Whales, Polar Bears and More Dogs Than People at the End of the World

Few of us can say that they received a polar bear claw from a Greenlandic hunter for their first birthday.

Yet it seems magical things can happen in the Village at the End of the World.

The rather finite moniker refers to Niaqornat, a remote hamlet perched on a rocky outpost on the north-western coast of Greenland, the subject of a documentary by British filmmaker Sarah Gavron set to air at this month's 56th BFI London Film Festival.

The 42-year-old mother of two - her youngest child, Noah, was the recipient of the claw - charts the highs and lows of the 59-strong community that is outnumbered by dogs in an exploration of a culture that is not only working out a way to survive in a modern world beset by globalisation but also on the front line of climate change.

Sarah's film follows four villagers' lives in detail - Lars, the (only) teenager who spends his days on Facebook, wears a football shirt and dreams of going to New York; Karl, the huntsman who has never properly acknowledged that Lars is his son; Ilanngauq, the outsider who moved to Niaqornat after meeting his wife online and Annie, the elder who can recall a time when lights were fuelled by seal blubber. The synopsis reads like Eastenders on ice.

'We'd seen lots of nature documentaries but we hadn't seen the human story,' says Sarah, whose Danish husband David Katznelson (of Downton Abbey, no less) is responsible for the cinematography. 'The community fights to stay alive.'

Filmed over three years, Sarah and David made six trips to Greenland, taking their children Lily, now 8, and Noah, 4, on three of them.

Their experience sounds positively bohemian, the first foray when Lily and Noah were aged just four and eight months. 

There have been journeys of interconnecting flights, midday naps taken on laps in helicopters and more than a day's travel to get there. One boat ride was interrupted when the skipper downed tools to shoot a seal.

'We just had to go with the flow,' says Sarah, adding that they stocked up on medicines before they left and had to find replacements for the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables that only make their way to the village intermittently.

While many parents would balk at such rough and ready conditions, most would agree that having children very often bridges the divide between different cultures. 

'They were incredibly welcoming,' she says of the indigenous Inuit villagers, who showered Lily and Noah with attention and presented the polar bear claw as a birthday gift. Understandable, perhaps, when you learn that the local school has just eight children.

Sarah's two also relished the freedom to roam in safety, enjoying an outdoorsy lifestyle that featured regular whale spottings, seal sightings and reindeers. 

Niaqornat's villagers - traditionally nomadic - do not lock their doors and Sarah and her family took advantage of a local custom while embarking on a long walk that allows weary travellers to just pop in to the nearest house and enjoy refreshment and a nap. 

'They have been massively enriched,' she says of the children's experience. 'It was really magical for them. They're slightly obsessed with the Arctic now.'

The 'lunar-like' landscape clearly made a big impression on the family, too - icebergs the size of tower blocks, a midnight sun in summer that kept them 'wired' and winter weather that reminded Sarah that man is not really master of the universe at all.

'It's a place of extremes. Nature is so overwhelming you can't think for a minute that you are in control and there's something really elevating about that,' she says.

'The ice was the most extraordinary thing for me. It was like walking through a sculpture park. You feel like you're in the land of the explorers.'

The BFI London Film Festival (www.bfi.org.uk) takes place between October 10 and 21. Village at the End of the World screens on Thursday, October 18 at 8.30pm, VUE West End and Saturday, October 20 at 4pm, Mayfair Curzon.

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By Erin B 10/23/2012 08:46:00