The Most Northern Place is a simple, powerful web documentary which tells the story of a small town called Thule, in Northern Greenland.
It tells of a clash of cultures and a conflict of territory during the run-up to the Cold War, and the forced the relocation of the Inuit population native to the town of Thule by the U.S. Army, circa 1953.
The word Thule derives from Greek, meaning ‘the most northerly region of the world’. The original people of the town of Thule are the ancestors of all modern Inuit, reaching the North-Western coast of Greenland by the 13th century.
They had minimal contact with Europeans until World War II ended and the build up to the Cold War began. Interest in the Arctic grew as it was a place of geographic interest to the growing world powers, The Soviet Union and the U.S. of A.
The U.S. Army, in particular, developed a strategic interest in the region and the Inuit soon realised they had company.
Today, long after the Cold War has faded, Thule Air Base is still active. It is the U.S. Armed Forces Northernmost installation, located 750 miles above the Arctic Circle.
The story of Thule‘s evacuation starts with a top-secret U.S. Army experiment during the Cold War. This region of the Arctic was deemed a perfect location to hide nuclear missiles, and so the inhabitants of Thule were moved North, to a new location.
When I first read about it, I felt it was a really powerful story. Translating it into an interactive website, I wanted people to have this same sense of discovery that I had, exploring a story they probably haven’t heard of gradually.
Nicole Paglia, co-writer of this webdoc, travelled to Northern Greenland with a small crew and spent several weeks trying to understand how people today felt about the events of the past.
We wrote The Most Northern Place together, trying deliberately to be ambivalent. We never wanted to judge, or show only one side. The Inuit’s own opinions on what happened are divided, and in their community people express the positives and negatives.
In the end all we could rely on were the real memories of the people who were there, and build our story on that.
However, from a visual perspective, I had to create a world that the viewer could interact with. And I knew that a more traditional documentary approach would not achieve this feeling of exploration on the part of the audience. I had to create a vision of Thule in another way.
I collaborated with visual effects artist Alex Burt to create empty frames out of the shots that I had, erasing villagers, smoothing over signs of human beings, and creating perfectly still tableaus representing steps the viewer would take, as if taking a stroll through Thule in 1953.
I wanted to use this imagery of an empty village and its surrounding landscape as a way to bring Thule back to life.
A place that is devoid of people, a beautiful but unforgiving environment. And slowly, the viewer discovers what happened here, step-by-step through the real memories of the people who lived there, all those years ago.
At the core The Most Northern Place is not a history film, or a war film. It isn’t about the U.S. Army. It is a human film, about human events.
The website was designed by Ruben Feurer, and together we discussed making an experience that would unfold itself gradually. We wanted it to feel like you’re learning while wandering around rather than clicking on links and buttons.
It is with this in mind that we settled on an interface that is designed to almost not be there. To create structure and yet leave a lot of empty space.
Under the hood, The Most Northern Place is a fully responsive HTML5 website that blends in WebRTC technology to create a truly immersive experience on both desktop and mobile platforms.
But it wasn’t immediately clear what form this website would take. Working with Luisa Tatoli from Roll Studio, we went through several iterations of the project, exploring the creative and technical direction that felt right. It took us a few tries to get it right.
Lead Developer Luigi de Rosa worked with the idea of including several interactive elements that help viewers immerse themselves in what it was like to live in Thule.
For example, while the site loads we count up the miles between Thule and the viewer, to let them know just how far north they’re going to experience this story.
We incorporated a compass mechanic to make a clear geographical connection between the viewer and Northern Greenland. It felt like an interesting way to introduce them to a place that they might never have heard of before, and a fun way to wait for the website to load up.
Another chapter features a WebRTC radio that mimics the CB communication used by the majority of rural inhabitants, back in the days before the internet or satellite communication.
The radio on the site projects visitors voices to other users and allows them to share stories of their own.
In addition to these interactive elements, the overall story needs to be accessible to all, no matter what device they might be using. We wanted to prevent different devices from creating different experiences, but this is a very difficult challenge.
We approached mobile and tablet with the core aim of retaining as much atmosphere as the desktop version of the site.
By creating a script that optimises all the desktop imagery, the animation running on mobile is as smooth and consistent as that of the desktop. This is all automated in the background and makes the creation of additions to the story in the future an extremely easy process.
The music of The Most Northern Place was composed by Alex Kozobolis. At the time of composing this track all we had to work with were some basic images, but he used the feelings these images gave him to create a track that could loop infinitely, avoiding a very defined structure.
His aim was to provide a soundtrack with depth and feeling, but without trying to suggest how viewers of the film should feel.
His composition is complemented with a subtle sound effects treatment which emphasises the memories that would have been left behind in a place like Thule. Richard Nathan worked with sounds recorded in Greenland and turned them into a slightly haunting backdrop, processing them and looping them over each other.
When you combine all of these components, the final result is an interactive story which the viewer explores in their own time, and which does not try to impose emotions. What has happened is explored by the user in a way that leaves the conclusion open to them.
The Most Northern Place is the first chapter of a work-in-progress transmedia storytelling experiment. The second chapter is currently in its early development stages.
Visit: The Most Northern Place
I am a virtual reality and interactive film maker, working at the intersection of storytelling and experiential technology.