You are first struck by the sweeping drones shots of devastatingly beautiful landscapes in Nicholas Jones’ A Greenlander only for those stunning visuals to be surpassed by the extraordinary story of the man in front of the camera. A documentary which only came to fruition through the sheer perseverance and determination of Jones who, after a series of barely conceivable setbacks, found his magnetic subject and was able to turn his dedicated legwork into a tangible project. The making of A Greenlander could itself be a film, after an initial failed attempt to crack the almost impenetrable surface of the locals and land, Jones went through several iterations of the film before concentrating on the life of Pierre André Auzias. His impassioned battle to stay in his beloved Greenland is tenderly captured and through Jones’ considered cinematography we witness the passionate care and love he has for his chosen home and the pack of dogs who are his constant companions. Ahead of today’s DN premiere, we spoke to Jones about how a chance encounter at the ends of the world with filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer renewed his sense of vigour in finding the right story to tell, an unfortunate sojourn with a violent and deluded so-called local and exactly how many seconds your hands can handle being out of their gloves before frostbite sets in when fiddling with filming equipment.
How did you find yourself filming in the remote, harsh conditions of Uummannaq?
The film’s initial concept was completely different, I originally planned to meet indigenous hunters to discuss fairly well-trodden ideas such as climate change, overfishing and globalisation. They were the loose threads I followed but I was always open to whatever I came across. With that in mind I went to East Greenland in search of Walrus hunters near the ice edge. This was a complete disaster as I spent nearly two weeks alone in a settlement where nobody spoke English and on the occasions I managed to go out with a hunter I had to pay $150 for the time. I returned home and put it to bed for a year before reaching out to a Danish photographer who I knew had experience in Greenland. I just put faith in my ability to find an interesting story and headed there, via a flight to Iceland, a flight from Iceland to East Greenland, another flight across Greenland to the west and then a series of short helicopter rides and then finally the last spot on a narwhal spotting marine biologists plane. Then I met Pierre over dinner and felt completely taken by him and his story.
Did you struggle to pick the film up again after the disappointment of that first effort?
It’s not really in my nature to give up, so I spent many months trying to find a way to get back. While researching the project, I discovered that photographer Carsten Egevang worked as a fixer in Greenland. I wrote to him out of curiosity, and he called me back the same day. Whilst speaking, we both realised it would not be possible to pay Carsten as a fixer, so the conversation instead moved to stories of Greenland. Carsten has been travelling to Greenland for over a decade and has unbeatable stories and images; we spoke for over an hour. Toward the end of the conversation, he casually told me about his next assignment, photographing Greenland shark hunters in Uummannaq. Carsten sensed my excitement and invited me to join. As he had already paid for his accommodation and set the fixed rate he would pay the hunters, he said I could tag along if I contributed something toward what he had already paid.
After you had planned out a form and vague narrative for the initial concept, did you go into the second attempt with a specific story in mind?
Filming Greenland shark hunters appealed to me because I saw its connection with climate change, overfishing and globalisation. I was not interested in making a film solely about these issues, but I did want to meet the fishermen and communities involved. One of my favourite documentaries is Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog. Herzog’s ability to focus on the unique people living at McMurdo Station Antarctica rather than the scientific research is where the power of the film lies. I thought that the shark hunters would take me into a similarly unknown world and allow me to meet a similar collection of dreamers, outcasts and artists living in the high Arctic.
So how did a documentary about shark hunters transform into a film about a dog-sledging French Painter desperate to stay in the place he considers home?
The first trip to the West coast of Greenland was incredible but, at the same time, a little frustrating. When we arrived, we met a guy who I’ll call Bob to keep his anonymity. Bob presented himself as a man from Greenland, wearing polar bear kamiks (trousers) and a necklace fashioned from narwhal and very quickly informed me his mother was from Greenland. So in my mind, here was a guy with authority drip-feeding me cultural nourishment about Greenland. Bob briefed us about our trip and the likelihood of catching the shark, and he introduced us to the two local hunters with whom he spoke in Greenlandic. With 14 dogs pulling each sledge, we set off for a five-day ice expedition to hunt Greenland sharks with two local hunters, Carsten, Bob and I.
Despite having incredible footage, I had no shark or story. I also had Bob in his polar bear trousers in over half the shots.
