'The Expedition to the End of the World' explores life's meaning through art and science

Feb 25, 2013

This three mast schooner housed a documentary film crew, artists and scientists all studying life in some form.
Credit Courtesy of The Expedition to the End of the World

This story is part of True/False Conversations, a series of in-depth interviews with the filmmakers of this year’s True/False Festival.  Find the rest of them here or download the podcast on iTunes.

For three weeks, Danish filmmaker Daniel Dencik and his film crew drifted on an old wooden schooner through the remote arctic waters of Greenland. Also on board, a group of artists and scientists studied the changing landscape of northeastern Greenland and used it to answer questions for scientific research and existential definition. Dencik’s job was to capture this age-old tradition of artists and scientists searching for truth and meaning in a rarely navigated locale. (Think Columbus and other early explorers.)

The film, “The Expedition to the End of the World,” documents land never before caught on camera thanks to the rapidly melting ice sheet previously covering that land.  That was enough to get sponsors on board to back the film financially, Dencik says. “The locations were so rare that people had to join,” he tells KBIA.

In turn, Dencik was able to capture sweeping landscapes, and hilarious yet intimate interactions among shipmates that explore several scientific and philosophic themes. One of the biggest messages the film suggests is how insignificant humans actually are when compared to the resilience of life on Earth. But then in the same breath, the film celebrates that diversity and resurgence of life. Dencik says ultimately, it’s a return to “nature” that sets this film apart from other stories that tackle a world coping with climate change.

Filmmaker Daniel Dencik.
Credit Courtesy of The Expedition to the End of the World

Dencik, a first timer to True/False, says he’s heard the buzz about the festival from some of his colleagues – notably his close friend filmmaker Christian Bonke – and is eager to screen in Columbia.  After True/False, the film heads down to Mexico for another festival followed by a possible screening in New York City. Recently it also was  shown on BBC.

How did the idea for this film come about?

Actually the expedition was sailing no matter what. We heard about this and then the film just joined forces with the expedition. So the idea of mixing artists and scientists – it was already there. It was a privately funded trip.

The idea is actually pretty old. Even Columbus -- when he traveled to the states -- had artists with him on the boat. The idea to mix artists and scientists is an old idea when you go on expeditions – especially when you go to unknown land... And now with the global warming, it’s possible, although it’s pretty hard to maneuver in the fjord system. But, you can do it now for the first time in a very long time.

Going into the film, what were you looking to capture?

In the beginning, I thought it was going to be really apocalyptic. I thought my idea of the film should be the end of civilization or [that] we’re facing our own Armageddon.  But when I was up there, I was overwhelmed by how optimistic the scientists’ approached most everything. It turned out to be just like a celebration I guess – a celebration of life, how strong life is and how hard it is to get rid of life once it’s present on the planet in the universe.

We are just [a] life form. We are the dominant species right now, but we will also vanish. Then another form of life will come after this. In the end, it just became a celebration of life and a portrait of humanity, I guess. A portrait of how fragile and small we are but also how moving it is.

Can you give a specific example in the film where you captured that?

I think when the scientists are trying to give a name to a place that’s never been given a name to before -- how trivial it is in a way.  But also, when they find the polar bear and how they react to it. There’s a lot of parallels between the polar bear and humans. I think that’s what they also realize that it is a species that has now been driven very far from [where] it was meant to be and how it was a normal habitat. We are now confronted with: How do we survive?

What kind of message do you want the audience to take away from the film?

Everyone is talking about the climate and climate change. Everyone is using the word “climate” and no one is talking about nature. It’s almost like a romantic idea, but putting nature back into the debate and into people’s minds.

And also, we just hopped up on the planet very recently and then we immediately think that everything is going to end and that it’s our fault. That’s a very human thing to do and I think it’s a mistake. I don’t think [humans] have the power to destroy Earth. We can destroy our bit but we can’t destroy Earth. It’s like inverted vertigo. You look up at something and it’s so big you’re dizzy.

You sure do like going to these very remote locations.

(Laughs) Yeah. I was always attracted to Greenland. But I think it’s also a Danish thing because we have a history with Greenland. I guess it’s like American boys, you know? They dream about cowboys and the Wild West.  Danish boys dream about Greenland, and Eskimos and expedition.

"The Expedition to the End of the World" is set to screen at True/False with director Daniel Dencik and producer Michael Haslund Thursday, Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. at The Blue Note; Saturday, March 2 at 6 p.m. at The Picturehouse; and Sunday, March 3 at 12:30 p.m. at Forrest Theater.