A startling new documentary shows how Inuit families’ lives are changing as their landscape melts. Etan Smallman reports
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Kate Bush probably thought she had cornered the market in describing ice crystals, with her 2011 song “50 Words for Snow” (they included eiderfalls, stellatundra, zebranivem, deamondi-pavlova and faloop’njoompoola).
But her crown may be about to be snatched by the makers of a poetic new documentary, whose haunting scenes of desolate icescapes could redefine how you see the Arctic.
From creeping close-ups of frosted ravines to soaring shots of glistening glaciers, The Last Igloo, a 90-minute film for BBC Four, makes a point of taking you across the frozen wasteland of east Greenland in as slow and meditative a fashion as it is possible to imagine.
Christian Collerton, director, producer and cameraman, describes it as “an antidote to the way normal television is made these days”.
“I think there’s a kind of insecurity where you front-load all the most exciting dramatic footage and really kind of over-crank a story. This requires you to pay attention.”
The stunning vistas – many recorded by state-of-the-art drones – are enhanced by immersive surround sound recording and an original score from Icelandic composer Biggi Hilmars.
The documentary follows the ancient lifestyle of Inuit hunter Julius Nielsen as he traverses the sea ice on his dog sled, before hacking holes into it to hunt for seal, and finally seeking shelter by constructing one of the oldest human dwellings – an igloo.
His people have always had to struggle against the elements, where temperatures of minus 20C are typical. “This is polar bear country. I can meet one at any time,” says the 40-year-old, as he inspects the gun he carries with him at all times. He casually mentions his brother, who disappeared while out hunting one day, never to be seen again.
But life for Nielsen has been getting steadily harder. The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth; Greenland’s ice sheet is melting at a rate of 270 billion tons a year.
The climate message is almost delivered incidentally, only two-thirds of the way into the film. The beauty of the landscape and the sensory impact of the soundscape come first, as you marvel at the ingenuity of both man and Mother Nature.
But the documentary begins to take on an elegiac quality as you realise that you are being given a glimpse into a habitat and way of life that is vanishing in our lifetime.
“When I was young, my whole world was frozen,” Nielsen muses. “I could travel to all the surrounding villages by dog sled. Now I can only reach some of these places by boat. Think about that. In the last 10 years the climate has gone crazy. That terrifies me.”
Collerton tells i that his subject was “in disgust, I suppose, at what the Western leaders are doing. The polar ice caps melting is a very abstract theory for somebody who lives in England or the US. But he sees it every day. His world is literally shrinking before his eyes.”
The extended scene in which Nielsen crafts his igloo is especially poignant. Apart from a spade, a sharp knife and a rope, all he needs to build his temporary home in as little as an hour is what his people call “pugaq”. However, as the climate warms, this special type of snow hardened by a strong wind from the ice sheet is in increasingly short supply.
As he nestles in his igloo boiling a piece of fish, Nielsen can protect himself from the deadly forces swirling around him. But he can do nothing about the greater peril posed by humanity beyond his icy shores.
Nielsen also expresses concern about the threat of technology to his family’s traditions and indigenous craft. His mother was born in a traditional turf house without electricity. His children huddle on the sofa playing games on smartphones. “It can consume young people,” he laments.
For Collerton, the most moving moment came at the end of the gruelling filming process, in which his main camera had seized up in the cold.
“Julius had built the igloo and we were filming the nightfall. Just as he was packing up, we looked up above the stars and there were these huge dancing sheets of blue and green, and the Northern Lights came out. I’d never seen them before.
“I think that in a film that is talking about climate change and nature and that is a visual poem to what is in many ways a dying way of life, I thought it felt quite fitting that nature should have the last word.”
Fast facts: Igloos
- Igloos are thought to be some of the oldest human dwellings.
- They are temporary winter homes or hunting-ground dwellings of Canadian and Greenland Inuit.
- The dimensions of igloos vary, but they generally accommodate a single family. An experienced igloo builder can create one from snow in around one to two hours. Earth, stone, and wood have also been used to construct igloos.
- Because snow is comprised of 90 to 95 per cent trapped air, it means it is a great insulator and the reason that igloos, which use only body heat to warm them, can be 100 degrees warmer inside than outside.