We dug out fishing holes, slept in a hunter’s cabin and melted drinking water from icebergs. In the end, we didn’t catch the elusive Greenland shark, but it was a fantastic experience, and I shot plenty of striking footage. Bob was an excellent host, he didn’t have the same level of expert control of the dogs or whip as the hunters, but he organised a memorable trip. If I wanted to make a tourism film about Greenland, he would be the guy to contact. As I was trying to make a documentary, I felt a bit cheated when back in the settlement, Bob told me it was in fact his stepmother, who was from Greenland, therefore making Bob 100% Danish. He then let slip that neither he nor the hunters had ever tried to catch a Greenland shark. So despite having incredible footage, I had no shark or story. I also had Bob in his polar bear trousers in over half the shots.
Upon returning to Uummannaq, we went for dinner with Pierre André Auzias and Annie, his then partner. Over dinner, Pierre entertained us with stories of his multiple previous lives. At eighteen, he was a lead ballet dancer in Paris; he then took up sailing and embarked upon solo voyages across the Atlantic until settling down to become the official painter for the Royal Danish Navy. I instantly felt a strong connection with Pierre, something I had rarely felt before. I understood his desire to live in Greenland, similar to my obsession to be there and make a film. I left Pierre behind and travelled further north to Qaanaaq with Carsten and a team of marine biologists taking part in the biological survey spotting narwhal and beluga whales.
Qaanaaq, at 77º North, is one of the most northern settlements in the world. I left Carsten and connected with a hunter who spoke some English, and we agreed on a price for the expedition. We set out, and immediately, I noticed this hunter had almost no control over his dogs. They were terrified of him. I sat behind him on a dog sled for eight miserable hours, endured his screaming and beating of the dogs, and, in one final act of aggression, witnessed him biting a chunk of a dog’s ear off. He then declared the weather too bad to continue and pulled up the sledge at the nearest hunter’s cabin. These cabins are basic wooden shelters to take refuge in. The storm didn’t pass for three days, so we sat and waited whilst the friendly tour guide played ACDC on repeat. The weather eventually cleared, and after a morning of target practice, we set off. He quickly pulled the dogs up after spotting seals on the ice, but they heard his approach and dashed back down their holes to the safety of the sea. He then walked back, blamed the dogs, and gave them all a hell of a beating. I couldn’t handle the prospect of another two days of this, so I asked to return to the settlement.
I met a super friendly American guy called Joshua and his partner over breakfast who were interested in what I was doing in Qaanaaq. I proudly exclaimed I was a documentary filmmaker but not having too much luck. He then told me he was also a documentary filmmaker, and his name was Joshua Oppenheimer! Nothing like meeting an Oscar-nominated filmmaker to drive home a disappointment. But once my imposter syndrome calmed it was really nice chatting to him over breakfast for those few days at the top of the world. He spoke about his film, The Act of Killing and how it took him nearly 10 years to make and also how despite coming to Qaanaaq for many years he was still struggling to find the film’s shape. I took a great deal of encouragement from this chance encounter.
Carsten returned, and I hitched a lift back to Ilulissat via a tiny twin-engine plane; the pilot also gave me a stint flying over the ice cap where I saw pods of beluga whale and narwhal migrating south between the cracked ice sheets. At the end of this trip to Greenland, I didn’t feel the loss as painfully as the first trip. Despite not having any footage that could be shaped into a film I was able to reflect upon what I had experienced, both mentally and physically. The idea of Pierre taking the central role in a documentary was growing and we had in fact started corresponding whilst I was in Qaanaaq.
What was your approach when following Pierre and how were you able to draw out his story from him?
Pierre was open to sharing his life with me, and we kept communicating after I returned to the UK. Eventually, he invited me back with the offer of free accommodation in exchange for some teaching time at the local high school. Whilst meeting Pierre for the second time, his whole story erupted. He received a letter from the Danish authorities telling him to leave the country due to his citizenship status. His partner Annie was the town doctor for sixteen years, and as she had now retired and planned to go, Pierre had to apply for the right to stay in the country. He eventually got his answer from the Danish authorities; they said he alone didn’t contribute enough financially and therefore told him he had to leave. Pierre had a complicated relationship with Denmark, his daughter lives in Denmark, and he knows the Royal Danish family. He was also desperate to stay in Greenland and therefore was reluctant to do anything that could threaten his chance to live in Greenland.
I didn’t put any pressure on Pierre to participate in the film. Over the few weeks I spent with him, we shared many adventures on the ice and developed a friendship which eventually led to a level of trust. He finally understood why I wanted to film him and gave me complete access and, even in the most delicate states, would allow the filming to continue.
