In order to build an igloo, you need hard snow. They call it ‘Pugaq’ if you’re interested. And with the right conditions Julius can build one in an hour…
If, like me, you’ve ever tried to build an igloo in your garden using the meagre bit of British snowfall, you’ll know it takes more than an hour. It took me an entire afternoon and half of the next morning. Maybe if I’d watched Christian Collerton’s The Last Igloo at 12-years-old I’d have had more luck. Or maybe I wouldn’t have bothered at all because in rainy North Yorkshire there is a complete and enduring lack of Pugaq.
It’s hard to fully capture the beauty of Collerton’s 90-minute documentary. In refreshingly raw simplicity, the film follows a day in the life of a traditional Inuit hunter, Julius, as he hunts, fishes and, as the name suggests, eventually builds a traditional igloo. We watch as he kisses his family goodbye, attaches his dogs to his sled, and sets out into the breathtaking expanse of the Greenland icesheets.
At its heart this film is a stunningly intimate elegy to a dying way of life. The icesheets of Greenland are melting at an alarming rate and with that the Indigenous community are losing their ancient traditions and their land.
The film pores over every detail of Julius’s journey, from his footprints in the snow to individually carved blocks of ice. We are immersed in the frozen world of his ancestors. The slow and meditative nature of the film gorgeously reflects the reality of the Inuit way of life. With hypnotic visuals, we are teased with an escape to simpler times. I found myself hoping there wouldn’t be any mention of climate change. I didn’t want it to spoil the fantasy. But of course, there was – and rightly so.
Julius speaks of the reality of climate change with a stark frankness. He describes how his hunting season has gotten shorter every year, how he can now only reach certain places by boat: ‘In the last ten years the climate has gone crazy,’ he says. The climate is warming faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet and it is Julius’s community who feel this most deeply.
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The plight of Indigenous communities is a tale as old as colonisation and they now face a new threat: the Climate Crisis. Their ways of life are slowly being squeezed out of existence by the destruction of their lands and the slow homogenisation of life in the 21st century. This loss is far more significant than simply having to take a boat instead of a sled. It signifies dying traditions, explicitly stated by the film’s final choice words: ‘the world of Arctic hunters is vanishing.’
Inuit communities celebrate their connection to nature. They famously have 50 different words for snow. Their connection to their land is wrapped up with their rich cultural history; it is held as a strong personal and cultural identity. ‘I belong here,’ says Julius with a stoic expression. This serves as a distinct contrast to traditional Western attitudes towards nature, which tends to focus on consumption and deriving economic value. As access to technology improves, there is a greater disconnection between people and nature with a staggering 83% of British children aged 5-16 unable to identify a bumble bee.
(SwanFilms: Oskar Ström)
But a lack of connection to nature is far more insidious a threat to the health of the planet than may be immediately apparent. The creation of strong emotional bonds with nature has been shown to boost pro-conservation attitudes. The limits of human empathy tend to extend towards things we can feel, understand, and love. And without an emotional or philosophical connection to nature there is no driver to act with care towards it, tipping human behaviours and attitudes into the current state of exploitation rather than respect.
Without empathy for our environment, it is easy to detach from the reality of climate change under the barrage of negative stories that are out there.
That is why The Last Igloo is ultimately a hauntingly poignant social commentary on our place in the environment. It succeeds in instilling the same admiration and respect for the icescapes that Julius feels – his loss is your loss.