Of Climate Change, Greenland, and the Kalaallit People

In Conversation with Yatri Niehaus, director of new documentary Stella Polaris Ulloriarsuaq

photo of directorPhoto courtesy of Stella Polaris Ulloriarsuaq

Stella Polaris Ulloriarsuaq had its world premiere at the 2017 LA Film Festival. In addition to stunning cinematography of Greenland, the documentary also explores how global warming affects the island’s Native people. By focusing on how climate change impacts human beings and their culture, Stella is distinct from other nonfiction eco-docs that zoom in more on the environment and wildlife, such as 2017’s The Penguin Counters, which concentrated on how a heating planet changes the lives of chinstrap penguins in Antarctica. 

Director Yatri Niehaus grew up in the Canary Islands, an autonomous region of Spain located off of the coast of Africa. His father was from Ghana, his mother from Germany. Previously, Niehaus wrote and helmed shorts, such as the 2012 Karim. Stella Polaris Ulloriarsuaq is his breakthrough directorial debut of a feature-length film. Niehaus discusses Stella Polaris Ulloriarsuaq and more in this exclusive interview.

Tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born and raised? Where did you study cinema? What other films have you’ve worked on?

I was born in Berlin, Germany, but grew up on small and beautiful island in the Atlantic, called La Gomera. It’s a great place to be as a kid, but as I grew older, it had its limitations. I studied directing at the University for Television and Film in Munich, Germany, and I’m now working on my thesis film. I live in Berlin, though. I’ve made a couple of short films at my school, but Stella Polaris is really my first film that I’m not keeping in the proverbial poison cabinet.

How did Stella Polaris Ulloriarsuaq come about?

Nomi Baumgartl, Sven Nieder, and Laali Lyberth had worked on Stella Polaris for a while before I came on board. Nomi had, after having worked on another Greenland-themed photo art project called Arctic Message, envisioned a photo art and film project for Stella Polaris. She was a long-time friend of the late Gerhard Pilz, who was a professor at my school and they had planned to involve students from the documentary class. Unfortunately he passed away before that could happen, and so they ended up asking students directly if someone would like to participate.

I didn’t know too much about the photo art project itself when I first heard about it. But the prospect of going on an adventure to Greenland intrigued me, so I applied. And since there was hardly any funding, it was unclear what would happen with the footage I shot. It was mostly planned to be an appendage for the exhibitions and the internet. But the minute I found myself on the Greenlandic ice sheet and started meeting all these wonderful people and hearing their stories I knew that I wanted to do more with this opportunity. One morning, the Greenlandic shaman Angaangaq [Angakkorsuaq] conducted a fire ceremony on top of a snowy mountain near Ilulissat. I was recording him as he chanted these ancient Greenlandic songs, massive icebergs surrounding us on the sea in front of us — that’s when I knew that this had to be a feature film.

Why did you want to make this film?

It all happened step by step. As I said, it wasn’t intended from the beginning to be a feature film. It was really the encounters with the locals — especially a lot of the elders, some who are in their eighties now — and the stories they told me that captured me. I had heard about a lot of different aspects of climate change and how it will be a problem for the rest of the world, but I had never heard anything about how it impacts the lives of those whose culture has been connected to the ice for millennia. Also, I’m a great admirer of nonverbal documentaries and this is a topic where nature itself can do a lot of the storytelling if we look and listen closely enough.

photo of stella polaris filmPhoto courtesy of Stella Polaris UlloriarsuaqStella Polaris Ulloriarsua, directed by Yatri Niehaus, is a beautiful exploration of how global warming is impacting the glaciers and people of Greenland. (Pictured above, Niehaus filming in Greenland.)

How long were you on location in Greenland?

I went to Greenland three times over the course of three years and spent about one month on location each time.

Other documentaries show how climate change is affecting wildlife. But your film focuses on how global warming is impacting the Native people of Greenland. How is it affecting the Kalaallit people and their ancestral way of life? How are they coping with climate change?

As with all stories, there are many different sides to this and it all depends who you ask. On the one hand, cultural loss seems inevitable. The ice, which has been the foundation for Greenlandic culture for millennia, is melting. Dogsled hunting, ice fishing, and shamanistic mythology are endangered by climate change as well as by changes within Greenlandic society towards a more modern lifestyle. So, those who still follow a more traditional way of life will view the changes as a loss. Economically, however, many opportunities may arise. Agriculture, mining, and much more are now becoming possible as Greenland might actually live up to its name after all.

How has Danish colonialism affected the Kalaallit people?

This is a very complex issue and since I’m not Greenlandic I can only relay what the people — especially the elders, who lived through that period — have told me. They say that during colonial times, both the Greenlanders and the Danish made mistakes. The Danish, determined to turn the new subjects of the Danish Crown into modern citizens, outlawed the Greenlanders’ nomadic lifestyle and forced them to relocate to high-rise buildings. Their native language, Kalaallisut, was forbidden. These are just two examples of how their culture, value system, and social structure were uprooted. Greenlandic politicians, eager to become connected to the rest of the world, tended to be concessive. While these upheavals may have created better living conditions and educational opportunities according to Danish standards, they also led to a profound national identity crisis. Alcohol, crime, and suicide became (and still are) a problem, as is sadly the case in many native communities around the world.

How have US military bases affected the Kalaallit people?

