On the edge: How Greenland's Inuit village of Niaqornat is fighting for survival

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With a dwindling population and the modern world encroaching, Niaqornat, one of Greenland’s most remote settlements, was on the verge of extinction when Sarah Gavron first ventured there. Yet the film-maker found a village prepared to fight for its survival.

The idea for Village at the End of the World came about in 2009. My husband David and I had just had our second child and I was waiting for scripts for a couple of fiction films I was developing. He's a cinematographer and he had this idea of us all going to Greenland to visit some of the old hunting communities there, with only a vague thought that there might be a film in it – so we set off on this adventure that turned out to be our first research trip.

I hadn't been to Greenland before, though David had – he grew up in Copenhagen and from early childhood, he wanted to be an explorer; he'd actually crossed the inland ice on an expedition and done an Arctic Marathon. For me, though, it was quite a challenge suddenly to be plunged into this place where nature rules.

We visited a few hamlets before we ended up in Niaqornat, an Inuit village on the Nuussuaq peninsula, in the west of the country. It is one of Greenland's northernmost and smallest settlements: dogs outnumber people. There were probably 15 houses in total: brightly coloured, Danish flat-pack buildings which they'd had since the 1950s. Nobody owns land in Greenland, so none had gardens, though nothing grows there anyway: it has this surreal, lunar landscape.

The sea is the only natural resource in terms of food, while the village shop sold whatever it got from the supply ship, which came every few weeks between May and December. There are no roads, so you can only get in and out by helicopter or boat (for some of the year); if the weather's bad, you can be stuck for several weeks.

We initially spent three weeks there; at that point we thought we'd go back to London, talk to some producers and try to raise some money to return. We felt there had been a lot of nature documentaries about that part of the world, but not a lot about the people living there. And Niaqornat particularly seemed to offer a heightened version of a story being played out across the world about traditional communities' struggle for survival and their attempts to renegotiate their identity in the face of modern life.

When we first arrived, the village was on the verge of extinction. There were 59 people living there, and there was this magic number of 50 that people talked about: various government ministers had said that if the population fell below that, they'd stop the subsidies to Niaqornat and relocate people. It was a very real danger: soon after we got there, a family of five moved to the nearest town, as the father found work in a supermarket.

One of the main problems was the closure of the fish factory a few years previously; it had been the villagers' main source of income, and since then, they had been struggling to make a living. The fishermen were having to sail 100km just to sell their fish, which was not sustainable.

And you could feel the effects of global warming on their way of life very tangibly, of course. There was a huge scar in the ground where the glacier had receded, and during the time we were there, the villagers weren't able to go hunting across the ice with their dogs, as they were accustomed to doing, because it was too unstable.

When it came to filming, we ended up doing five big trips there over the course of a year and a half, starting in the summer of 2009 and ending in the autumn of 2010. Our experiences were very much shaped by the extreme Arctic seasons: in summer, during the perpetual daylight, it was great, because you could film whenever you wanted. And we were surrounded by icebergs, some as big as k tower blocks, moving around and cracking and crashing against each other, which was beautiful: it feels as if you're in some giant, living sculpture park.

Winter and the perpetual darkness was much harder for us, because the rhythm of life becomes much slower and everyone stays inside. It definitely affects people's moods: they have a word for the depression that they get during the dark period. They used to have storytellers to entertain people and bring them together in the gloom but now, with the arrival of TV, that doesn't happen any more.

We took our two children, Noah and Lily, on three of the trips. Noah was only eight months old the first time around and Lily was four. I remember arriving for the first time in the helicopter with Noah screaming and wondering: what am I doing? But although there were challenges – I'd think, "It's time for his daily nap, except I'm out on a hunt with him sitting on my lap" – they really got into the whole experience. And Greenlandic culture is very welcoming of kids, so though I often think children are anti-film-making devices, in this instance it was the opposite.

A man called Ilannguaq was our route into village life. He was the first person to greet us when we first got off the helicopter; we assumed he was the mayor, but in fact he was the sewage collector. He was the only outsider there, and the only person who spoke Danish and English; he grew up in a larger town in the south of Greenland, and moved to Niaqornat after meeting someone from there on the internet. He took a punt and visited her, and it was love at first sight. Then he got married and took this job that no one else wanted, which was collecting everyone's bucket toilets. But, by virtue of having to go into everyone's houses and deal with them intimately, it meant he knew everyone terribly well.

