Melting glaciers, Metallica, and the Arctic.
Expedition to the End of the World is an adventure documentary filmed aboard the Activ, an Arctic schooner that set sail in Northeast Greenland with a crew of artists, philosophers, and scientists. Greenland is an enormous country, but also the least populated in the world. The film showcases the great island’s icy beauty, its towering glaciers and lonely blank horizon.
The characters on board are akin to caricatures, referred to merely as “the geochemist” or “the artist.” Each crewmember has his or her own specialty, but each is there for an indistinct purpose: to observe, to experience, to ask existential questions. The expedition has no formal goals. Everyone is mixed together in a hodge-podge of expertise. These artists and scientists venture into the landscape, and are struck by its immensity and power—but as one crewmember puts it, “what we are really struck by, is ourselves.”
The documentary is not without glimpses of climate change. We see that glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and the end of the world is a popular topic of conversation among the group. Humans are changing the earth’s environment faster than we can adapt to it—so how much longer will we persist?
I spoke with director Daniel Dencik and producer Michael Haslund about the connection between science and art, how they chose the music of Metallica for their film, and why the death of the human race shouldn’t worry us too much.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold How was the crew selected for this expedition? And how did you two come across the opportunity to film it?
Michael Haslund I knew the captain from years ago, and he invited me to come on the ship. He had been working for a year to select one artist and one scientist. Then, these people invited three people each. The crew just escalated as people kept adding their friends—people who had done something challenging before, and who were not too specific with their needs but ready to be observant and share things. Also people who could benefit from the journey.
Daniel Dencik I was invited by Michael very late, one or two months before we set sail. I was so happy to be in Greenland—it’s a rare opportunity. My main role was to choose who would be in the film. It was actually three teams, each consisting of about fifteen persons. So I had between forty or forty-five people to choose from. The trick was to narrow it down to the nine most interesting and significant characters. It was like casting, only done afterwards.
AJG Both artists and scientists were invited on the expedition. Why do you think the intersection of art and science is important?
MH The whole project came from the ideas of the seventeenth century, where art and science were very closely related and people were actually taking advantage of other ways of thinking and experiencing things. Everything now is very divided and specialized. So it’s back to the roots of how to have a dialogue.
DD I think even Columbus had artists on board. He had actors and people who could mime on his ship. It’s quite an old idea, that when you go into a new territory you should bring both the people who know most and are most representative of humankind. So it’s almost a natural idea to have artists and scientists mix.
AJG At one point in the film an artist says he feels like a clown next to the scientists—that they know how things work and he doesn't. Another says, “the thing the artist is best at is not knowing.”
DD I think it’s true. They are not knowing in a very skillful way. They are not ignorant; they are just like children. That is a core ideal for the film—to be childish, to just go out into nature and explore, see what you find, as though you were a five-year-old.
AJG You need that childlike wonder and curiosity.
DD Yeah, and also to not be afraid, just being totally curious and open.
AJG In other documentaries of people traveling to remote places similar to Greenland, like Antarctica, you see everyone wearing matching red coats—standard gear when they arrive on the continent. This expedition looks a little less uniform, more slipshod somehow. People were wearing different clothes, hanging out, napping on the deck of the boat. Was it a relaxed trip, rather than one with a rigorous schedule?
MH That was a rule of the production design—that all these flashy colors, they were not welcome. The reason all these bright colorful matching clothes are worn is to be better seen in nature. We wanted the opposite: we wanted to blend in.
DD Because so alone, we had no one else to relate to. We couldn’t scare anyone or be recognized by anyone. It’s a different story in the Antarctic where there are a lot of other researchers. We were totally isolated, and that made it more anarchic. We could just do whatever we wanted. I liked that it was a romantic idea—people just coming as they are, even in an extraordinary environment.
MH The choices made were not those of an institution, as is normally the case in scientific research. Here the crew was selected personally.
AJG So there aren’t many other researchers in Greenland?
DD Not in this area, in the northeast. It’s the biggest National Park in the world, and you can’t go there without a special invitation. It’s an area the size of California and Texas put together. There were maybe twenty-eight other people there.
AJG The geologist says they began thinking about the trip without a clearly defined goal, as an opportunity, and they wanted to see where it would take them. How did this kind of trip get funding without a clear research purpose?
MH Most of the sailing was funded by a dead philanthropist who was in the sailing industry. He set up a great fund for extreme, crazy sailing projects. Such a person is rare. Most of the scientists were funded by their institutions, in the sense that they could go and bring instruments. As for ourselves, we financed the film after shooting. And it became more like a fiction film. Normally documentaries do not know what they will achieve, but with us, we made the whole project possible through development, then after the shooting was done we got funding for the post-production.
AJG The film has a fairy tale quality. It's shot in very moody light. And the Activ looks more like a pirate ship than a heavy research vessel or ice-breaker. The movie doesn’t seem like a travel doc, but rather like an art film. Was this kind of fantastical aesthetic a choice?
DD In the beginning, I was almost a little annoyed with the ship. We were worried it was not like a nuclear-powered submarine, because that would have made the trip seem more significant. But when we were shooting it turned out to be a great advantage, harkening back to that romantic notion of extraordinary people traveling to extraordinary places on Earth. I didn’t think of it before, but now I see the soul of the film is the ship.
MH I’ve been in Greenland many times before. Photography is a very difficult way of telling of the greatness of its really powerful nature. You rarely see images of this power that you can see when you’re actually there. We had to bring back the best quality images.We could have gone with very limited technology, things you’re able to carry in a pocket, but then you get small pictures that are not representative of nature’s intensity. Most of the scenes we shot were collected like pearls on a string.
