Interview with ThuleTuvalu’s director, Matthias von Gunten

For the MESYM Documentary Night #21 we’ll screen ThuleTuvalu, a film featuring the people living in Thule, the northernmost city in Greenland, and Tuvalu, a remote pacific island state. Whereas in Thule the ice is melting, Tuvalu is slowly drowning in the rising sea. Thus Thule and Tuvalu, even though far away from each other, are intimately related due to climate change.

After watching the film, we will have a Skype Q&A with the film director, Matthias von Gunten. To understand more about the film, I have copied an interview with Matthias, taken from the film’s press kit. The event will be a very cool opportunity for everyone to connect with the film director, so come join us!

Interview with Matthias von Gunten

Matthias von Gunten, in selecting Greenland and the island state of Tuvalu, you chose locations for your new documentary film that were isolated not just from your native Europe but in an absolute sense. What was the original cinematic idea for «ThuleTuvalu»?
Most of all it was the insane image that these two extremely isolated places are what you might call physically linked – given that ice melting at one of them corresponds to sealevel rise at the other. I could almost see this system of «communicating pipes» and imagined, when thinking of the people of Thule and Tuvalu, that global patterns were crystallising in this enthralling microcosm.

A documentary could hardly hope to be more global than «ThuleTuvalu», given its locations of Greenland‘s northernmost inhabited area and the most endangered and smallest island state of the Pacific Ocean. Was it these extremes that fascinated you?
Yes, that truly was something that stimulated me: the antipodes of Thule and Tuvalu combined certainly stands for something approaching the whole world. I imagined all the time that these two so distant locations would make it possible for me to make tangible what you might call the weight of the world. But I suppose that the incredible dimensions of the Earth, ones that long haul flights give some impression of, are such as cannot really be made perceptible to the senses through cinema.

Matthias von Gunten

Matthias von Gunten

How did you research and prepare for filming, given the obvious climatic and cultural challenges?
My principal was: go look, experience and react to what you come across. Another form of research would not have been possible. That doesn‘t mean I didn‘t prepare. I read, searched for addresses in the Internet, made contacts, watched films… But it was plain to me that things would take their own course anyway. Without this openness and sense that I would find solutions on location, I would have despaired and given up beforehand. But I had significant experience from shooting abroad in the past: regardless of where you go, you meet people and you can always essentially understand them. That sounds terribly banal, I know, but to me it is an extremely important insight that gives me confidence to go anywhere and come to an understanding with people.

The protagonists, many of whom speak no English, seem to trust you. How were you able to establish this trust and intimacy?
I think the most important prerequisites are sufficient time, a credible interest in people, and a willingness to reveal oneself. And that was doubtless decisive here. I went to both locations three times before we started shooting, so that I could get to know the people and they me. It’s also important that they should see that one understands their situation, that one can enter into their mindset. It’s this that established the trust that was essential to this film – after all, it wasn’t supposed to be a theme-specific or specialist film, but rather one that lives exclusively from its people and characters. Winning people’s trust is something very unspectacular and natural, it doesn’t involve any tricks. And if one’s interest is not genuine, it doesn’t work.

In terms of equipment, what requires attention when filming in the humid tropics of Tuvalu and in the minus temperatures of Thule’s Arctic climate?
We had astonishing few technical problems. Nothing rusted in Tuvalu despite the damp and salty air, at no time did the electronics grow tarnished – although of course we took extremely good care. We knew of the possible problems in the Arctic in advance – particularly that of going into a warm room carrying a cold camera. We naturally made a lot of tests so we knew that a given tripod would only turn smoothly in the cold if a particular lubricant had been applied. The worst problem was the short battery life in the cold. But we had a system involving the cameramen keeping the batteries against his body. I don’t think we had a single large-scale interruption due to technical problems. Though it’s true to say that cameras are surprisingly robust these days.



