Review: Disorder infects both residents and filmmaker in documentary ‘Longyearbyen: A Bipolar City’


Bipolar (adj): 1. Having or relating to two poles or extremities; 2. psychiatric characterized by both manic and depressive episodes, or manic ones only.
– Oxford English Dictionary

The opening minutes intermix interviews with a few Longyearbyen residents and grainy black-and-white footage from “Nanook of the North.” Which means this documentary isn’t just distancing itself from stereotypical portrayals of the town – it’s ridiculing them.

Many such documentaries are dominated by scenes of Svalbard’s dramatic landscapes and wildlife – and this film contains plenty as well – but Manuel Deiller focuses on exposing the dirty underside of the town in “Longyearbyen: A Bipolar City” (a title a few locals have called inaccurate, if not outright insulting). The French filmmaker said the theme wasn’t his original intention but he, like many other visitors, discovered the inaccuracy of many stereotypes upon arriving here.

“At the beginning, in 2012, the film focused on tourism in Longyearbyen, but after my first journey I discovered that the city had a disturbing way to evolve,” he wrote in an e-mail interview. “So on my return, I rewrote the script. My documentary describes the environmental paradoxes of the city and their consequences.”

An honest look at what Longyearbyen has evolved into in recent years is sorely needed and Deiller’s 56-minute film is one of the more accurate snapshots of the town’s current-day economical and environmental situation – much of the time. But it also grossly misrepresents things large and small – most notably toward the end when its pro-environmental slant descends into a factually challenged narrative where a couple of Green Party residents are the forward-thinking heroic warriors trying to bring The Truth to the outdated pro-pollution inhabitants refusing to let go of their past. (Editor’s note: Deiller, in an exchange of e-mails about the inaccuracies and misleading material, stated “it’s not my goal at the end of the film to pretend that the Green Party is the hero” and he plans to make changes to the narration and subtitles before it is widely released. This review reflects the documentary that exists now and alterations will be noted if they occur.)

That’s a shame because, while it may not be possible to compress into an hour the complex issues about Longyearbyen’s future from the full range of viewpoints in a visually engaging way, Deiller does about as well as might be hoped during the first 40 minutes (despite plenty of hints indicating a pro-Green bias). Audiences might not grasp all the nuances without multiple viewings since certain key issues get short shrift (admittedly a necessity in a documentary of this length), but visitors would certainly arrive able to engage in far more interesting chats with locals beyond asking about things like polar bear encounters.

Few locals will dispute introductory comments about Longyearbyen having more amenities than perhaps any other town in Norway with 2,000 residents (a greatly welcome break from the cliche of more polar bears and snowmobiles than people), and life here therefore being more modern and comfortable than outsiders usually think. The film also does a commendable job presenting the various social and economic impacts caused by the near shutdown of Store Norske during the past couple of years, and the uncertainties of what Longyearbyen can turn to in a post-mining future.

Scenes during the first half where former Mayor Christin Kristoffersen explain why the existence of both Longyearbyen and the dirty industry of coal mining are vital (in short, the town might not be a profitable asset for Norway’s government, but it is a critical strategic one) provide an essential counterbalance to the obvious question about why the government is spending a fortune propping up a polluting and money-losing industry.

Where opinions will diverge is moments such as Helga Kristiansen, a local Green Party politician, offering her opinion about visitors seeing the opposite of their expectations.”They expect to find untouched nature, they expect to find clean wilderness, and what they come to is a very messy industrial town with trash everywhere and we burn coal for electricity,” she says. Safe to say tourism officials and others will find that an overly dystopian portrayal.

Similarly, a claim the Green Party is the only one supporting a local permaculture project is inaccurate since, among other things, it received a substantial environmental grant from the governor and the municipal council approved a site for the project’s greenhouse.

Deiller can certainty argue he strives for balance by featuring scenes such as Store Norske miner Tommy Albrigtsen, his face and outfit black with coal dust, inside Mine 7  talking about the company’s economic struggles, layoffs and his fears Longyearbyen “will be like a ghost city” if mining shuts down quickly (which has largely happened since filming ended). But that’s immediately followed by Espen Rotevatn, another Green Party politician, offering another comment sure to provoke.

“Many people think that jobs are more important than environment and many people also think money is more important than the environment,” he says. “Well, now the coal mining industry isn’t making money any more so that’s not a problem any longer.”

The narration doesn’t hide its bias, referring to Mine 7 as “the most misplaced in the world” (after noting it also produces the cleanest coal in the world) and using words like “exploit” instead of more neutral words like “extract” when describing coal mining. There’s also narrator’s claim of an “irrational pattern of consumption among residents,” who are also portrayed as lazy for an overreliance on cars (“what I would like to change about transportation in Longyearbyen is simple – I would like people to walk,” Rotevatn says).

Deiller denies his film has an ecological agenda, but the tone of accusatory environmental neglect continues in other parts of the documentary that focus on large numbers of “hyper polluting” snowmobiles in the wilderness, disposal of food and other solid waste, and the release of untreated sewage into the sea.