Greenland was cut off from Denmark during World War II, when the Germans occupied Denmark. That’s when the US began building air bases and continued to do so during the Cold War. Again, forced relocations of the native people were one outcome of this.

How are the Kalaallit people coping with colonialism and US militarism?

I don’t know that US militarism is on people’s minds more in Greenland than anywhere else — which is plenty. Since the end of the Cold War, Greenland is of lesser importance, militarily. Thule Air Base, way up north, is still operated by the US military and I think there is some kind of missile defense system in place there. They lost four nuclear bombs there in an accident a few years ago, which was not appreciated by anybody, at least by the Greenlanders. But they retrieved all of the bombs, allegedly. Some of the larger airports in Greenland were originally built by the US for their military and are now being used for civil aviation, which is the only way to get around in Greenland, really.

Today Greenlandic culture is a blending of traditional Inuit (Kalaallit) and Scandinavian culture and I perceived the Greenlanders’ relationship to Denmark and their colonial past as ambiguous. The aforementioned problems notwithstanding, I don’t think there are a lot of Greenlanders who would want to trade away the perks of being connected to the Internet, international travel, or modern education. Many feel strongly about their national and cultural heritage, however, and have been acting decisively to protect them in the last decades. They have managed to become a sovereign state, protect their waters from international fishing corporations, and are very aware that their Russian, European, and American neighbors are interested in the natural resources that are suspected to emerge below the melting ice sheet. Kalaallisut is being spoken by all the young people again and there is a growing interest in their pre-colonial past.

Tell us about the shaman Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq?

Angaangaq describes himself as a shaman, healer and storyteller. As such, he has become a spiritual guide for Greenlanders as well as people all over the world. His teachings are deeply rooted in the wisdom of the oral healing traditions of his people, which have been passed on to him by his family. Because he supported Stella Polaris Ulloriarsuaq since its inception, he has been an immense support to connect us with people in Greenland and all over the world. Angaangaq is very charismatic and has the gift of capturing people’s hearts immediately, so that helped. He also appears as a prominent figure in the film and has played a key role in the making of the photo art [for Nomi Baumgartl’s Greenland-themed photo art project called Arctic Message.]

What do your foresee happening to Greenland and its environment in the future due to global warming? What do you predict will be the fate of the Kalaallit people?

Climate change will cause the ecosystem in Greenland to undergo severe changes, putting many endemic species in danger of extinction. I can imagine, however, that Greenland will become a very interesting and prosperous place in the twentyfirst century. The climate might become comparable to that of yesterday’s northern Europe with warmer summers and less harsh winters. Newly accessible trade routes around the North Pole will have an impact on the economy. What natural resources may lie below the melting ice sheet can only be suspected at this point. 

I am hopeful that the Greenlanders, who I perceived to be very politically conscious and progressive, will be successful in profiting from those circumstances sustainably and curbing the negative effects as much as possible. But of course, the Greenlandic population today is only around 60,000 people, so immigration may become an issue as well.

Stella Polaris Ulloriarsuaq has stunning cinematography. Tell us about that. What kinds of cameras were used?

Thank you. I wanted to tell the story mostly through images and sound, and keep the spoken word at a bare minimum. So I tried working with the highest resolution and sharpest lenses wherever possible. The conditions were sometimes very harsh, the shooting locations remote and only accessible by foot and I mostly worked alone, without even a sound person or a camera assistant. I ended up shooting most of the film on a RED SCARLET [camera] in 4K [resolution], some of it on a Blackmagic Pocket [camera] and DSLRs [digital single-lens reflex] were used for time lapses. 

Tell us about the Northern Lights as seen in Greenland? 

The northern lights are probably the most fascinating natural phenomenon I’ve ever seen. I don’t think it’s really possible to capture them adequately on film, because they completely changed my spatial perception of the sky, which is hard to translate to 2D or even 3D film. Also, they are really hard to capture in real time, so I mostly shot time lapses, which don’t do justice to their veil-like movement. I encourage everyone who travels to put them on their things-to-see-before-I-die list.

What’s your next project? 

I’m back to fiction now, working on a mystery thriller set in the Sahara desert. The relationship between Man and nature will be at the center of it, which probably comes from my experiences of working on Stella Polaris.

Has your film been released in Greenland? Have Kalaallit people seen your documentary and if so, what has their response been? 

In the beginning of the year, the project finally returned home, when we had an exhibition of the photo art and several screenings of the film at the capital’s wonderful culture house Katuaq. We got tremendous response from the people who took part in the project and other locals, which was very rewarding. The film features a lot of landscapes and icebergs — I guess those were less interesting for the Greenlanders themselves since they literally have them in their backyard all the time.

What additional info would you like Earth Island Journal readers to know?

I guess what I’m attempting to convey with this film is that all the choices we make in life are in some way connected to even the farthest corners of the planet. This is true in the globalized world we live in today more than ever. And it’s especially true for us people in the industrialized world, who are the world’s greatest consumers of energy. It is our footprint more than anyone else’s that is driving climate change. The effects will mostly be felt by the children and grandchildren of those who have contributed the least to it. How do we justify that?

Where and how can viewers in America see Stella Polaris Ulloriarsuaq? 

We’re working on releasing the film globally through video on demand in the coming year. Whoever is interested can follow us on facebook.com/ulloriarsuaq for updates.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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