Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Winter’s Yearning, Consequences of Cultural Displacement


Next up, Miranda Mungai on colonialism, community and the consequences of cultural displacement in Sturla Pilskog and Sidse Torstholm Larsen’s Winter’s Yearning

In 2006, American aluminium company ALCOA decided to build a smelting plant in the town of Maniitsoq, Greenland: an autonomous country of the Kingdom of Denmark. After centuries under the patriarchal thumb of Denmark, forcing the town into an unstable reliance on fisheries, Maniitsoq’s inhabitants express elation at the news. Winter’s Yearning follows a few of the natives as it soon becomes apparent that this will not be the economic salvation they anticipated. 

This film, taking an intensely personal look at the consequences of cultural displacement at the hands of market-driven, “civilised” nations (read: physically stronger, monetarily richer nations), shows us that colonialism still lives strong, operating under the same old rubric of helping propel the colonised forward into a capitalist order that promises to diversify the economy. What’s really interesting about Winter’s Yearning is the expression of how little this matters “on the ground.” This is not a theoretical film about the violence of colonialism – this is a film that does not ignore but enunciates such violence, how national trauma manifests as personal trauma for the people of Maniitsoq – victims of alcoholism and joblessness, or unhappiness in the limited jobs available. Economic renewal is not only a matter of regaining sovereignty for Greenland, but also of providing more opportunities for the natives to live as they desire.

Winter’s Yearning follows a town lying in wait for ALCOA to finally show up and make good on their promises. Presented with a set of binaries, we see the opinions of the old and the young: the former loyal, stationary, desperate, and the latter bored, looking for an escape but unsure where to direct their gaze and their skills. Denmark is the best option, perhaps on par with the capital Nuuk – where most of the skilled population go to find work. Expressed through a touching and diverse choice of cast, all helping (or trying their best to help) the local community and themselves, I found myself seamlessly sutured into an empathetic position, dually frustrated and hopeful: the intermingling of the two becoming the overarching affect as near-opposites collide and more binaries arise from underneath the perpetually snow-glazed landscape. From snowstorms to the calm, comforting crunch of freshly fallen snow; from community therapy sessions to fish factories; from older men speaking earnestly in a sauna to younger people getting wasted at the local bar – people are complex and nations multifarious, and Winter’s Yearning refuses to simplify its subjects. 

With increasing importance placed on the native individuals and their conditions of existence, painted against the beauty of a place so serene yet marked by ongoing colonial suppression, ALCOA begins to lose its relevance. Winter’s Yearning embarks on a journey that relies on the sliver of autonomy that Maniitsoq’s people still possess, that need not be charitably given. Endlessly rewarding and truly sensitive to the issues of the people, from whom the “political” cannot be extricated, a growing attachment to the populace keeps this documentary flowing and flowing, until we reach an estuary of hope: are international corporations the only prospect of revival for this scenic fishing town?  

Miranda Mungai is a programmer living in London, and festival assistant at Open City Documentary Festival.

Sturla Pilskog and Sidse Torstholm Larsen’s Winter’s Yearning screens on Sunday 8th September at Regent Street Cinema