Photography by Shona Main
In July, this year, Shona Main, a Scottish-born PhD candidate at Stirling University and Glasgow School of Art, travelled to Grise Fiord, a township of just 140 clinging to the south-east coast of Ellesemere Island, in the Nunavut region of the Canadian arctic. She spent four and a half months there, exploring the life and work of the late Scottish film-maker, Jenny Gilbertson, who, in the 1970s, produced and directed a series of highly personal documentaries in Nunavut, including the ground-breaking, two-part Jenny’s Arctic Diary, for the Canadian Broadcast Company and the BBC.
“I wanted to hear the experiences of those who knew and filmed with Jenny and to make a film about being there,” Shona explainED. She stayed in Grise Fiord until mid November when she flew to Coral Harbour on Southampton Island, where Jenny Gilbertson first filmed in the region, to show some of Gilbertson's films to the local community and to spend time with Gilbertson's friends, Jackie Napayok and his daughter Suzie.
What was an average day like for you in Grise Fiord?
Like Jenny, I had a routine: I got up, chanted, made porridge and coffee in my Bialetti, then wrote in my journal. I would either read, write or go out filming and recording. Some days I surpassed myself and did all of these things. Most days, I had a wee wander about. There are no social spaces in Grise Fiord, except for the Co-op, so you rely on seeing folk on the street or at their work.
Grise Fiord is said to be one of the coldest permanently inhabited places on earth. What was the weather like when you were there?
From 5ºC in July to -36ºC (or with wind chill, -44ºC) in November. Sometimes the wind blew but mostly it was clear skies and a weird, creeping mist. I don’t believe it’s the coldest in the Canadian Arctic. I think the Kiv (Kivalliq region) is much colder.
Had you spent any time in arctic communities before?
Did the sense of isolation ever get to you?
Weirdly, being on top of the world, I felt more connected to people and the cosmos than I have ever felt. I did have moments of overwhelm but it was to do with the moment: what I was there to do, how I related to it and how I had to rise to it (I didn’t always).
What books did you take? And did you listen to much music?
The books you see in the photo of my desk (above) as well as a lot of the reading for my research that I store on Mendeley. I also read Ursula Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest, which felt like the best book I could have read in the high Arctic. I befriended a local couple and we played paataapik on a Saturday night. I’ll always be grateful to Etuk, a middle-aged Inuk, for introducing me to young people’s music.
What was your most unusual experience there?
The surfaces. Under the snow, the ground is almost entirely mineral, like the surface of the moon. In November, when the sea froze, I walked out on the sea ice, which was unnerving but mesmerising.
What were your worst and best moments?
This experience was about listening and learning about Jenny’s approach and documenting the ideas and thought processes that shape my own methods of filming others. I had a few bad moments when I thought my research and filming was going awry. My best moments were the genuine freeing from the forces of expectation and from my own desire for people to go along with my plans. Sincerely allowing people do whatever they want created a whole new creative space and opened up a different way of seeing and filming.
The cold killed one of your sound recorders. What were some of the other challenges of working in that environment?
Going from hot to cold causes misting so I kept my camera in the porch in a huge ziplok bag but I still had problems. The cold caused the electronics to slow, batteries to drain, clocks to reset themselves, and, often, things just to switch off altogether. I was prepared but you just cannot comprehend this kind of cold until you’ve tried to be in it.
Which is your favorite photograph here?
I love the Napayok’s boots and their box of frozen Caribou at Coral Harbour Airport. I had such a fine time with them, showing Jenny’s films and hearing them talk about her.