Adventure filmmaker James Aiken explores the sustainable and rewarding North Atlantic lives of an Icelandic sailor and a Greenlandic hunter.

Adventure filmmaker James Aiken explores the sustainable and rewarding North Atlantic lives of an Icelandic sailor and a Greenlandic hunter.

James Aiken exploded onto our screens over a year ago when his chilling Norður: Almost Arctic short film in the West Fjords of Iceland revolutionised the adventure documentary from big-money, big-channel escapism into a darker, more poetic form.

By endeavouring to understand the feeling of a place, as well as the facts, Aiken’s films are able to draw you into their remote atmospheres, through macro details and hand-held angles, and let you breathe in the wilderness.

His newest release Home Ground, shot again in the North Atlantic region, focuses in on two interesting characters Siggi – a sailor from Iceland – and Dines – a hunter from Greenland. Their unusual stories act as a gateway into another world; one that seems a million miles away from the tech-obssessed city, and the problems that come along with it.

We caught up with James to find out more.

How were you introduced to Siggi and Dines and when did you decide to start shooting them?
I first met Siggi during my trip to film Almost Arctic. He invited us to his house for roast puffin after we got back from crossing the Drangajokull glacier, as he had done a similar trip when he was younger. Siggi is a captivating guy, a genuine adventurer and I found the stories from his travels hugely inspiring. He has a great understanding of not only the sea, but the mountains also and is a talented climber. We spent the evening discussing various trips but I made it clear I was really interested in his boat the Aurora which he takes across to Greenland every summer.

Dines was a far more spur of the moment meeting. I had only been in Greenland for an hour when he pulled up alongside the Aurora to talk to Siggi. They had met a couple of years before and are now great friends. He was on his way to feed his sled dog puppies, a nutritious meal of two-month rotted seal, and as we were due to sail north the next day it could’ve been my only opportunity to spend time with the local people.

What’s your background in documentary filmmaking?
Filmmaking really started for me during my early travels. Simple surf jaunts and unprepared road trips captured on a wobbly DV camera and just shown to friends. There was one trip in particular, a road trip out to the opal mines in central Australia that I was just so inspired by the bizarre, scarred landscape and colossal machines left to waste away, that I was trying hard to capture what I saw. I never actually edited the footage but I look through it from time to time.

Filmmaking has developing into my livelihood now, and I’m lucky to work with brands that I’m into, but I think it’s hugely important to shoot personal projects, to set your own objectives in areas that you truly believe in to maintain a genuine enthusiasm and creativity.

What were the challenges in presenting their story to a wider audience?
There is so much you can say about these two guys, the stories of their lives are so different to our own that every small detail could be remarked upon, so the main challenge was to present this story in five minutes. I aim to keep to this timeframe as it makes the film accessible to busy people, a snapshot easily consumed in a busy schedule. To do this I try and only suggest a narrative, and not be to linear, but try and capture the feeling of a situation and convey it creatively in that time.

What’s your relationship with Iceland and Greenland? Was it important to you to represent the place and its people authentically?
I’ve always been inspired by the north, especially Scotland, both in the mountains and the coast. I first went to Iceland on a surf trip in September 2012 and I was just blown away by the potential for genuine adventure there. It has become, and I’m sure will continue to be a big part of my life. In terms of the people, as a filmmaker you have to produce a viewpoint within a certain context, and so sometimes the people you are working with do not understand your angle. Betty from the film Almost Arctic, is sixty, and thought it was a fairly normal procedure to hike over a substantial mountain, in winter ‘to go for dinner and a dance’, but if you suggested the same twelve-mile sub arctic hike to your average sixty-year-old Brit I don’t think they would be that keen. So I think it’s a case of understanding the subject, as well as your audience and constructing a connection across which one can understand the other.

Did you get into any tricky boat-related situations? Was it ever difficult or dangerous to film on location?
Sailing in this area is definitely challenging for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s cold. Waking up at 02.00am for a four-hour watch on deck is always a challenge but at -10 you have to push yourself, not only to get up there, but get up there with a smile on your face, because emotions can fall quickly if one person assumes a negative position. The area is known for violent storms but the greatest risk is posed by the ice. The larger bergs are picked up by radar but the smaller ‘growlers’, anything down to car-size, float just below the surface so there is always a lookout. At night they are almost impossible to see but the disturbance in the surface of the water is often a giveaway.

Siggi displayed a really strong meteorological understanding on this trip, and really threaded us between two major storms. He is just so experienced in this region, which is massively confidence inspiring. Years of sailing this route meant that he foresaw any major issues and was two steps ahead. One particularly hideous storm blew through and we were in a secure anchorage long before it hit us.

What are the major things you have learnt from making the doc?
There is so much awesome stuff happening all the time. Everywhere.

Do you hope Home Ground inspires the audience in anyway or sends a message?
I really love these areas, and I believe that if we look at these people who live quiet, happy lives in tune with their surroundings, we can begin to understand how we could adapt our own, far more urban and ‘consumption’-based lives into a more sustainable and rewarding lifestyle.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I’m looking to develop these anthropological adventure films and be close to the things Im most inspired by. The North Atlantic is my home. There are endless wild places to explore here and I’d like to produce a feature along the lines of these two first films.

Check out James’ Vimeo channel for more of his awesome adventure films.