AJG I've seen documentaries about glaciers and grand landscapes complimented by classical music, but never Metallica. Why choose metal?
DD When I was on the ship, Daniel Richter, the German artist, put on Slayer one morning. It was unexpected. And I kind of liked that. I’m a metalhead myself; I went to Metallica concerts some twenty years ago. While editing, it made sense to keep it in there. The film is like a portrait of humanity, in a sense. Like a postcard from the earth, saying “this is the state we’re in right now.” Any powerful human expression would fit into that. Metallica is another powerful human expression. We screened the film for Bjork, and we had an interesting discussion about whether electronic music is human enough.
AJG What did Bjork think of the film?
DD I think she really liked it. She said it was a film about “post-humanism.” It’s a film that shows how small we are and what it might look like when we are not here anymore.
AJG We see glaciers melting in the film and hints of global warming. Rising sea levels are discussed on board. There's lots of talk among the crewmembers about the eventual decline of the human race—our species dying off. When and how do you think this might happen?
MH We actually divided the shooting into three different sections: the origins of life, the end of civilization, and the future. That was the ground rule of shooting. Daniel, you should talk about how you got saved.
DD Well, I was really obsessing about the end of the world before going to Greenland. I want to make a film about the end of civilization and the end of everything. Immediately, I confronted the scientists with this notion that it’s gonna end, it’s gonna heat up and everything will melt. But they kept being in denial, I felt, about it—saying, No, no, we’re not that important. They had a very cynical optimism. After a few days, I joined them. I was, in a way, cured of my pessimism. I thought, maybe it will be the end of us, which is bad enough, but life will continue after we’re gone. The world will continue.
I think we’re in the position where we could change things. We know what’s wrong, and we know, basically, how to fix it. The dinosaurs never knew anything. Right now, the two dominant species on Earth are humans and ants. It’s like 25% humans and 25% ants at this stage. We’re very similar! But it’s a megalomaniac thought that we can destroy the earth, like with a nuclear war. It wouldn’t. It would just take another hundred years and life would reappear.
MH On the trip, you come to realize that time is not measured in human lifetimes. Time is suddenly 3.5 billion years. If you think about the earth and the conditions of time, it comes into natural perspective—that it’s all happened many times before. A human lifetime is really very short.
DD Now Michael and I are preparing our next film, and I’m reading all this literature from the nineteenth century. They were really obsessing over global freezing. They were sure everything would end, the sun would diminish, and it would be a cold death. Now, we’re obsessing about the other end of the spectrum. Both notions are wrong because we are so near-sighted. The fluctuations that we see, we consider them huge. But they are not so huge.
AJG So you guys came to terms with our insignificance in the grand scheme of things?
DD Yeah, but not in a nihilistic way. I think there’s every reason to act. But yes, I came to terms with the fact that we’re not that important. But we’re important enough! This is all we have.
AJG What were the conditions like on board? How did the artists bear up under conditions they might not have been used to?
MH If we did it again, it would be nice to have a small boat on the side of the big boat where you could go when you’ve done a day’s work. It’s hard for everybody. You see so much crap television, and people are infected by it. They tend to think of film people as always having a psychological scam up their sleeve. People never know when you’re shooting. And it’s tough being in the same place, never being able to disappear.
AJG One of the crewmembers mentions Stendahl syndrome, which is when people go into a state of shock or physical sickness after being confronted with beauty in the natural world. Did you experience this sort of thing on board?
DD When the big iceberg collapsed, that was pretty much Stendahl for me. That was something you could never plan, with the rainbows going on at the same time. It was an amazing moment. Anyone who was there will always remember that moment. In one of the first screenings, last year in Switzerland, a woman went into a state of shock and an ambulance had to come get her out of the cinema.
MH It’s some heavy shit. You hear and you fantasize about it, but to actually get to go, in real time—it is powerful to be in these environments. It’s one of the major reasons to become a scientist. You’re able to actually go to these places for months at a time.
AJG I understand that when the film screens, scientists, philosophers, and climatologists will be invited to appear and speak with it in select cities around the country.
DD It’s like a cross-discipline, all the way around. That has been the greatest experience for me, to get into the minds of some of the most clever people on this planet. Especially Minik Rosing, the geologist. He will be in New York for the theatrical opening. That makes even more sense than Michael or I being there. I like that the film is living its own life, without us. Minik is much more important to listen to than us.
MH With this project everyone had jobs and opportunities, and things happened. But it’s not coordinated. We made the film, now it comes out and the scientists can use it for their own purposes. It shows how you can combine talent, which I think is one of the most interesting things about the project. You don’t pre-define what people should actually deliver, but give talent room to make things happen. Then you get great results. But today it’s rare that you can do these kind of things. People try to make everything into budgets and structures, then nothing really happens.
AJG I liked the scattered nature of the film: gathering a bunch of clever people with different capabilities and having them be in conversation in a new place they’re all experiencing for the first time.
DD If you watch a movie by Lars von Trier, you don’t so much debate it as a movie. More or less, it’s a generator for a debate on life. I like the fact that this film may also be that. It’s about the content, much more than whether it’s a film or a novel or whatever. It’s just a piece of work that’s put out there to make people open their minds.
MH I’ve never been traveling with so much brain capacity around me. So when I saw something, normally you would see with the eye and say, It’s beautiful. But if you see something with the knowledge of what is actually creating that phenomenon, how earth actually moved throughout thousands of years, how life came to be … it can inspire an audience and they can research on forever. We want to give them things they never thought about before.
Expedition to the End of the World screens at Film Forum from August 20th through 26th.
Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic and non-fiction writer. She has published arts writing with BOMB, Brooklyn Rail, and Syracuse.com.