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“Everyone is a little depressed,” admits one of the residents of Longyearbyen, the remote town profiled in Darren Mann’s entertaining documentary recently given its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs. And they have a right to be, given that Longyearbyen — the northernmost town in the world, located north of Norway and some 300 miles from the North Pole — endures three months of total darkness as well as similar periods of 24-hour sun, and the temperature can reach 40 degrees below. Oh, did I mention that its roughly 2,200 citizens are outnumbered by polar bears? It’s no wonder many of them turn to drink.
But they prove to be charmingly eccentric company in This Cold Life, which plays like an extreme version of Norther Exposure in its profiles of several of the town and nearby area’s residents. One of them, Sasha, practically deserves a film all to himself. He’s the sole inhabitant of Pyramiden, a formerly thriving Russian coal mining outpost. But when the industry collapsed, it essentially became a ghost, and guest, town, with Sasha conducting tours for intrepid tourists and living in an abandoned hotel. He also pines for his girlfriend who dumped him, and would desperately like to find another, although his situation makes the odds rather daunting. He’s seen leading visitors through such desolate local landmarks as a lavish arts-and-sports center and an elementary school, the latter of which he describes as “the saddest building here.”
In Longyearbyen proper, the film introduces us to such inhabitants as Linda, one of the few female miners, who is as hard-drinking as any of the men; Leif, the long-serving pastor who officiates services at a church decorated with a stuffed polar bear; and Jim, who lives in a remote cabin away from everybody else because he needs his “alone time.” Other figures include the owner — and his sole employee — of the town brewery, and a female dog breeder who relocated from Australia and loves her new vocation training canines to lead dogsleds. There’s also the middle-aged female proprietor of a hotel/restaurant whose décor includes a lavish collection of animal penises. As she laments not yet being able to display a reindeer sample, we see a close-up shot of a reindeer that seems to have a very nervous expression on his face.
Although generally lighthearted in tone, This Cold Life touches on some serious themes, such as an account of an avalanche that killed two of the residents including a 2-year-old child, and the increasing effects of global warming that threaten its very existence.
If the film succeeds in attracting an audience, it may very well drive up the tourism that this remote town so desperately needs. At least as shown here, it seems like a pretty cool (pun intended) place to visit.
Production companies: AllEdge Entertainment, Mann-made Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Darren Mann
Producers: Douglas Blush, Denise F. Bohdan, Christian Johnston, Darren Man
Executive producers: Alexandra Johnes, Ian Orefice
Director of photography: Eric Thompson
Editors: Darren Mann, Jeff Schaum
Venue: Hot Docs