'A Polar Year': Film Review | Sundance 2018
The documentary tracks a Danish teacher’s first year in a tiny fishing village in Greenland.
A wet-behind-the-ears teacher in a classroom full of unruly kids — it's a timeless setup, and the core of French filmmaker Samuel Collardey's Greenland-set documentary. But in A Polar Year the usual new-instructor challenges are amplified by the very loaded cultural divide between European interloper and indigenous Inuit people. Focusing on the young, adventure-seeking Dane and one of his students, Collardey has crafted a memorable portrait of a remote setting and the relationships that slowly develop there.
Further festival travels are surely in store for the film, whose big-screen-ready visuals offer striking views of the pristine, often frozen landscape and intimate glimpses of what it takes to carve out a life there.
Collardey includes a few staged scenes among his mostly verité mix, and there's a feeling of information-dispensing reenactment about the one in which Anders Hvidegaard, hardy and gentle, makes his plans to teach in Greenland. Offered the choice of working in capital city Nuuk, with its creature comforts, he opts instead for Tiniteqilaaq, population 80, a remote coastal village with no running water. The Danish administrator who hires him is proud of having learned not a single word of Greenlandic during her tenure, and warns him to follow suit. But Anders' open smile and inquisitive gaze signal that he'll be doing things differently.
The film soon zeroes in on a Tunumiit boy, Asser Boassen, a charmer who lists "Mr. Bean and Chaplin" as his hobbies. Like many of his classmates, Asser is being raised by people other than his biological parents — in his case, his grandparents. Anders' guileless questions about this phenomenon are met with defensive, suspicious responses. One man talks about tradition before admitting that problems with alcohol and unemployment affect a number of domestic situations. During another conversation, Anders' concern about whether the kids are getting enough food at home is met with the contemptuous "That's such a Danish question."
Asser's grandmother, Thomasine Jonathansen, is no less resistant to the teacher's idealistic stance. "Teaching him your Danish things won't do him any good," she tells Anders after the boy has missed a week of school in order to join his grandfather, Gert, on a dogsledding hunting trip. Following the boy and old man as they ice-fish for sculpins, and later observing Thomasine's lesson in seal butchering, Collardey offers evidence that this know-how is at least as important as reading and writing.
There's no sense of entitlement about the genial Anders, but for all his sincerity he can't help but occupy the preordained role of colonizer (Greenland is a self-governing constituent of Denmark). Mainly he's disappointed and lonely during his early weeks, expecting to be more readily welcomed into the life of the village. Collardey captures the gradual thaw on both sides of the equation, with Anders learning the language and how to drive a sled, and the villagers eventually sharing not just their card games with him, but their rituals.
Collardey handles DP duties as well as directing, and, with assists from drone footage, captures the stark white-and-blue expanse of the world of Tiniteqilaaq and the startling abundance of its hard-earned springtime, when, amid the explosion of wildflowers, the winter's caskets can at last be buried.
Gradually and affectingly, the director reveals a personal conflict at the heart of the story that lends it further dimension. Early in the film we see the displeasure of Anders' father, a farmer, over his son's plans to work in what he considers a backward country. Later, Anders explains to a Tunumiit hunter the pressures and expectations he's trying to escape. "You Danes," the hunter responds, "are so complicated." For many Western viewers, that simple exchange will resonate long after the movie ends.
Production companies: Geko Films, France 3 Cinéma
Director: Samuel Collardey
Screenwriters: Catherine Paillé, Samuel Collardey
Producer: Grégoire Debailly
Director of photography: Samuel Collardey
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Composer: Erwann Chandon
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition)
In Danish and Greenlandic