Picturehouse Office Manager Frances Taylor takes a look at the next Discover Tuesday title, Sarah Gavron’s VILLAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD.
The documentary begins with a teacher reading his tiny class the story of Noah from the Bible. Dogs bark and bounce on a beach, polar bear skins wave on washing lines. An iceberg falls, slowly, into the sea.
This is Niaqornat, northwest Greenland. Population: 59.
Sarah Gavron (BRICK LANE) gives us a four-season window onto the lives of the inhabitants in this tiny Inuit village. Like many rural communities, Niaqornat is struggling to keep itself alive in the face of fading industry, climate change, a shrinking population as the young leave for bigger towns and more prosperous opportunities, and a rising suicide rate.
But Gavron focuses instead on what they have, starting with the people. From 90-year-old Annie, who remembers the times of blubber lamps and can recount how almost everybody is related to everybody else, to Lars, the loneliest teenager, who laments the lack of girls in his village but keeps a stack of condoms and a T-shirt that states ‘will fuck on the first date’ in case any happen to wander by, Gavron’s lens is sensitive and unsentimental.
The villagers’ lives may seem a world away from ours, but they aren’t treated as relics from a bygone era, or as exhibitions in a living museum. Instead we see them as people trying to get by and make sense of the challenges they didn’t see coming, just like everybody else. They aren’t idealised or patronised – we see their struggles for real, just as they see them themselves. They want to keep their village alive, and they are concerned about the sustainability of their fishing industry; their story could be from rural Scotland. Adults playing musical chairs could be in any village hall across North America or Europe, and we’re reminded of a universal humanity.
A boatful of tourists come to visit the village. While they coo over what they believe is the final bastion of an ‘authentic’ lifestyle and say they hope things never change, we’ve seen the villagers pull on their so-called traditional dress and hop down to the beach to sell fripperies and play on the tourists’ misguided sense of nostalgia. While the visitors marvel at how backward and stuck in time they think Niaqornat is, we’ve seen teenagers Google-mapping New York City and wearing Kanye glasses, dreaming of getting out. The polar bear furs wave on washing lines next to football shirts.
It’s an uneasy question of identity: how much does where you’re from and how you live determine who you are? What should be done for the best, and who is best qualified to make that decision? Can we say that it’s a shame for outposts like this to become homogenised if we wouldn’t want to live there ourselves?