Village at the End of the World: London Review

Village at the End of the World Film Still - H 2012
True stories from the frozen north.

Sarah Gavron's affectionate, engaging documentary centers on the residents of a remote Arctic backwater.

A heart-warming saga from the deep-frozen Far North, this charming Anglo-Danish documentary covers a year in the life of an isolated fishing community in northern Greenland. Making her nonfiction debut, British director Sarah Gavron is best known for her London-set literary adaptation Brick Lane, released in 2007.

It may be a subtitled snapshot of hard-scrabble existence on the icy fringes of civilization, but Village at the End of the World is a surprisingly universal and uplifting experience. A winning blend of human stories and ravishing Nordic landscapes, it premiered in competition at the London Film Festival last week. Future festival interest seems certain, followed by modest theatrical potential, although high-calibre TV documentary channels are probably its most likely final destination.

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The village in the title is Niaqornat, deep inside the Arctic Circle, a brightly hued cluster of Toytown wooden houses with just 59 inhabitants and seemingly bleak future prospects. With no jobs, the population is shrinking as teenagers and young families move away to seek work and excitement in larger towns. The local fish processing plant has shut down, while the village school has just seven students left.

Gavron’s film paints a portrait of this community through the interwoven lives of four residents. Affable, sensitive teenager Lars dreams of escape and romance. His biological father Karl, who has strangely never acknowledged his son despite living just minutes away, serves as local mayor when he is not hunting polar bears. Garbage collector and sewage engineer Ilanngauq is an Inuit outsider who relocated to Niaqornat after meeting his wife online. And Ane is a 76-year-old veteran who remembers the village before electricity arrived, when light came from burning whale blubber.

The narrative is a string of vignettes, often random and unrelated, but loosely yoked together by a couple of recurring threads. The first is the relentless cycle of the seasons, which this far north means long winters of near-permanent twilight and a frozen-solid ocean. The second is a collective plan to buy out the derelict fish factory and relaunch it as a locally owned co-operative. The arrival of a cruise ship, offering financial incentives for villagers prepared to role-play local customs and traditions for visiting tourists, also brings a bittersweet new business opportunity: the commercialization of folk culture.

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Devoid of voiceover or editorial commentary, besides a few explanatory captions, Village at the End of the World offers a humane but unsentimental picture of a backwater town in terminal decline. And yet it is oddly optimistic in tone, partly thanks to David Katznelson’s gorgeously cinematic landscape shots and a jaunty score by Jonas Colstrup and Max De Wardener, both of which sweeten the subtext of melancholy and gloom. Ultimately, as summer comes around again, the villagers strike a deal which lends this real-life ensemble drama a cautiously hopeful sense of closure. Not quite a Hollywood ending, but a welcome blast of sunshine after months of icy darkness.

Venue: London Film Festival screening, Oct. 18
Production companies: Met Film, Made In Copenhagen
Producer: Al Morrow
Director: Sarah Gavron
Cinematographer: David Katznelson
Editors: Hugh Williams, Russell Crockett, Jerry Rothwell
Music: Jonas Colstrup, Max De Wardener
Sales agent: Dogwoof
Rating TBC, 78 minutes