This Cold Life: A Genre-Bending Portrait at the Edge of the World

by Caitlin Zera

This Cold Life is a study of what it’s like to live in nearly complete isolation in the world’s northernmost town, Longyearbyen, Norway, only 300 miles from the North Pole. Longyearbyen is a former mining town now trying to rebrand itself as an ecotourist destination at a time when climate change threatens much of its wildlife and “natural” rugged beauty. The film profiles a handful of residents, sharing their stories through intimate interviews, stunning, languorous landscape shots and beautiful shallow depth of field portraits. This Cold Life screens Tuesday, April 10th at the Webster University Film Series as part of the St. Louis Earth Day Film Series. 

This Cold Life

Directed by Darren Mann

Runtime: 84 minutes, 2017

A lot of the residents in Longyearbyen are transplants who were drawn to the allure of attempting to live a normal existence under such extreme conditions (half of the year the town lives in total darkness). Most of them wrestle with what will become of their home now that the mining industry has died and no clear transition to the clean energy sector has been set up.

In its first moments This Cold Life seems like it might fall into a genre akin to Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World or an extreme living series on the National Geographic Channel. But This Cold Life is actually an incredibly delicate and surprising balancing act of documentary genres. It’s part nature documentary, filled with wonder and awe about the Norwegian town’s unique and endangered wildlife. We get many tender moments and poignant anecdotes when the residents talk about their connection to the wildlife and the ecosystem in Longyearbyen.

“We are visitors in the polar bears’ landscape,” says Olaf, the town’s printer. “This is a landscape where you are directly connected to the earth. I’m living in my landscape.” Later in the film he recalls seeing the eye of a whale while out on the ocean. “It was beautiful…you are just a little, tiny thing in this big world and you shouldn’t be more.”

This Cold Life is partly a human interest story elevated by the craft quality of its cinematography – a technique that has become popular among documentary filmmakers experimenting with drone videography and iPhone cameras on body-mount tripods. It echoes films like Only the Young and For Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, popular indie documentaries that followed their subjects (suburban teenagers and European refugees, respectively) with an emotional intensity offset by fluid, tracking camera angles.

It’s also partly an examination of post-industrialization’s consequences and the death of labor, not unlike the American documentaries Detropia or Downeast. It is perhaps this aspect of the film, the loss of the town’s main industry (coal mining), that resonates the most and offers a deeper insight into the state of the world. Despite the extreme cold and dramatic Scandinavian landscape, this part of the documentary feels very American. Coming to terms with the death of factory towns and the falseness of Western manifest destiny seems ever more universal in this globalizing world. While only a few of the characters outwardly comment on the coal industry in Longyearbyen, there is an underlying anxiety that each character channels about the uncertainty of the future, clearly related to the town’s economic situation.

In environmental documentaries, it’s much more common to see portraits of victories – towns that have committed to renewables like wind/solar and workers who have found their places in the clean energy revolution. This Cold Life is at the completely opposite end of the spectrum. It offers a chilly and overcast reality that many places, like Longyearbyen, face as we try to transition from fossil fuels to renewables and still meet labor and market demands. In Longyearbyen, the transition away from coal was not necessarily equitable or organized. It was seemingly abrupt and replacement jobs of comparable pay and stability were not made available. It’s a stark but necessary portrait of how our reluctance (in the Western world) to tackle climate change on a global scale and develop equitable resilience strategies will result in casualties – like island nations that are being consumed by rising sea levels and towns like Longyearbyen where entire economies collapse.

A weakness in the narrative is just how many characters there are  – we spend time with quite a few and rarely do we get to come back their stories until the “where are they now?” epilogue at the end of the film. Overall, This Cold Life presents an important, fresh perspective, especially for audiences who enjoy more traditional environmental documentaries. It’s a world-expanding narrative from a very tiny corner of the globe.

This Cold Life screens Tuesday, April 10th at 7:30pm at the Webster University Winifred Moore Auditorium as part of the St. Louis Earth Day film series. More info here.

This Cold Life screened Wednesday, November 8th at the Tivoli Theatre as part of the St. Louis International Film Festival. More info here.