Out in the Cold: Sarah Gavron on Village at the End of the World

Sarah Gavron and cinematographer David Katznelson take their camera to a dying community on the icy fringes of the arctic circle for this extraordinary doc. We spoke to Gavron

Feature by Chris Buckle | 18 Feb 2013
  • Village at the End of the World

Best known for her works of fiction – from BAFTA-winning TV drama This Little Life to 2007’s Brick LaneVillage at the End of the World sees director Sarah Gavron take on the role of documentarian, filming the inhabitants of a tiny Inuit community in northern Greenland as they try to restore their economic fortunes and halt the outflux of villagers seeking work elsewhere. We spoke to Gavron about the project’s origins, and the complexities involved in bringing the community’s story to screen.

Where did the initial idea to film in remote Greenland come from?
Well, my husband [cinematographer David Katznelson] is Danish, and he’d been to Greenland and made a documentary there some years ago [Arctic Crime and Punishment (2002)]. He was really keen for me to go there with him, so we went there on an adventure with half an eye on making a film together. We ended up visiting a few tiny hamlets, and I was immediately drawn to them – it was just a world apart from anything I’d ever encountered before. When we went to Niaqornat, which is the village that we focus on, we were greeted by Illannguaq [the sewage collector in the film] who was the only one who spoke English. He was really our way in – he explained the whole mechanics of the village, and we spent time there and were made welcome. So after that first trip we thought 'perhaps there is a story here – one that tells of a traditional way of life fighting for survival, which will connect, perhaps, with a global narrative of small communities all over the world fighting for their existence’.

What was the shoot like?
Well, it was all about going back and forth and spending quite a lot of time there. It was a very tiny crew – there was me doing sound and directing, and David looking through the camera. Sometimes I had to stand back and it was just him with the camera and mic, alone – it sort of depended on the situation. So it was a very reduced crew, and quite difficult circumstances – you know, filming in the dark because they have perpetual darkness in winter, [and] filming in very freezing conditions…

How long did the editing take?
It took an enormous amount of time. Something that I hadn’t really anticipated is that if you film in a foreign language, which I’d never done, then you’ve got the added job of translating – and [it’s] a language that no one in England speaks, so it wasn’t like we could find a translator here! There were people in Copenhagen who came across and sat in the edit suite and went through [the footage with us], and that was enormously time-consuming, finding the little nuggets within the interviews.

Do you think that your work as a fiction filmmaker has influenced the documentary’s style?
I think as a fiction director I find it very important to constantly observe the real world and life around you, because in a way you’re trying to create truth – you know, what would someone do if they’re told that piece of news, how will they respond, will they cry, will they laugh. So I’m really obsessed with observing how people respond to things… And I suppose in documentaries you’ve got the truth laid before you, so you’re just capturing what’s there. In documentaries, if someone shows emotion, you obviously believe them, [whereas] in fiction you have to work hard to create those moments. So it’s kind of a different muscle in lots of ways, but obviously one does feed into the other.

Village at the End of the World screens at GFF 2013
19 Feb - Cineworld 17 @ 18.45
20 Feb - Cineworld 17 @ 16.30

Village at the End of the World is released nationwide 10 May by Dogwoof