The Last Igloo

I’ve just seen a wonderful film about a hunter in East Greenland.   We meet no one but him.  His daughters are there at the beginning, but we don’t meet them and they don’t look up from their smart phones. 

This hunter doesn’t live in an igloo but a multi-storey construction of wood and cinder block, seen in passing as we root around for the sledge and its tackle among clothes lines in the semi-darkness of night or endless day.  I think we glimpse two large salted fish hanging upside down, but can’t be sure.

He has told us about padded trousers he puts on to go hunting but he still seems underdressed, without any kind of coat.  There are also no dogs, though I saw a pile of harnesses as he began pushing the long skinny sled laboriously up an incline.  The village is rectilinear with wide spaces between its parallel streets.  When the sky is lightening and we are well clear of the settlement, we see the first sign of dogs, a city of them, sleeping in the snow, strung loosely on lines like streets.

They make a complicated noise in a language we don’t speak.  Hooking them up requires a big coil of pale turquoise-green nylon rope (possibly not nylon, remembering a terrible story of nylon springing back with near-fatal results when stretched).  Once hitched to the sled, they aren’t tied in tight formation but loosely, and wander as they go (‘I wonder as I wander’ flits through my head).   Soon it is full day and there are strange bird cries and aerial views of the dogs who never get tangled and form fascinating irregular patterns on the snow.  Later in the day we see the hunter’s shadow reaching fifty times his height.  Much later we notice from the movement of his lips that the hunter makes all the bird-cries himself.

We aren’t told where we are going, but it feels very far from home, through trackless wastes of snow and dark rock.  When harnessing the dogs, Julius (the hunter, not that he ever has a name in his own narration, nor is there ever a word in any language but his) says dogs are intelligent but snow-mobiles are dumb. Dogs can warn of dangers, thin ice the greatest, which you intuit from their groupings, bunched or spread more thinly.  At the time the beautiful views of the dogs’ movements seen from above didn’t make me think of helicopters, whose awful din and tell-tale shadows have been suppressed if present.   They only burst into my mind when I heard a friend’s horrified response to the film, trampling he called it, a sign of our terrible intrusion into the remotest wildness.  I wondered whether drones might have done the job, even more sinister, if quieter, some would say.

At first this friend’s response made me guilty and irritable.  Wasn’t the filmmaker’s tact something special, no flashy successes for the hunter or the spies (us), no seal-kill, no polar bears, just the anecdote of the day the hunter’s brother never came back.  It had not crossed my mind to think how much The Last Igloo cost, which is to say how many support staff, how much preparation, how many shoots, how many journeys.  My friend is a film-maker as well as a guardian of the earth, whom I rightly admire, and he knows about these ramifications that films always conceal and want you to forget.   When I think about it I am grateful to him for making me think further than I had about how this structure, meaning this film, fits in the universe, in the history of the human presence on the earth and in the sequence of works of art aiming at the kind of authenticity it aims at.

The best parts are yet to come, the stringing of the seal-net under the ice, using three holes to throw your spear under water with the net attached from each point to the next until it is secured on the surface at all three.  This procedure is carried out in such detail that you could repeat it.  From a distance it seems like magic.  After the explanation, ingenuity and skill and less of the supernatural.   This is also the single point at which a cultural comparison sprang to mind, a Hemingway fishing story from In Our Time.   Like the father in the story, the Greenlander combines in his technique both the uncanny and the everyday.

A mystery accompanies every stage of the journey – the village, the seal-trap, the catfish well, the house-building.  Every time, the dogs have entirely disappeared from the scene of the action.  We are told they are ‘family’, one of the few sentimental touches in the film, sentimental because it is clearly not true.  They are not treated with pet-style friendliness or indulgence.  I don’t think they have individual names or personalities like the favourite dogs in Jack London.  They are kept away from the hunt itself and we can only guess why. 

I have puzzled over what to do with the film’s culmination which I want to keep hidden, as the film does, only springing it at the last minute, but need to emphasise, because it includes the essential point of the whole.  The Last Igloo ends with the construction of an igloo, formerly the shape that Greenlanders’ dwellings took, in the days when they were nomadic, a stage still strong in memory and recaptured in part any time a hunter goes on a hunt.  This is a guess, of course.  The film doesn’t say this, but allows a strong feeling to arise that Julius feels he re-enacts his people’s history whenever he goes out alone to hunt.

Now igloos in Greenland are not family dwellings but temporary shelters in special conditions – when threatened by an unforeseen storm which you might not survive unprotected, or when you have ended up too far from home to get back before nightfall. 

The film’s most satisfying ingenuity lies in making us feel, at least for a moment, that this has actually happened, that a storm has sprung up or is clearly brewing in signs a native would recognise, so there is just enough time to create cover before it breaks. Or – this alternative succeeds the other one – that we are too far from home to get back at a reasonable time and must resign ourselves to spending the night where we are.   In the first period we are still scanning the sky for signs of violent weather on the way.  In the second we are hoping the hunter has left enough time to build his tent before dark.

He has already told us that in good conditions he can construct an igloo in an hour, but this is hard to believe.  He starts by looking for the right kind of hard snow, cured by wind sweeping over it.   Then he makes flat blocks of the snow like plates or crispbread which don’t look strong but easily broken.  Next he ties a rope to a shovel, a move that doesn’t make sense at first.  He ties the rope to a post, around which he walks at a constant distance.  Then he tramples the snow in the resulting circle to make a trench in which he sets thicker blocks upright, trimming off lots of snow from all sides, provoking anxiety that they are dwindling.   Successive rows slope increasingly.  He has the geometry down to a T and cuts off triangular sections from each new block to fit it onto the one before.   Finally he throws loose snow against the inner wall then packs this layer down and a matching one outside.

There are many moments when the building blends completely with its surroundings.  You have stepped back — that is the secret of this invisibility — and the igloo has disappeared.  The light changes continually without your seeing it.  The snow is blue when viewed from inside, as the last two pieces are dropped in, rough half-circles, to close the dome. 

He has brought two candles and a cooking burner which blazes away against the side wall, as if we are daring it to melt the snow, which it has turned to ice and toughened in a mysterious way.  Further applications of snow will make it even stronger.

Lit up from inside, the invisible igloo is a glowing jewel visible from far away.  We abscond into the sky, leaving the igloo far below like a planet in a black sea.  It is the last moment before that culture disappears.  But this is not absolutely the last igloo; Julius will build others.  It was a brilliant simulacrum, not a real or necessary building, for he wasn’t really trapped by time or weather, but brought us very close to thinking so.  I don’t entirely enjoy remembering how much concealed trampling is required to bring about such raptures of loneliness in a world magically emptied of the human presence.  Yet I can’t unwish the film and cling to the memory of one place in the world, inside an igloo, where melting leads to strengthening.

The Last Igloo (2019, 89 min) is available on BBC iPlayer for 21 days from the date of this posting. A drone supervisor is mentioned in the credits, Julius does wear a coat outdoors most of the time and there are other small errors of recall (the shovel is itself the post for plotting the igloo’s circle, for instance), errors common in plot summaries when reviewers have seen their films only once.