By Johnny Langenheim
It may be the world’s biggest island, but Greenland barely registers on most people’s radars. And yet geopolitically it’s one of the most important places on the planet, situated as it is in the high Arctic, between North America and Europe. It is rich in natural resources — and it’s on the climate change frontline — a phenomenon that is triggering radical changes to the environment — and to the people who live there.
For such an enormous place, Greenland’s population is tiny — around 57,000 people, 90 percent of them indigenous Inuit. And their world is transforming seemingly from one year to the next — possibly more than anywhere else on earth. While scientists focus on the potentially catastrophic global impact of Greenland’s ice sheet disappearing, ordinary Greenlanders are facing their own social crisis, as an epidemic of suicides rips through Inuit society.
Greenland may seem remote — but it is in many ways it’s the proverbial canary in the coal mine: what’s happening here will eventually affect all of us. The steady melt of Greenland’s ice sheets is already the single biggest contributor to sea level rise globally. But the country’s social dilemmas, in particular its issues with mental health, also speak to many of the anxieties that are cropping up in contemporary society everywhere.
We are living through a time of exponential change and unprecedented upheaval. Industry and technology have connected the world — but disconnected us from nature. We herald the global village, yet billions of modern humans feel anxious and isolated. We pursue “progress”, but neglect our inner lives. Suicide and self harm are on the rise, especially for a post-millennial generation reared on social media, confronting deep uncertainty and a crisis unfolding in real time: climate change.
The Greenland Inuit used to lived in small, tight knit communities adhering to cultures and traditions that evolved over hundreds even thousands of years to accommodate the harsh environment. But in the fifties and sixties, well-meaning social programmes initiated by Denmark (though Greenland now has home-rule, it is still a part of the Kingdom of Denmark) saw many Inuit moving to new urban centres and into social housing projects that provided for their utilitarian needs — but neglected their mental health and wellbeing. Many experts speculate that this disruption could be one of the root causes of Greenland’s devastating rates of suicide and self harm.
As a filmmaker, I was fortunate enough to travel to Greenland last year on assignment. During my time there, I met a remarkable man, Nuka Aqissiaq. Nuka has dedicated himself to saving lives. He spends much of his year travelling all over Greenland counselling individuals and groups affected by suicide. He is well placed to do so: just 28 years old, he already lost his best friend to suicide, a close family member and even came close to taking his own life during a stint in jail.
I’m now developing a feature documentary that will bring to life Nuka’s journey — while immersing viewers in the realities of contemporary Greenland — from ramshackle cities bordering ice floes to hunting communities in the frozen north, to Nuka’s own home in Southern Greenland.
Life On The Edge unfolds in one of the most remote and beautiful places on earth. But it is also close to home. The themes here are universal: the need for meaning and purpose in life, for human connection. Remembering that we are a part of nature, not apart from it. Life on the Edge shows us what it means to reconnect. And what’s at stake if we don’t.
My hope as a filmmaker is that the film can have a real world impact, playing a part in de-stigmatising mental illness and suicide, while presenting an inspirational story of resilience and hope in the face of adversity. At the same time it presents climate change not in the context of science, but as something experienced as a day to day reality — and the trauma that goes along with it.
Johnny Langenheim is a creative director and cross-platform storyteller who creates premium broadcast, commercial and editorial content – from a drama doc for Netflix to brand content for National Geographic to articles for The Guardian, Red Bull and Conde Nast Traveller. Want to learn more or to donate to the project? Contact him at : firstname.lastname@example.org