The Loneliness of the Village at the End of the World
The "village at the end of the world" – Niaqornat, Greenland.
In Niaqornat, Greenland, every morning a man collects buckets full of his neighbors’ shit, which he loads into a wheelbarrow and dumps into a designated pit. He does this because the small village has no sewage system. In fact, its infrastructure is so minimal that when its residents need to commute they do so via a government-contracted Huey helicopter, while a supply ship brings in additional goods every now and then. The only teenager in town messes around on Google Earth, listens to Greenlandic rap songs about suicide, and crafts tupilaqs out of angst.
The 59 Inuit residents of Niaqornat have months of perpetual darkness or perpetual daylight and are so cut off from the rest of the world you'd think life would be relatively simple. However, modernity, with all its attendant problems, is starting to seep in. The socio-economic issues that are plaguing Greenland as a whole—like teenage suicide and unemployment—are already having an effect on life here. Meanwhile, climate change is no myth for the villagers of Niaqornat, but one fact is changing the way they live: the Greenlandic ice sheet is melting, and it’s directly affecting their hunting practices and livelihood.
Last year, director Sarah Gavron and cinematographer David Katznelson visited this tiny hamlet and made a documentary centered on the collision between the old and the new, and the villagers’ struggle with climate change and government policies. The film is called Village at the End of the World. I wanted to find out more, so I gave Sarah a call.
VICE: One of the main focuses of your documentary is the government-backed closure of the only fish factory in Niaqornat, which is vital to the village's survival. Does the Greenland government ultimately want to shut down the villages?
Sarah Gavron: It’s not as explicit as that—it’s not an official policy. In fact, they have recently gotten a new government, which is more supportive of the traditional communities. But the villages are expensive. They need subsidies to survive. There is talk that the government, unofficially, is kind of starving out small villages—if they fall below a certain number of people, they stop giving them subsidies and supply ships. The struggle to reopen the fish factory certainly didn’t help the villagers, but it's essential to their economy.
Lars, the only teenager in the village.
These subsidies you mention, are they Danish or Greenlandic?
The Danish government gives Greenland a certain amount of subsidies, and Greenland chooses how to distribute them to villages. So, yes, there is money coming from Denmark.
Was Niaqornat affected by the 2009 EU legislation banning the trade of seal products?
Yes, certainly. They were very affected by the quotas on all fronts, in terms of catching whales and seals. The hunters are against those quotas because they limit and change their livelihood. The feeling in the village is that there are people who overhunt but not in these tiny communities. These communities are really sustenance hunters; they catch what they need. And the one seal that they catch each year—that has lived free all of its life—they use every bit of. And, as they say, “Should they be shipping in battery chickens or should they be catching that one seal that they use every bit of?” So, the quotas haven’t helped them. In my perspective, they aren’t necessary for such small communities doing as little hunting as they are.
The only teenager in town, Lars, doesn’t necessarily want to preserve the traditions. Do you attribute this restlessness solely to the internet? And do you think the internet is a positive or negative influence on them?
There are two sides to the argument. I think Lars, as a character, would have chosen to leave anyway; he’s somebody who doesn’t want to be a hunter, and in that community you have to belong, you have to continue the tradition, otherwise there’s not much purpose in you being there. It’s difficult for him. I think the internet, in some ways, broadens the villagers’ horizons. They certainly used the internet in the campaign to open the fish factory. They were communicating with politicians and the people who ran the fish factory and it was useful. But, obviously it’s drawing Lars away, and adding to the demise of those communities. So you could look at it as a positive and a negative thing. It’s a reality of the modern world, and they have to work out how it’s going to affect them.
Ilannguaq, the local sewage collector.
In one scene, a tourist from a cruise ship who visit the island makes a haughty remark about inbreeding. Is there any truth to that?
It’s a question that outsiders ask, since Niaqornat is a small community. The truth is there are about two major families in the village and a few extra people, and when they meet new people they go off to other villages. They’re aware of having to expand the gene pool. So it is an issue for them. For Lars, there are no women of his age in the village. He does have to go farther afield if he wants to meet someone.
Is status solely based on hunting skills? I found it interesting that, even though he’s presumably the most educated among them, Ilannguaq, the sewage collector, has the worst job. Is it because he’s an outsider?
As you say, he came to the village from outside; the job was available and he offered to do it. He’s not a hunter, and in that village you either hunt or there are very few jobs: there’s one job in the grocery shop, there’s the school teacher, the village administrator, the sewage collector, and that’s it. There’s not a class system, but traditionally the hunter is chief of the village.
Greenland has a high rate of unemployment and alcoholism. Obviously, unemployment is a primary element of your documentary, but what about alcoholism?
In Greenland, certainly, there are very big alcohol and suicide issues. But in villages like Niaqornat people operate in a healthy way. Lars talks about suicide at one point because there was that one person in the village who killed himself. So the issue has affected him.
How much does the climate change and the melting of the Greenlandic ice sheet affect their livelihood?
What’s interesting about going there is that the signs are very obvious. Some years are hotter, some years are colder, but generally, the trend is that it’s warming up each year, and the ice is getting thinner and thinner. It’s melting and it’s not replacing itself as it used to, the glacier is receeding. And that has consequences for the community: they have to adapt their hunting ways. For example, the year we were there, they couldn’t use their sledge dogs to go hunting, because the ice was so thin. Also, Greenland is sitting on lots of minerals and oil potentially, which, if taken out will lead to further melting of the ice. It’s a complex situation, but there is no doubt climate change is happening. It’s the result of us polluting the world, not them. There’s a kind of circularity to it, and an irony there.
On climate change no longer being a theory, Inuit politician Aqqaluk Lynge said, “What happens in the world happens first in the Arctic.” It sounds romantic, but it is a sad fact.
Yes, it is like the barometer of the world.
Follow Esra on Twitter: @esragurmen
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