But what about people who live in perpetual darkness for months at a time?
In the documentary Light Chaser, which premiered in December, we meet people living near the North Pole, across two different settlements, who share the same fascination with the limited light.
First, there are the residents of Longyearbyen, a small town in Norway with a population of around 2,000. As the world’s northernmost permanent settlement, there is little room for living and dying in Longyearbyen. In fact, it’s illegal to die there, since corpses are unable to decompose in the Arctic cold.
All of Longyearbyen’s residents are mere visitors to the icy land. That includes 90-year-old Freya, who first moved to Longyearbyen 50 years ago, but has decided to leave the town.
“Everyone has the freedom to choose the life they want … just like how I came here all those years ago, now I choose to leave. Because I will have a better life elsewhere,” she says in the documentary.
Other interesting characters featured in Light Chasers include a Swedish musician who loves collecting sounds, a couple who has been running a dog farm for decades, and a printmaker enamored with chasing the first ray of sunshine.
Olaf, the printmaker, has been living in Longyearbyen for 30 years. Where many saw a harsh winter and a barren vastness, he saw the scenery he had always wanted.
“Blue is the most beautiful color here. Blue represents communication of the soul. This is also the Longyearbyen way of life — communicating with the heart,” says Olaf.
Every year, tourists flock to Longyearbyen, drawn to its mystical sights and extreme conditions. Olaf is not quite welcoming to these visitors, who he feels are disrupting the tranquility of his beloved town. But he is also solemnly aware that, amid the majesty of nature, he’s also an uninvited guest.
Further north, in the town of Ny-Alesund, live a group of about 30 researchers. One of them is space physics researcher Liu Yang, a member of China’s Arctic expedition team stationed at the Yellow River Station, China’s North Pole research station. To observe the polar environment, he spends 120 nights alone in the dark polar wilderness, beneath the enigmatic northern lights.
Ny-Alesund houses an international congregation of polar research stations. In this “research village,” phones are prohibited due to the use of highly sensitive radio telescopes. If you want to chat with someone, you’d have to do it face-to-face.
For these researchers, the job is ultimately a lonely endeavor, having to complete their individual research missions in an extreme, foreign land. But amid the cold, dark wilderness, and one another’s warm company, they have also forged truly special friendships.
Indeed, according to Lu Wu, the producer of Light Chaser, at the heart of the documentary is the idea of “warmth.” The laidback lifestyle in Ny-Alesund and Longyearbyen is something that has perhaps disappeared from fast-paced modern society.
“Longyearbyen is a Shangri-la,” said Lu. “This is what modern people are looking for. They live their lives in their own way, with little material desire.”
And in a place where the sun doesn’t rise for months, light is all the more sacred. After all, without extreme darkness, how do you truly appreciate sheer joy from a ray of light?
Under the enigmatic northern lights in the polar wilderness, human loneliness and mortal fears seem to be instantly diminished.
“The most basic human instinct is a longing for light,” said Lu.
Light Chaser was a finalist at the 2020 China (Guangzhou) International Documentary Festival.
In partnership with Real Image Media Collection.