Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, is home to Longyearbyen, population 2,200, the northernmost city in the world. In the winter, several months pass without a single sunrise, and the temperature can fall to 40 below. It’s a special place, and although definitely not for everyone, it’s exactly right for some people. Darren Mann’s documentary This Cold Life explores the history and current situation of Svalbard and some of the people who live there. They prove to be a charming and articulate lot who are for the most part doing exactly what they want to do, but of course they are—who would want to watch a film that consisted primarily of interviews with boring and dysfunctional people?
Svalbard was used as a base for the whaling industry in the 17th and 18th centuries, and in more recent times was an important coal mining region. Some mining continues today, but not nearly as much as there used to be, and some of the interview subjects who used to work in coal mining now work in tourism. Others breed dogs, fly planes, conduct scientific research, write books, make art…so there’s a lot of diversity even within a small population. They all seem to be living good lives, with comfortable homes, attractive clothing, and the ability to direct their own fates, so if anyone in Svalbard is living in poverty, they didn’t make it on screen.
This Cold Life is more a collage of voices, images, anecdotes, and random facts than a structured narrative film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when the location is as beautiful as this one, and the subjects are such a varied and articulate lot. The interviewee that makes the strongest impression is Sasha, who leads tours in Pyramiden, a former coal town. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and concomitant changes in the Russian economy, the mines have closed and today Pyramiden is essentially a ghost town presided over by a bust of Lenin and the abandoned and rusting machinery of the coal industry. Sasha gives tours of the abandoned dormitories and recreation hall to what appear to be tourists eager to see something they haven’t seen before, and he loves performing for the camera, which this film gives him ample opportunity to do.
We also meet, among others, Mary Ann, who runs a bar/restaurant/hotel decorated with stuffed polar bears and animal penises (she doesn’t have a reindeer penis yet, but is hopeful for the future); Lara, who used to work in the fashion industry, now breeds and trains sled dogs, and notes that it hasn’t yet registered on her family that she has no intent of returning to the city; Linda, one of the few woman coal miners (she says beer is best enjoyed with a dash of coal dust); Leif, the local minister, who also writes books; Robert, a pilot who also runs a brewery; and Heidi, a PhD candidate in glaciology at UNIS, the University Centre in Svalbard.
Most of This Cold Life seems to have been shot in the summer time, but some clips of a winter storm (which included a deadly avalanche) remind you that this is not a region where you can afford to let your guard down. Several people speak of the “dark season,” when there is no sun for several months, as a strange and hard time, but others acknowledge that they welcome it as a time of calmness and quiet, and as the ideal time to indulge in a little healthy introspection.
Particularly in the beginning, This Cold Life tromps a little too hard on the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” factor—wow, people actually choose to live in this cold, isolated place!—and the early soundtrack creates a sense of impending doom that is at odds with the attitudes of the people interviewed. The film also fails to provide some vital context that would take the sting out of the gloom and doom title cards (example: “Svalbard is an archipelago in crisis. Its main job base, the coal industry, is going bankrupt, and climate change is a real threat to the region.”). In the United States, unemployment tends to lead directly to poverty and other threats to your quality of life, like no health insurance. Not so in the Scandinavian countries, where health care and other basics like access to education and decent housing are considered a right of citizenship. So while it may be too bad that some of these people may not get to work in the job of their choosing, in their favored location, chances are they’ll be perfectly fine no matter what happens in Svalbard. | SarahBoslaugh
This Cold Life will be screened at 7:30 pm on July 20, 21, and 22 in Winifred Moore Auditorium (470 E. Lockwood Ave, St. Louis, 63119) on the Webster campus. Tickets are $7 for the general public, $6 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $5 for Webster University staff and faculty, and free for Webster students with ID.