Aurora Borealis might be the only thing that would, if ever, make me want to get off my ass and explore. I’ve harboured love for the northern lights ever since I read about them in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – of course it was mostly fantasy. Then I read more about them, saw videos and was struck by the beauty of this natural phenomenon.
However, Peter Mettler’s poetic existential meditation on the northern lights, the north, the small social circle of people surviving in the harsh conditions, is so overwhelming that I doubt seeing aurora with my own eyes would evoke the same emotions that I experienced watching the movie. Peter Mettler says in the documentary that images only capture reality, living the reality is not the same as looking at its representation. We understand things based on what we see or what it represents. I see Mettler’s documentary and feel the existential angst that runs through the frontier town of Churchill, the struggle for survival in the harsh landscape (-40 degree Celcius), people’s struggle with their conscience as they survive one day at a time, codes by which they live. I feel all that, but all of this is second hand knowledge. By chewing that piece of knowledge would I know what it is to see the aurora with my own eyes, or know what it feels to be out in a blizzard? No. Media doesn’t fill this gap. But what it does, especially a work like Mettler’s, is evoke an emotional response that make us question our place in the world, our relationship with nature and its beings, our lust for knowledge, our need to fill the empty spaces and silences – it gives us perspective on life, much like the one Mettler and his crew achieved on their adventurous journey up north.
The documentary constantly pits nature and technology against each other, civilization and wilderness, the known and the unknown, scientific evidences and personal experiences (they both try to explain northern lights in their own way). It works like an adventure story, where the explorers come looking for the exotic, intending to tame it, but return humbled. I like how there is not just one dominating voice, but voices recounting their own experiences with the harsh landscape and the phenomenon, voices that we may never have heard over the scientific explanations of what aurora borealis is. We would have missed the mythology.