Film Review: ‘Village at the End of the World’


Having already screened to receptive audiences at last year’s London Film Festival, Sarah Gavron’s Village at the End of the World (2012) hits UK cinemas this week, and celebrates the hardy inhabitants of Niaqornat – a tiny community located in the furthest reaches of Northern Greenland. Faced with long winters and cool, bracing summers, the people of Niaqornat face a daily struggle to thrive so close to the Arctic Circle, with a dwindling population a sign of just how difficult life has become for those who remain. Yet, whilst Gavron rightly lauds such heroics, there is a sense that we’re merely observing, rather than scrutinising, the issues at hand.

Concentrating on several villagers – ranging from bored, hormonal teenage shopkeeper Lars to Niaqornat’s charming oldest resident, Annie – Gavron’s film focuses firmly on the human narrative of life in the freezer. Divided into seasonal chapters, Village at the End of the World begins in spring before descending into the dark embrace of winter, with daylight a distant memory for several frosty months. All the while life goes on, with the ocean’s sealife bounty offering both fish and seal meat for hungry stomachs. However, when the village’s fish factory is put under threat through lack of local government support, the people unite to preserve their modest, yet deeply traditional communal existence.

Comparisons can certainly be drawn between Gavron’s latest and Werner Herzog’s excellent 2010 doc Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. Whilst Niaqornat is undoubtedly far more developed than the tiny Siberian outpost of Bakhta, depicted in the latter, both scattered remnants rely almost wholly on the natural world to provide their daily sustenance. With only occasional visits from passing merchant vessels, Niaqornat is now ever more reliant on tourism to provide for its populace, leading to the unavoidably sad sight of proud locals hawking goods to ignorant Europeans. One such holidaymaker appears astounded and even humbled that this ancient way of life still persists; he obviously didn’t see the televisions, computers and DVD players that adorn most households.

Despite a relaxed filmmaking style and some truly jaw-dropping visuals, Gavron seems unwilling to dwell too long in the company of harsh reality. Unlike Herzog, there’s little evocation of the true hardship that faces some of Niaqornat’s more fragile inhabitants. References to local suicides during the dark winter months are made by a timid Lars, but brushed over almost as quickly as they’re mentioned. This unavoidably detracts from what could have been an exceptional documentary. What we get instead with Village at the End of the World is a well-made and well-intentioned postcard from Greenland – albeit with the tougher elements omitted.

Daniel Green