One of the other characters we quickly decided to focus on was a 17-year-old named Lars. He was the only teenager in Niaqornat, but although on the face of it there was nothing for someone of his age there, he was managing to live this whole virtual life through the internet: the connection was quite intermittent, but when they did have it, he was busy making friends on Facebook. He had 200 when we first got there, and 300 by the end.

At the same time, he didn't want to be a hunter, which put him on the outside of the community because that was the expectation for men there. He felt very loyal and connected to the society but he just wanted to forge his own path. Adolescence is always an intriguing moment in life, when someone's trying to define themselves, but he also seemed to best exemplify that aspect of the story which was about the collision between the old and the new.

The villagers were incredibly resilient with regards to all the challenges they faced. For example, Ane, the oldest woman in the village at 79, said that even if everyone else moved, she would just stay there. When we first arrived, we went to a meeting in which they discussed how to go about saving themselves. They'd already started encouraging tourism – Ilannguaq had negotiated for cruise ships to visit and organised a tourism group to lay on a show by wearing traditional dress and the like – but they knew that was not enough and they needed to do something dramatic.

They came up with a number of scenarios to try to get the fish factory opened again; in the end they realised that no one was going to save the factory for them so they decided to raise the money themselves and run it as a co-operative. The villagers don't have a lot of spare cash, so it was a big gamble, but finally, after a year of negotiation with Royal Greenland, the company which owned it, they did manage to buy and re-open it; we had imagined the ending to the film might be a lot bleaker, so we were obviously delighted. I found it really humbling, and a reminder of how people can enable change with some get up and go. In the UK, we're often so apathetic about our environment and working together as a community by comparison.

I think the impression our trips made on Lily will last for ever. Every day, she would go to school with the other nine children in the village, sit at the back and absorb it all, even though she couldn't understand the language. And then, after class, she'd run around with the other kids; it was such a free existence for her, and she became part of the gang. She tried reindeer meat and embraced all the different aspects of the culture. I remember we had a party for Noah's second birthday there. A hunter turned up and gave Noah a claw of a polar bear, which he had shot after it tried to wander into the shop. So, after that, Lily presumed that was a typical birthday gift!

I think it's easy to hold on to this romantic hope that communities such as Niaqornat won't change, because we're in this world where progress is unstoppable, and they're a link to some idealised past. But I don't think it's as simple as that: after all, then you're saying that it's bad for people to seek out further education and the like. There was one moment when we were filming some tourists and this man was telling us how he hoped this world wouldn't change and then, simultaneously, a little local girl appeared playing with a laptop which she had been given for her first day of school. It was such a great juxtaposition.

We still get lots of news about Niaqornat – mostly from Ilannguaq, who calls us whenever anything special happens, such as a big storm, or his daughter's first day at school. And Lars is a very active Facebooker, so he'll rate his mood or post who he's in love with. He's applied to college in the nearest town, Uummannaq, which only has about 1,000 people but it's got cars and a few bars, so it's more lively – and he's also found a girlfriend.

I believe the village is prospering at the moment: population-wise, I suspect it will be teetering over 60 now. Karl, the mayor, was saying that the party which has just got into power in Greenland, the social democrats Siumut, is very pro-traditions, and Karl himself actually stood in the elections and is an MP now – which means, ironically, he'll be leaving the community to help preserve it.

Part of me wonders, if we were to go back in 10 years, would the village still be there? Or will the effects of climate change and globalisation have taken their toll? Knowing the characters in the village that I do, I think it's a possibility it will survive longer than most. I can absolutely see why someone such as Lars would want to have a more diverse existence and it's difficult for places such as Niaqornat to exist, because providing certain levels of education and healthcare is costly for a tiny number of people like that. But at the same time, I think it would be a tragedy to lose this way of life. And it doesn't take much to lose it: you just need one generation not to learn how to go on a seal hunt and you've lost the entire tradition for ever.

As told to Hugh Montgomery. 'Village at the End of the World' is released in cinemas from 10 May (villageattheendoftheworld.com)

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