They continuously and openly shared intimate triumphs and some of their worst personal tragedies for the better part of a year. Now the drama is seeing the extremes others will go to in presenting their lives to the world.
The camera crews that became a familiar sight in Longyearbyen as they followed ten residents around from last October until the end of May have departed and now the thousands of hours of footage is being condensed into a ten-episode “docu-soap” scheduled to air on BBC Earth this fall. Titled “Ice People – Life on the Edge,” the series is being promoted as a “real-life Fortitude” featuring “a host of intriguing characters who prove that it takes tremendous personality to live in one of the most extreme places on Earth.”
Such descriptions are regarded with varying degrees of amusement and bemusement by those filmed, who consider the stereotype more myth than reality.
“I think we all try to be normal people, not polar heroes.” said one participant who was nonetheless among those offering the most praise for the project overall.
(Note: Due to contracts most participants signed prohibiting them from any unapproved statements before the show is aired – or making any disparaging comments ever – the names and identifying details of those quoted in this article are being withheld. The names of the participants have been publicly released, and photos and other materials that do identify people and incidents are based on statements by crew members or by participants participating in press events.)
It’d be hard to name an eight-month stretch in recent history with more real-life drama for a “reality show,” including Store Norske’s decision to shut down virtually all coal mining that’s been the town’s mainstay since its founding a century ago, and the Dec. 19 avalanche that changed the community far more immediately in psychological and physical ways.
What remains to be seen is how such events will reshape the preconceived concept of portraying ordinary occupations – student, tour guide, taxi driver, priest – as something more adventurous than they really are because they’re occurring here. Going on routine hikes and other trips that involved walking on a snowfield or inclement weather, for example, often resulted in leading questions such as “is this a potentially deadly situation for you?”
“I was constantly trying to unwind them,” said another participant who expressed enthusiasm about the project overall.
Of course, plenty of undertakings considered normal elsewhere in the world do possess extreme or historic elements here. Snowmobiles are used reach several Masses in the remote outdoors conducted by the priest. Two “stars” are entrepreneurs establishing Longyearbyen’s first-ever brewery and the town’s first outdoor greenhouse. And the work of a university avalanche researcher changed drastically following the tragedy in December.
Those interviewed offered varying opinions about how enjoyable it was being followed by film crews for months and their hopefulness the show will reflect reality. But there was general agreement the process improved as crews learned more about Svalbard and its residents, and the show’s expected widespread viewership is likely to be beneficial to the community.
“I think even if everything is not completely accurate it will still be good exposure for Svalbard,” one main participant said. “A lot of people may watch it and decide they want to come here, and then they’ll learn what it’s really like.”
Most participants agreed a genuine effort to capture “real experiences” was made, although some said the presence of cameras obviously affected them. In addition, some said there were times it felt like there was an attempt to “script” those experiences for a TV audience.
“Sometimes they kept asking the same question,” one “star” said. “It felt like they didn’t like my answer so they kept asking until I gave them the one they wanted.”
Another nuisance, according to another participant, were overt attempts to concoct interactions between main characters by suggesting encounters unlikely to occur in reality or awkwardly prodding one toward another if two happened to be in the same area.
Some scenes were definitely “staged” with the participants’ cooperation, such as the filming of a fishing trip well before fishing season. Another worked marathon hours on a project – including through the night before the final day of filming – in the hope of providing a finished “storyline” about it for the series.
Many locals expressed concerns during filming about being captured on camera whether they wanted to be or not.
“It seems a bit strange to put up a small piece of paper somewhere on a public place, stating that you lose your personal rights when you enter that area,” a comment posted on Facebook noted. “And this note is not even visible from all accesses.”
While the crews made an increasing effort over time to announce filming was occurring and asked people to let them know if they wanted to “opt-out,” some locals not wanting to be extras said it didn’t work always out in practice.
“It’s kind of hard when you’re at Karlsberger or entering a show at Huset,” said one person who works in the center of town, where filming regularly took place, who was adamantly opposed to appearing on the show.
Nonetheless, the same person place expressed a similar optimism about the show’s potential to those shared by most of the stars.
“I think it will be good for this place – I just don’t want to be a part of it,” the person said.
While the crews’ interaction with the community improved the longer they stayed, participants said there were still two lingering issues – a frequent change in crews and the fact the production of the show is now in the hands of people who weren’t involved with the filming process.
“I think one of the problem was they kept changing crews and some of them would stay for only a few weeks,” which resulted in a lot of repeatedly asked the same questions, according to one participant.
The same person said the quality of the crews also varied considerably in terms of questioning, minimizing their influence and interference during truly “real moments,” and showing respect for the unwitting “extras” who may or may not have been OK with being filmed.
One real-life plot twist that might catch many locals by surprise is some crew members and producers stated near the end of filming a second season – potentially making it on ongoing cold-region series like “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” – isn’t out of the question. None of the participants interviewed flat-out rejected the idea of reappearing on the series, although some said they’d want or expect it to be in greatly reduced “supporting” role with new “characters” playing the leads.