Director Sarah Gavron burst on the scene when she helmed the adaptation of novel Brick Lane but now she is turning her hand to documentary filmmaking.
Village At The End Of The World sees Gavron take audiences to the Arctic Circle to watch a tiny community that is struggling to survive.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about her new movie, the struggles she faced shooting it and what lies ahead.
- Village At The End Of The World is you new movie so can you tell me a little bit about the movie?
It is a film about a community in North West Greenland, it is in the Arctic Circle, and they are a community of fifty nine people that are struggling to survive in the face of the modern world; so in the face of climate change and economic pressures of the modern world. So many things are changing their lives such as social media, to name just one.
I went there with my husband, he is Danish and had grown up in Copenhagen near the statue of arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen and he had always wanted to go there. He had been there before we had met and we decided that we would take our young family there with half an eye on making a film - he is a cinematographer and I am a director.
So we bravely went off on this adventure to these tiny communities and we ended up in Niaqornat, where we based the film. We realised that there was a story there that was about traditional communities and they exist all over the world and are struggling to survive.
We found these particular characters and we focused on these four characters to tell the story - one of them was Lars a teenager.
- You have slightly touched on my next question really as I was wondering what it was you found when you got out there that you thought would make such a good movie? And what did you think of the way that they lived when you got there?
I actually realised when I got there that I knew very little about how they lived. They were a hunting community and they were catching everything they needed - nothing grew there and there was no running water - they lived off what they caught in the sea and the reindeer on land. It was such a contrast to the way that we live.
You could only get there by helicopter or boat. You have twenty four hours of daylight in the summer and twenty four hours of darkness in winter; it was just a place of extremes.
What made us think there was a story there was we met… documentaries rely on characters and we met Lars, the teenager and we met Ilanngauq, a sewage collector, and we met a hunter and we met this old woman Annie who could tell the old stories of the village.
So it was a combination of all those things that made us feel that each of those people exemplified a different part of that story of old meets new - that was at the heart of the story.
- How keen were they to let you into their lives and community? And what kind of relationship did you build with the community as you were filming?
They were very open - we went without children and they really are a very child friendly culture. One of the issues was language as they speak Greenlandic and David speaks Danish - some of them did speak Danish because they have had a history with the Danes for many years.
But they did let us in and they were very very kind. We held a meeting in the school after a few weeks of being there to talk to them about the idea of making this film. We told them that we would only film people who wanted to be in it and almost everyone agreed to be in it. And we formed some good relationships and we are keeping with Lars and Ilanngauq.
- You have mentioned already that this was a place of extremes as there are freezing conditions and in winter there is perpetual darkness so what was the shoot like and how long did you shoot for?
We shot over two years - the whole film from beginning to end was three years - and we followed their lives for about a year and a half.
What we ended up doing was going back on forth; we went on the first research trip for about three weeks and then we went back for a month in the summer, back in the winter and then back in the spring when the sea freezes over and then back again in the summer and back again in the winter (laughs).We went on five proper trips in the end.
It was challenging filming. In the daylight it was a filmmaker dream because you could be filming at two in the morning because we had light and no one would notice.
In the winter it was much more challenging because it was freezing and people would only go out very briefly and they were all covered up. What we did in the winter was tell the story of their past - apart from the fact that they caught a narwhal while we were there in the winter and we do show that.
But the winter was very much about the history of the village and the story tellers. It was full of challenges right down to what we ate for breakfast.
- I wanted to talk to you about the challenges of making this movie and what they were - if course there was the language barrier as you have mentioned already?
Yes the language barrier was the biggest because when you are making a documentary it is all about the relationship that you strike up with people through listening and learning what is important to them.
We worked with translators that we brought into the village. But there is no one that speak Greenlandic in England and so when we came back to edit we had to find translators from Copenhagen to bring over here.
It is this polysyllabic language and so entire ideas are represented in a single word and so it is very difficult to cut up because it so different from European languages in the way that it is structured.
That was definitely our biggest challenge - getting over the language barrier added hours and hours to the edit because we had to translate reams and reams in order to find the good bits.
- How difficult was the edit because you are balancing four different stories as well as looking at the past so how difficult was it to draw all of that together?
