The wind’s low, rumbling howl fills the ears for 89 seconds before a human voice is heard. The ice and snow of Greenland’s expanse passes below, seen through the lens of Brooklyn, New York, filmmaker Iva Radivojevic aboard a NASA surveillance aircraft.
“White… All color has disappeared,” the caption at the bottom reads, translating the film’s first words of narrator Aviaja Lyberth, speaking in the Greenlandic language of Kalaallisut.
This is the new short film “Utuqaq,” an experimental 27-minute documentary that explores a portion of the field research conducted by University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute glaciologist Regine Hock and others, including UAF graduate student Federico Covi.
“It’s silence is harmonious. There is no ‘must’ here, because ‘here’ is free… White,” Lyberth’s fragments of narration continue. “Pregnant with the past and the future.
“Up. Down. Down here begins a story, its setting is white.”
Radivojevic’s story in “Utuqaq,” which translates to “ice that lasts year after year,” is one of climate change yet doesn’t show change. Rather, it shows the land simply as it is now, with a small group of researchers working to understand what is happening to it.
The film covers work during one season — spring 2018 — of a three-year research project funded by the National Science Foundation. The project included four expeditions to the Greenland ice and the filming of one of those expeditions.
The film was made through the Rutgers Film Bureau of Rutgers University and Field of Vision production company.
The researchers, working far inland in Greenland’s southern tip, explored one theory about how meltwater on the ice sheet’s surface travels to the ocean. The investigators propose that increasing amounts of refreezing meltwater form thick ice layers close to the surface, causing later meltwater to move quickly off the ice sheet and enter the ocean.
“Sea level is expected to rise in the decades to come, partially due to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet,” reads the National Science Foundation grant abstract, written by Hock and Covi. “However, we do not fully understand how meltwater generated on the surface of the ice sheet makes its way to the ocean.”
“Knowing the fate of meltwater is imperative if we are to understand how fast sea level will rise in the future,” it states.
The research isn’t the star of the film, however. The land and its weather have that role — the pervasive white and the forceful and unimpeded wind of an Arctic snowstorm that persisted for four days and kept Radivojevic and the researchers in their tents.
“I wanted to de-center the humans, because we are talking about climate, we are talking about nature,” Radivojevic said. “I wanted to focus a little bit on the fact that the scientists are visitors in a land that's not their own.”
“It isn’t my intention to beat you over the head with information and to make you feel terrible about the world so that you feel helpless,” she said. “It is actually the opposite, to celebrate this landscape that we have, to show how incredible and how important it is and what is happening to it.”
Hock, the principal investigator on the research project, praised Radivojevic’s filmmaking approach and noted the film’s emphasis on the Greenlandic landscape and its inclusion of an Indigenous voice.
“That’s what made it special,” she said. “Our science was in there, and our project was in there, but it wasn't the focus at all. It's just merged into this whole story.”
What do some of those involved want viewers to take away from the film?
“My hope is that they fall in love with this piece of very remote environment we have on the planet and that somehow this moves them to act toward saving this place, as well as other places,” said Covi, the doctoral student who was on all four expeditions and who is working on a research paper about the expedition’s findings.
“It's like a poem to me. And I hope that art and poems and these types of communications can reach the public in a different way than scientists,” he said. “If you fall in love with it, then it's easier to act and do something.”
Radivojevic wants people to understand that losing the ice means losing so much information about our past.
“There are so many climate documentaries out there that people are sort of oversaturated with the same things,” she said. “What I wanted to convey is exactly what it means to be in such a landscape, what it means to be the last of the land that carries such important information and what it means to lose it.”
“Utuqaq” is available on YouTube at https://youtu.be/heTTSN_MfUo and will be shown at select film festivals.