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The View from Copenhagen
Michael Keldsen
The View from Copenhagen

Au revoir les Groenlandais

When French film met Greenland ...

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Greenland is a treat for anyone who likes to take pictures. Certain parts of the country are particularly photogenic thanks to the motives like snow, ice, crystal-clear water, spouting whales, diving seals and abandoned settlements.

For the most part, the pictures of Greenland’s beauty, its grandeur and its misery wind up in travellers’ photo albums, or on USB sticks or other forms of computer storage. Pictures taken by professionals end up as calendars, posters or even art.

Professional filmmakers have also found Greenland a worthwhile place to visit. I’m no film historian or critic, but I think I can speak for the average person with an interest in Greenland when I say that most would probably have seen (or heard of) Palos Brudefærd (The Wedding of Palo) (1934) or Qivitoq (1956).

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Others might also recall Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997). Danish audiences especially will be familiar with Lysets Hjerte (Heart of Light) (1998) and Eksperimentet (The Experiment) (2010). And what Danish child could ever forget the holiday classic Nissebanden i Grønland, a 24-episode TV advent calendar filmed in Greenland. First aired in 1989 it has been run five more times since.

There are also a number of truly Greenlandic films – that is to say films made, staring, financed by people in Greenland, or dealing with Greenlandic issues. The first film to be able to call itself completely Greenlandic was Nuummioq (2009). The next year also brought us Inuk. And in 2011 Qaqqat Alanngui (The Shadows of the Mountains), an immensely popular teen thriller, was released. More recently, Greenlandic directors have tried their hands at the horror genre with Unnuap Taarnerpaaffiani (When the Darkness Comes) (2014).

Rarer, but nevertheless interesting for their alternate view of Greenland, are films made by directors from outside of the Kingdom of Denmark.

If you’ve got Netflix (and who doesn’t these days) you can get your hands on the most recent of these, a 2016 French release titled Le Voyage au Groenland (Journey to Greenland).

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The film is about two young Parisian comedians who travel to Kullorsuaq, one of the country’s most remote settlements, in the hopes of finding the father of one of the two men, who has lived there for 20 years.

When they arrive, their preconceived notions about life in Greenland – alcohol abuse, poor internet connections, isolation – together with problems like language barrier and a colossally different lifestyle, trip them up. But, gradually, they begin to understand the culture and the people; they start hunting, the cheer when a polar bear is shot and they eat Greenlandic food. They even try to find romance. (Without luck, though.)

The film is unmistakably French; compared with Hollywood films, there is less action and the pace is slower and more cerebral. From time to time, the actors make inspired comments, but otherwise so little happens that there is less of a plot than a display of breath taking landscapes. Captured from a distance, Kullorsuaq looks almost idyllic. Zoom closer in, and you see things as they are: a place that is physically worn down, but whose residents are cheerful and welcoming.

Journey to Greenland makes no effort to depict the problems many of these people face in their daily lives, but, then again, that was never its point.

When it comes time to leave, the two Frenchmen do so, not with an ‘adieu’ but a ‘takuss’ (‘au revoir’).

The author is a Danish barrister and a columnist for Sermtisiaq newspaper, which is owned by this website’s parent company.