It was tricky. I have worked in fiction before where you have got a script before you begin and you know what you are doing so the edit really is all about finding the best performance and making it all flow. It is a very different process as you are not usually finding the story or the characters.
What I realised with this documentary is that the editing process is like the script writing process and you really are finding the story in the edit and that can go on for months and years (laughs). It did take us a while to find the shape of it; we did know that we were going to follow the seasons.
When we started filming we did not know that the story of the fish factory was going to be a story and we didn’t know Lars was going to leave at the end of the story - those two things gave it a shape in a way and were the narrative threads. So we very much discovered them as we went along.
- As you have said you made this movie with your husband David so how was that experience?
Well we have worked together before. We met at film school and we did a short and a feature length film for television together. It is good in a way as you have got a shorthand and I have noticed that a lot of documentary teams are partners or brothers and sisters.
In a way because it becomes such a labour of love and spread over such a long period of time it is helpful if you are with each other all of the time and you don’t have your separate lives (laughs) because you are going to end up with each other anyway.
It was also great to be able to do something that involved the kids because when we do fiction we can’t really take them with us as it is much less flexible.
- How have you found the response to the film so far?
Well it has been great so far - it is early days but we have done the London Film Festival and we have done some preview screenings and we have also showed it in a festival in the States and in Copenhagen.
What I really enjoy about it is that people laugh - there is some humour in it - and it makes me want to make an out and out comedy as there is nothing better than hearing an audience laugh. The other thing is it seems to resonate with people who seem to come from all walks of life.
Anybody who has connections with a small community seems to find parallels - an Israeli woman says that is reminded her of life on the Kibbutz when she was growing up. I find that exciting when across generations and cultures people make parallels and people connect to worlds that seem so alien initially.
- You are best known for your fiction feature Brick Lane so how did you find stepping into this very different genre of film?
I am going to do more fiction as fiction is a real passion for me. It really is like exercising a different muscle as it is very different.
But, on the other hand, when you are doing fiction it is very important to remain connected to the real world and how people really behave. I am a big observer of people whether I am on the tube or whatever to watch how people respond and behave so I can bring that into the fiction world. So making a documentary is nice reminder of what real life is like.
But it is also nice to make a film that touches on some issues that are important to people and change the way that people think. But it is very different and I definitely want to continue doing fiction as well because I really do love both forms.
- How do you feel that you experience as a fiction filmmaker helped as you became a documentary filmmaker?
I have thought about that and inevitably you are looking for stories and visual images that convey the premise of the film - here the premise really became the collision between new and old so whether it is the girl on a laptop but dressed in traditional clothing and those juxtapositions.
I have trained myself to think in visual images and how to construct stories. There are some constructed documentaries that do have a lot more to do with fiction such as Man On Wire and The Impostor but I think this is a world apart from fiction as it is very very different.
In fiction I am always looking for the truth and in a documentary you don’t have to do that because people are doing what they do and you are not controlling them or every aspect of the frame.
So I have to say that I find them quite unconnected in many ways - inevitably they are still visual storytelling and there are many overlaps and you are using camera and sound and all of those elements, but there are vast differences as well.
- This movie shows a community that lives a completely different live to anything that we understand or know so how were your perceptions changed during this process?
I think I expected to see a community that was more beleaguered by climate change - they were suffering from the effects of climate change in that they were changing their ways of hunting - but I expected that to be the only thing that was going on.
But there were many other issues for this community that I had not anticipated - social media for example with someone like Lars who is living a virtual life on the internet.
The biggest surprise for me was their determination to survive in the face of all that and their ingenuity, tenacity and wit that they weren’t downtrodden and really were fighting the fight.
They had the ability to change and in the year that we were there they radically changed their fortunes by opening the fish factory and encouraging people back into the village and changing the trend of people moving away. So that was exciting.
Also I was overwhelmed by nature and the powerful of nature - I grew up in London in the urban environment where you almost believe that you are in charge of the elements and you forget that nature is in charge.
And they had no doubt that they rely on the natural world but it was humbling to realise that they were looking at the sky all of the time and their lives were determined by that and it was a great reminder
- Finally what is next for you?
Well I am developing a few fiction projects and I am really really hoping that one will happen later this year. I am really excited as there are a few big ideas that I have got.
Village At The End of the World is released 10th May.