Two extreme climate tales: ThuleTuvalu

From mush to slush: The melting ice is a problem for hunters and their sled dogs in Thule, Greenland HesseGreutert Film AG, Zurich, Switzerland

This content was published on November 28, 2014 - 11:00

One end of the world is melting; the other is sinking. And the more the ice melts in Greenland, the deeper the water gets around the islands of the South Pacific. A Swiss film director goes to extremes to show victims of global warming.

However, Matthias von Gunten says he didn’t want to make a movie about climate change, but rather, about people. Indeed, nobody utters the term “climate change” until 19 minutes into the 96-minute documentary.

“ThuleTuvalu”External link is about two groups of people: Inuit hunters in Thule, Greenland, and a fishing community on the South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu. To establish a rapport with the locals, the Zurich-based director visited each place three times before he began shooting. He says it took a long time to gain their trust and confidence, but then it became easy and natural to film them.

External Content met von Gunten in Bern at a preview of the film, which was financed in part by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation –’s parent company. Why did you choose these two locations?

Matthias von Gunten: Both places were already familiar to me, and when the whole thing with climate change came up, they were often in the media: Thule in the Arctic, because of the ice loss, and Tuvalu as kind of a symbol for all of the islands that are threatened now.

These are two places with very sensitive cultures where the impacts of the warming will become visible. They’ll be some of the first ones whose lives will really change. That’s what I was interested in. I didn’t want to explain climate change. I wanted to tell human stories about people who live in this situation. Which group is in more danger?

MvG: Definitely the ones in Tuvalu because if things continue to develop as they are doing now, the water level will continue to rise and they will reach a point where they cannot continue to live there. They’ll have to move. We almost had to leave because there was a water shortage; it was really close to a disaster situation. I was afraid, because we didn’t know when the rain or the ship with the water reserves would come.

And I think for the people in Thule, Greenland, it is also hard because they are being forced to give up what they have learned. It’s not a danger because they’ll find other ways to survive, but nevertheless, it’s a hard fact. How difficult was it to adjust to the local cultures and climates?

MvG: I have no problem adjusting to any culture because I think we humans are all the same. They live differently because they have different conditions, but it’s easy to understand why they are as they are. I grew up in a different situation, but if it had been there, I’d be like them.

The climate was harder. The heat in Tuvalu! After 9am, if there are no clouds in the sky, you don’t leave the shade. It was easily 35-40° Celsius. But fortunately, it was often cloudy, so then it was OK. The first time, when I was there for research, I rented a little house. I left a little bit of food out, and then I was invited somewhere for a few hours. When I got back, my home was black with cockroaches – big ones! So I had a long war against the cockroaches, but it was a good experience and I won it. I managed to make them dislike me. I cleaned like a fool and disinfected everything. Maybe three or four remained, and sometimes one walked across my face at night, but I got used to it. Were there any insects in Greenland? 

MvG: During the warm season there were many flies on the windows. The locals told me that the eggs survive over the winter, and the flies hatch in the summer. But no mosquitoes. And there are many birds, so I guess there are other insects, too. And how was that cold climate for you? 

MvG: The cold was quite hard, sometimes, but I guess the advantage of climate change was that it wasn’t as cold as it might have been. But to spend a day on a boat on the open Arctic sea, with all the wind, you have to have very good clothing. Also, the cold is something in your head. I tried to tell myself that the cold is good, because they told me they loved the cold and the ice. For us, ice is something dangerous, but they love it. Once it was -20°C and a hunter told me, “I’m suffering – it’s too warm. It should be -30°C”. Do you have the sense that they’ll be able to adapt to climate change?

MvG: Absolutely. The hunters are already adapting. In this film, we probably see the last hunters of this region. There are only two men in the next generation who want to become hunters, and they won’t be – that’s easy to predict. So that hunter culture will disappear unless a miracle happens. But not all of the development is due to climate change. Young people tend to go to the capital for their education, and once they have that, they won’t come back. You have this tendency anyway – and it will be reinforced through climate change because the prospects are already narrowing. Still, it’s a big challenge psychologically because they don’t know to what extent they’ll have to adapt. Now the fish are coming, but will they go or stay? What about the people of Tuvalu? 

MvG: They don’t have to adapt. They have to leave – and not when the island starts to drown, but sooner than that. Their soil is getting totally salty, so they can’t plant any crops. I think at a certain point you become depressed, and life becomes so hard. Every few months they don’t know whether they’ll have enough drinking water. At a certain point you can’t go on like that. 

I’m more worried about the people of Tuvalu because I know that the only way they can get out of it is by starting a new life somewhere else, and leaving behind a beautiful life that they really love. And going into a life that isn’t theirs – that they haven't learned – and they’re afraid of that. They are afraid of living with money and time. Their culture is different. 

Like the people in Greenland, they follow the weather so that they can get food. And when they’re tired, they relax. I’d say they work more than eight hours a day, but it doesn’t look like they’re on a schedule. And they know that while working in New Zealand, say, they can’t just take a break whenever they feel like it. Of course they’re real people, but who was your favourite “character”?

MvG: When I first saw Rasmus, the hunter, I thought, “I want to have this face in my film”. Our communication was nonverbal, but from the beginning, I had the feeling that I could work with him. What do the people you portrayed think of the film?

MvG: They’ve seen the film and are really happy with it. We’re in touch through Facebook, and there are a lot of “likes”. Diplomats from Greenland and Tuvalu came to a screening in New York and they’re really happy with the film, too. Now we’re planning to make versions in the local languages. So the contact continues, and I’m happy to know that they feel portrayed in a way that they feel good about.

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