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Donald Trump isn’t the only one with designs on Greenland. The huge island nation, long a colony of Norway and Denmark, is now an autonomous Danish territory, and, as this intimate and thoughtful documentary illustrates, autonomy is a work in progress for the snowbound country, whose abundant natural resources have put it in the sights of international corporations.
Directors Sidse Torstholm Larsen and Sturla Pilskog delve into the repercussions when Maniitsoq, a small town on the country’s west coast, is chosen by U.S. aluminum giant Alcoa as the site of a $3.5 billion smelting plant, which would be the largest industrial project in Greenland’s history. With deft cinematography by Henrik Bohn Ipsen and a subtly stirring score by Sebastian Öberg, the filmmakers zero in on three locals during the project’s delay and eventual collapse.
The first-time filmmakers have made a well-crafted, eye-opening film, layering their subjects’ personal efforts toward self-sufficiency against the backdrop of a nation’s struggle for economic independence. A selection of the recent Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York, where the doc had its stateside premiere, Winter’s Yearning brings a remote place into focus but also has wider resonance as a portrait of a working-class community hit by financial crisis and limited employment options.
Through clips of news reports, the helmers reveal Maniitsoq’s joyous response to Alcoa’s 2006 announcement of the project; one person likens it to being chosen to host the Olympics. At a town meeting, no one voices an objection to the proposed smelter. But visions of the anticipated windfall fade into a waiting game after the global crash of 2008, and from there a state of suspension takes hold. The film is vague about its timeline — a title indicates only that “several years later” construction on the smelting plant hasn’t begun.
But in its specifics, the doc follows unexpected and involving lines of inquiry, through the stories of three Maniitsoq residents: Kirsten Kleist Petersen, a young woman who works on the assembly line at a fish processing plant; Gideon Lyberth, a therapist and social worker; and bureaucrat Peter Soren Olsen, the town’s “aluminum coordinator” and the first Greenlander with a master’s degree.
Peter, who generally plays his cards close to the vest, finds himself in an administrative limbo as Alcoa execs ghost him and Maniitsoq. Gideon is alarmed at how “passive and hesitant” he sees the locals becoming, waiting for the plant as if it’s the only thing that will save them. Over checkers in communal halls, old-timers grumble over Alcoa’s empty promises, one of them complaining that “nothing is coming our way.”
Kirsten’s parents aren’t in the film, except perhaps fleetingly, but she talks about how her mother encourages her to get pregnant while her father wants her to be educated. He also encourages her drinking, a facet of her life that’s becoming an increasing problem, until a blackout incident leads to a breakthrough in terms of health, focus and ambition.
Matters of addiction and domestic abuse surface in Kirsten’s story and Gideon’s, as well as those of his students — in one class, all female, it seems everybody knows what it means to be the partner of an alcoholic. This theme registers with a universal impact, a harsh reality of economically strapped rural places that are all too often overlooked or left behind by the larger society. That disconnect is viewed from a lighter angle too, when Kirsten looks up ticket prices for a music festival in Denmark headlining Eminem and concludes that she’d have to be a millionaire to go.
To many Westerners, Greenland is a vast, snowy expanse viewed from the heights of a trans-Atlantic jet window. The ground-level view offered by Winter’s Yearning is affecting in its attention to detail: the distinctive seascape and cut of the land as well as the everyday struggles, personal and political, of the people who live there. Self-sufficiency and community converge in the notes of hope at the end of the film’s three central stories — an open-ended hope that’s as unforced as this quietly probing documentary.
Production companies: Blåst Film, Bullitt Film, Ánorâk Film
Directors: Sidse Torstholm Larsen, Sturla Pilskog
Screenwriters: Sidse Torstholm Larsen, Sturla Pilskog
Producers: Sturla Pilskog, Are Kvalnes Pilskog, Vibeke Vogel, Emile Hertling Péronard
Director of photography: Henrik Bohn Ipsen
Editor: Åsa Mossberg
Composer: Sebastian Öberg
International sales: Cat & Docs
In Greenlandic, English and Danish
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