“If there’s a bright centre to the universe you’re on the planet it’s farthest from,” says the Star Wars Saga’s Luke Skywalker, and in so doing instantly becomes the patron saint for every teenager growing up in some remote suburban nowhere. Still, even Tatooine begins to look impressive compared to Niaqornat, a tiny village in the remote north-west of Greenland, and the subject of Sarah Gavron’s intimate slice-of-life documentary Village at the End of the World (2012). Boasting a rapidly shrinking population of just 59 windswept souls, the film unobtrusively follows the villagers through the course of a year.
As the sun goes down, the ice encroaches and the darkness descends, the villagers of Niaqornat also have to contend with the loss of another family for the town, the continued closure of the ageing fish factory and the possibility that their own village could become unsustainable. The inhabitants themselves are a mixed bunch. From Ilannguaq, the outsider whose job it is to empty the sewage to the avuncular school teacher, with his small class, who is dedicated to keeping the village culture alive. But local teenager Lars, with his authentic Liverpool FC top and posters, his 200 friends on Facebook and his immediate lack of prospects, seems like an obvious candidate to look elsewhere for his future.
Lars’ estranged father, Karl, is both the head of the village and the traditional hunter who will no doubt confuse many a liberal watching with his laudable and courageous attempts to maintain the life of the community – mixed with images of him proudly bringing home his dead prey, a polar bear and a pregnant whale. As the villagers attempt to form a cooperative in order to buy the factory and reopen it, they also improvise other ways of sustaining themselves, such as catering for the occasional boat load of tourists. Here, we have a toe-curling scene in which the tourists buy knick-knacks and wax lyrical about traditional values of village life, whilst at the same time barely able to contain their resentment at the subsidies the government must pay.
Gavron some beautiful shots and she captures them well, but the inhabitants – especially the young – have a limited future. “I want to work in the shop,” says one of the children, with her eye on Lars’ job. The teenagers dress up in their hip hop fashions, but their favourite pastime seems to be jumping off things. Part anthropological document and part elegy to a small resilient community, Village at the End of the World presents a beautiful portrait which bravely resists romanticising its subject. In truth, most would probably be happier on the helicopter with Lars.