You have to respect the environment, accidents happen and there is limited medical assistance in such a remote setting.
How did you physically and practically find filming in such remote and raw conditions?
The filming was relatively straightforward; from a logistic point of view, you must research the proper clothing and ensure your equipment is up to the job. Filming in temperatures as low as -40ºc was a challenge, as frostbite is always possible. Primarily when operating the camera, even taking your gloves off for a minute can cause problems. You have to respect the environment, accidents happen, and there is limited medical assistance in such a remote setting. In the summer, the sea is so cold that you have about two minutes where you can swim before seizing up and drowning. I witnessed the insanity of a whale hunt first-hand. When a whale is spotted, all the men in the town take their boats out and, whilst driving at incredible speeds, try and blast the whale with shotguns. There are many fatalities each year because of this.
On one occasion, I followed a hunter onto an iceberg, but instead of following his trail, I walked adjacent to him to get the shot I wanted. When I had the footage I needed, I walked straight toward him, but as I approached, I noticed, at the last minute, a large crack in the powder-covered ice. I managed a slight jump with all my gear, avoiding the crack, but as I landed, my legs went through the ice, and I ended up waist-deep submerged in the snow; I managed to pull myself forward and climb out, revealing a 90ft drop into an ice cave. I was lucky.
The shots you captured of Greenland and the landscape around Uummannaq are breathtaking, what gear did you have out there with you to achieve those?
I only used a Sony FS7 camera and a DJI Mavic Drone. As the temperature was often -40ºc, I created a battery vest which I wore under my clothes and rigged a power cable down my sleeve into the camera. The other factor to consider was condensation. When filming at extremely low temperatures, the lens would fog up if you went inside a warmer space. So, I just left my camera outside the entire time. It seemed to work fine. The drone was a lot harder to deal with. I would keep the batteries warm and then, at the last minute, run outside and set it off. Usually, it would last about four minutes before the batteries would die, it would crash onto the ice, and I would then have to retrieve it.
After four minutes of shooting, I realised I couldn’t move my fingers. I had the early stages of frostbite.
On one occasion, I wanted a shot of Pierre travelling back on the dog sledge, but he told me stopping would be impossible as the dogs would not wait for me. I decided to take my chances and jumped off the sledge, some 8km from home. When I tried to set the drone up, my phone ran out of battery. I put the frozen phone under my armpit to try and resurrect it. It came back to life, but I had to take my outer pair of gloves off to operate the drone. After four minutes of shooting, I realised I couldn’t move my fingers. I had the early stages of frostbite. I then had to walk for nearly 2 hours with all my equipment only to realise that the card had malfunctioned and only recorded a low-resolution cache version.
How much footage did you shoot across your various trips and how did you arrive at the film’s ‘long short’ running time?
I wanted to film as much of Pierre as possible. The second trip coincided with his departure date, so everything on that trip would be vital. He was packing away 18 years of life in Greenland in front of me as I stayed at his atelier. I especially wanted to film Pierre reading his letter from the Danish authorities telling him he had to leave. This took some convincing as he was worried it would harm his position to fight for the right to stay.
I had way too much footage, over 3 TB. I initially thought this film would be a feature film, but in the end, it ended up being a 36-minute short film, on the long side of a short film. I just got to the point in the edit where I felt it sat comfortably and decided to stick with it. I always thought its length would hurt its chances on the festival circuit, and I’m pretty sure that had it been less than 20 minutes, it might have gotten into more festivals, but I was happy with the final version.
What adventures await you next?
I just returned from Georgia, where I took part in Caucasus cinema, an incredible travelling film workshop where I made three short films in as many weeks. I am currently editing a short horror film I made in Ireland called A Prayer to St Jude, which I want to develop into a feature film.
Pierre also got in touch last week with an image of a boat he has his eye on which is currently docked in Norway. He seems pretty confident about buying the boat, and then in 2023, sailing to Greenland, he has invited me to join him. I’m now trying to work on something that could fit that story. It will most likely be a fictional version of his life; we will film the solo crossing up past Iceland and onto Greenland. Pierre made a previous crossing and told me stories of Orca barging the boat, massive storms and the thousands of spinner dolphins that travelled with him after the storm. The images will be stunning. I am writing the script and seeking funding to make the film possible. Pierre will be 70 next year, he is talking about this journey as his last voyage at sea. If I am lucky enough to share this journey, I think there could be a beautiful film to accompany it.