnumber inhabitants.
Village at the End of the World follows four very different residents who live in the village, and while we observe how the ice and the seasons dictate how they live their lives, we are also introduced to the future they face: Niaqornat’s very existence is threatened economically and ecologically. Together the villagers must find a way to safeguard their survival as a community.
Gavron never set out to make a full blown feature documentary about the village. It was her husband, David Katznelson, fell in love with Greenland and convinced her to join him for a year, together with their two small children. He grew up in Denmark and had always had a fascination with the island. Slowly the idea arose of making a short documentary together about the various communities in the country…
However, after multiple helicopter flights (the only means of travelling any serious distance in Greenland) they ended up in Niaqornat, fell in love with the place and their ‘adventure’ became a full-blown research trip.
“The thing that attracted us to Niaqornat is that we instantly made a connection with the people there, we made friends with the sewage collector who spoke perfect English and we realised we had the chance to paint a portrait of the community. It represents a story about how small, traditional communities all over the world are struggling to survive. We met a number of characters who told a different side of this story and it is them who make the film.”
No chance to eavesdrop
Asked if language was a problem, Gavron says that while her husband filmed and she directed, the sewage collector would often translate. “It’s not easy to find someone who can speak and interpret Greenlandic into English. There aren’t many speakers who master the language and in the UK there isn’t a single one.”
Lucky for the filmmaker, there are a few speakers in Denmark and one of them helped Gavron in the edit suite, sitting in during large chunks of the editing period.
“We’d film things while we were there and we wouldn’t know what we were shooting until we got back.
“It was funny but also challenging because it meant that you didn’t know what was going on and you couldn’t anticipate what people were about to do. Also, you couldn’t eavesdrop or pick up the general feeling of the crowd – or even chat around a subject to come up with new things like you would with other documentaries.”
The Northern Lights, a filmmaker’s dream
The weather conditions certainly were a challenge. In the summer, of which Gavron and Katznelson saw two, it was quite nice. Greenland has 24 hour daylight and the director described her experiences as nothing less than “a filmmakers dream”.
“You can go out at 2am and there is bright light so you can film everything. And all the people will be walking around – it really is an outdoors lifestyle. The sea is not frozen over and the icebergs will be moving around and it just looks spectacular.
“But then the opposite is true too. The winter, of course, is much more challenging from a filmmaker’s perspective because you have 24 hour darkness and freezing temperatures.” Gavron says not only did their camera steam up but nobody was venturing outside. “Everybody hibernates inside their houses and not much happens. So that was tricky – life comes to a standstill.”
“In spring, when the sea ice forms and the ocean freezes over, Greenland’s beauty appears again but then you get an incredible glare. It’s only following this time that you get day and night and start to see a more ‘normal’ pattern.”
Silent and far flung challenges
Another hurdle the director describes is the fact that the location they chose was so remote. Of course, this makes the feature what it is but from a filmmaker’s point of view it was very challenging. To get there would cost three days and to leave Gavron and Katznelson had to wait for a helicopter which would only fly sporadically (and not at all when the weather was bad).
“From a practical point of view, when we were editing and thought, ‘oh we really need another shot of this or that’, we couldn’t just pick up those moments as you would do with another film.
“The other thing was that it just didn’t follow the normal routine of life. They are just so sustained by nature and their lives are governed by the elements. When we interviewed Karl, the hunter, for example, he looked up at the clouds and said: ‘It is the perfect condition today for a reindeer hunt. I’ll be back in four days’. You really had to adapt to this.”
“Traditionally,” Gavron says, “the people in Niaqornat are not very expressive and open. I think this is one of the reasons they are successful as a community: they keep a lid on their emotions and keep themselves to themselves. In a way this means that their communal life works quite effectively. However, it also makes it harder to get an insight into how they feel or to what is going on. It took a while to build up our relationship with each other and understand the cultural differences – it was a real learning curve.”
Fact or fiction?
As to the question whether we will be seeing more documentaries from Gavron, she explains that though she loved making a documentary and would like to make more – she loves exploring, travelling and finding out about the secrets of the world and she now craves the linear creative filmmaking process that can only be achieved in fiction.
“I now have a thirst to make a fiction film and I’m actually developing one as my next project. I’m working on a couple actually, one about the suffragettes – a group of women a hundred years ago who fought for the vote. Hopefully this will be my next film. But you know how this world works, you never quite know….”