What size was your crew in Tuvalu and in Thule (and Qaanaaq) and why?
We only ever travelled as a three-man team: me, the cameraman and the soundman. This proved to be the ideal size. I didn’t want a conspicuous, large team at such sensitive locations. Being a threesome made us very flexible, and if we were also somewhat slower, this corresponded to the rhythms of the locations. Another important factor is the composition of personalities. Pierre Mennel and Valentino Vigniti brought along very good attitudes, and I was certain that with the two of them I could undertake an adventure consisting of many unfamiliar situations. In this I was one hundred percent vindicated.

What was the nicest surprise and what was the largest problem you ran into in Tuvalu and in Thule?
The largest problem at both locations was approaching the theme of progressive change without forcing people’s hands or instrumentalising them. Their lives aren’t just about this matter: over and above it they must come to terms with daily life and maintain a positive attitude. Furthermore, these changes aren’t spectacular at first sight. A really tentative approach was required so as to make tangible, alongside these people, the factors they’re exposed to. But this is part and parcel of directing, and, let it be noted, my colleagues worked fantastically beside me to take people as they found them. The nicest surprise for me was at the end of shooting in Qaanaaq, when Rasmus came up to me, gave me a small polar bear he himself had carved from bone, then hugged me. I was just so happy.

«ThuleTuvalu» includes almost no voice-over commentary. Was this a conceptual decision?
It wasn’t planned that way. For a long time I wanted to include a first-person text, but it proved more disruptive than worthwhile. Every time we included a voice it seemed that there was one person too many – what does he want now? The film only started to work when we relied entirely on our protagonists and didn’t try to force them excessively into some kind of mental or contextual concept. So I’m glad: there’s nothing better, as far as I’m concerned, then making the people you represent as interesting and lifelike as possible.

How long did the editing phase of the film last, and what were the main questions regarding the dramaturgical process?
Editing easily took a year, with interruptions, and was nothing but misery. For a long time I simply couldn’t see how the film could be made to work. The greatest difficulty was finding a balance between the purely cultural and human-interest aspect, and the context in which these people find themselves. If one only shows their lives, it becomes an entirely ethnographic film. If everything is seen through the lens of climate change, it soon becomes boring. Finding the right proportions here was the greatest challenge.

Will the inhabitants of Tuvalu and Thule have the chance to see your film (or have they already)?
They will certainly see the film, the question is only whether as a DVD or whether I will go there myself. In both cases, personal presentation would be the best thing. But given the shipping timetable, this would mean a stopover in Nanumea of at least four weeks, making for a round trip of at least six weeks. In Qaanaaq it would take around ten days. So in total it’s quite a time-consuming expedition, and moreover I don’t even know how interested they are likely to be. These are both cultures that principally focus on tangible day-to-day factors relating to survival. To them, filmed material is of a very secondary importance.

In «ThuleTuvalu» you evoke the question of mankind’s end. Is there no hope for Thule, for Tuvalu, or for any of us?
I don’t think I’m evoking the question of mankind’s end. It’s more a matter of an unbelievable and unprecedented transformation: we are changing the entire planet through global warming, and by so doing altering the manner of life of countless people. It interests me primarily in cultural terms. What does this say about us, and what are the consequences? Thule and Tuvalu, as they are today, will disappear in the foreseeable future, it would seem. And moreover, people will live entirely differently – the people of Tuvalu elsewhere, too. If developments to be seen at both locations continue, then one of the consequences will be that ever more people live the same or similar lives. Everything is moving towards our Western, developed, technological lifestyle. I’m not condemning this, but it makes me somewhat melancholy. This doesn’t, however, affect the hopes of people of Thule or Tuvalu or everyone else’s. I have faith in everybody’s ability to work towards finding good solutions for him or herself.

On consulting your filmography, it is apparent that several of your films feature anthropological and existential issues – these are most pertinent in «Big Bang» and «Ein Zufall im Paradies» (Coincidence in Paradise), the former addressing the creation of the world, the latter that of mankind. Is it fair to say that «Thule- Tuvalu» is a sort of continuation of this thematic thread?
I’ve never thought of it that way. Those two films focus on philosophical questions which, together with scientists, I attempted to incorporate into cinematic action. In this film I am primarily interested in the «condition humaine»: «ThuleTuvalu » is to me a fantastic departing point to report on people, their experiences their thoughts and their feelings within the insane context of global warming.

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