Last month, audiences flocked to see the film Gravity, a thriller set in the final frontier of outer space. [Note: Possible spoilers ahead.] Now, a short companion film made by Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón’s son, Jonás Cuarón, who also helped co-write the movie, is online. The film reveals who Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, was speaking to over the radio as she thought she faced her final moments: Aningaaq, an Inuit fisherman stopped in a fjord days away from a town in northwest Greenland – a remote corner of a remote part of the world.
The stunning whiteness of the short, eponymously titled Aningaaq, hits you right in the face with the opening shot, contrasting with the inky blackness of space. The howling Arctic wind, too, is the opposite of the eerie stillness the astronauts encounter even as they hurl through the cosmos. Linked by a chance radio connection but still divided by the linguistic barrier, Dr. Stone and Aningaaq misunderstand each other. “No, I’m nowhere near Qaarsut,” he yells into the radio while Dr. Stone floats hundreds of miles overhead unbeknownst to him, trying to get to the Chinese space station. The final frontier and the last frontier are at last connected.
Bullock called the short an “absolutely beautiful piece of loneliness.” Yet the movie actually shows a family dealing with pretty normal things – a baby crying, a broken radio connection, bad weather. Although way out on some distant fjord, the man isn’t really alone because he has his pack of huskies and his wife and child with him. The real beauty of the short is its portrayal of the universality of the human condition. In outer space, Dr. Stone finally comes to grips with having lost a child years before; in Greenland, Aningaaq faces having to put down his sick dog. Space and the Arctic are opposites in so many ways – black/white, quiet/loud – but the human experiences and emotions resound.
In Aningaaq, Cuarón humanizes both the celestial and earthly frontiers. Filmed on location in Greenland, the director captures a man providing comfort to his dog and his baby – and to a woman floating up the truly limitless realm of outer space. This depiction is important when so many media narratives about the Arctic continue to paint it as an empty place for resource extraction, especially as the minerals boom seizes Greenland. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, Telegraph called Greenland “the newest frontier.” Although focused on the coming mining rush, the article decently describes some of the experiences of normal Greenlanders contending with changes brought by globalization and modernity.
Dr. Stone, an astronaut, exemplifies advances in technology and exploration, while Aningaaq represents the Inuit’s time-tested traditions of fishing and hunting. Whether with modern or tried-and-true technologies, the frontier remains a dangerous place. But most of all, the frontier is a state of mind. In Europe, the word “frontier” has traditionally meant the border or the edge of a place. The non-profit organization Doctors Without Borders, for instance, is Médecins Sans Frontières in French. In the United States, with a whole continent stretching before them, American settlers transformed the concept of the frontier into an expansive, limitless place. They pushed west into what they conceived of as virgin territory, fulfilling their individual dreams of a plot of land and a homestead and a larger national quest for manifest destiny. Eventually, they made it all the way to Alaska, often known as the Last Frontier. But it was really only the last frontier for white Americans, as indigenous peoples had been living their for a long time prior. In both cases, however, desires to explore past the known edge drove humans into the North and into space. (Of course, humans were also looking for food in the first instance, whereas few people have become astronauts in order to drink Tang and eat astronaut ice cream.)
Most stories about Arctic exploration celebrate the British or the Norwegians. The story less often told – and one that Cuáron touches upon – is that of the tenacious Inuit, who have settled across parts of the circumpolar north over the past couple millennia. Their story is a living testament to the dreams of new horizons and the capacity of humans to endure, which together have led us to the top of the globe and beyond.