“It’s probably one of the most polluting cities in Europe because you have to travel 1,000 kilometers by plane just to come here,” says Malte Jochmann, a Store Norske geologist who is among those defending the continuation and hopeful revival of mining here. He asserts exacting coal already here is better than importing it or another source such as fuel, and that people in Europe fail to realize many of their products come from mined materials and “I think its important to bring out the message you need these dirty activities.”

The inclusion of such material, along with scenes such as Kristoffersen’s scenes, keep the complex debate credible until the final 15 minutes. Outsiders with little knowledge of current-day events should certainly come away with the same sense everyone from locals to the Norwegian government have knowing something has to be done – but not being able to define and agree upon what that big something or many small somethings should be.

But a flaw that begins early with the two Green Party residents getting a disproportionate amount of credit for their actions gets out of hand during the election scenes leading up to the finale.

Among the early mentions is they “timidly started to raise” the issues presented in the film when they became the first members of the party ran for local office in October of 2015. Which is grossly inaccurate – the issues have been widely discussed by many entities for many years, and there was nothing timid about the Green Party candidates and their proposed solutions.

Indeed, the film contradicts itself later by declaring Kristiansen “wouldn’t stop kicking the anthill” while making another wild claim. The film mentions in a single passing reference four parties were seeking seats in the local community council election, but portrays the debate about the city’s future as a two-way battle between the newly arrived Green Party and the ruling Labor Party. In that context, when Albrigtsen says he supports the Labor Party and the Greens “should think about other things besides trying to destroy a small community” he comes off as a curmudgeon unwilling to accept a new and unfamiliar reality.

The portrayal of the election itself isn’t just slanted – it’s outright false, which is a huge credibility blow when its supposed to be the climactic point of the storyline. It claims there was no suspense as the Labor Party prevailed (the Labor and Conservative parties each won five of the 15 seats on the Longyearbyen Community Council – a huge setback for Labor since they previously had a seven-to-three edge over the even more industry-oriented Conservatives; in short, Labor was repudiate for not being aggressive enough at keeping traditional industries alive while trying to lure new ones).

More egregiously, the narrator states the Labor Party needed the two seats won by the Green Party to keep control of the council (Editor’s note: Deiller has stated this claim will be modified). In reality, Labor retained control by reaching a deal with the Liberal Party, which won three seats (another huge surprise since everyone, including the Labor folks, assumed the Liberals would align with the Conservative). The Green Party, contrary to the film’s suggestion they were power brokers, subsequently decided to join the coalition instead of being the outsiders looking in. In other words, it was the Greens who made concessions to Labor, not the other way round (and it would have been Kristiansen, who harshly attacked Labor policies during the campaign, explain why she felt her party can do more good if it’s in the room, so to speak).

Outsiders are unlikely to know such realities and it could therefore be argued what’s important is that film’s implication of a community slowly waking up to the issues raised about a sustainable and environmentally friendly post-mining future is what matters. But what also matters is that debate occur with an honest presentation of facts and attitudes.

Rotevatn’s comment that it might take five to ten years before an alternative energy source replaces coal is a pipe dream – with luck politicians will have decided on what type of facility should replace the coal power plant 25 years from now. If food is indeed one of the industries that helps plug the huge hole of lost coal mining jobs, it’s almost certainly commercial fishing and fish processing rather than greenhouses that will play a significant role.

Deiller says his film isn’t advocating the Green Party’s ideals, but it’s hard to imagine a viewer unfamiliar with Longyearbyen coming away with a view that suggests otherwise. And that’s where this film that does do much well falls short. It will win raves among those agreeing with its implied ideals, but leave the more skeptical either disdainful or easily swayed what they’ve seen is errant when discussing the issues raised with locals.

The film gets back on track at the end by having residents expand on the theme of why the government considers Svalbard a strategic asset and therefore might be inclined to put economic interests ahead of environmental ones. But with closing lines by the narrator such as “the town will probably continue growing in an inappropriate manner” its obviously trying to steer viewers toward a conclusion rather than letting them decide one for themselves.

Benjamin Vidar, founder of the Polar Permaculture project, says he feels this documentary does a better job of portraying the reality of Longyearbyen and the need for forward thinking than the BBC reality TV series “Svalbard: Life on the Edge,” another project he was featured in which is ten times longer. That’s perhaps a stretch, but Deiller’s project certainly presents the key elements of the community in an easier-to-grasp and more discussion-provoking way. And even with the pro-Green slant the documentary does a far superior job of portraying the dilemmas those affected by coal mining are going through (the BBC series filmed no scenes of miners, instead giving it short shrift in a historical narrative). The series – and countless other film and video projects that come here saying they want to capture the “real Longyearbyen” would do well to watch Deiller’s film and strive to match its strengths since, even with its flaws, it’s among the few that have truly strives to break the mold in a constructive way.


Editor’s note: In the spirit of full disclosure about the election and accuracy, here’s a reminder that I made the most idiotic prediction of the campaign by declaring the Green Party would finish second to Labor by winning five seats:

And here’s my summary about how the drama went down: