Friday, December 19, 2008

Northern Lights Documentary

Blast! Just seen the documentary I have wanted to make myself. Every since I went to northern Finland in 1995, I have wanted to go back to see the Northern Lights, and find out more about the scientific research going on in northern Norway. Playing around with the HD tuner the other night, I bumped into a truly super HD production which starred British actress Joanna Lumley. I see the photographer and Aurora Chaser Kjetil Skogli has been doing well every since. He makes a small business in Tromso taking people out to see the lights in small groups. The lights have always fascinated me, although if you are long distance radio listening, their appearance is actually a bad thing, causing tremendous amounts of noise on mediumwave. I have seen them in the US and Canada, but the show in Norway is truly special. I think the documentary with Joanna is just superb. I hope they issue it on Blu-Ray.

On board Norway's real-life version of the Polar Express heading north out of Trondheim towards the Arctic Circle, Joanna Lumley takes out a favourite childhood book. Turning the pages of Ponny The Penguin, she points to the simple black and white illustration that inspired in her a lifelong ambition to see the Northern Lights, writes Tony Matthews.

Born in India and raised in the steamy heat of Malaysia, Joanna's childhood experience of snow was limited to fairy stories and pictures such as that of the little penguin gazing into the night sky. "We never even needed to wear cardigans, so the idea of cold, snow and ice was alien," she says. "I couldn't think what it would be like. I suppose you always want what you've never had and the Northern Lights hung in my mind as something I thought I would never see and yet, as I got older, longed to see with all my heart."

In a new film for BBC One, Joanna Lumley In The Land Of The Northern Lights, the actress at last realises her ambition, having been approached by film-makers Takeaway Media who'd heard her mention it during her appearance on Desert Island Discs. The result is an Arctic odyssey by train, light aircraft, ferry, dog sled and snowmobile across Norway's spectacularly rugged winter landscape. As the film's director Archie Baron says: "It's hard to find a more enjoyable travelling companion than the clever, charming, indefatigable Ms Lumley."

Joanna in turn is charmed by the Norwegian people and their tales of life in the far north, its myths and legends, and their experiences of the Aurora Borealis. She visits the remote fishing town of Å, spends a night inside an igloo hotel and meets the reindeer herdsmen of the Sami, Europe's last indigenous people, where she receives a snowmobile riding lesson from a four-year-old boy.

"I loved meeting the Norwegian people," says Joanna. "They were so courteous, such good fun and so kind, and they had a Viking way of staring right into your eyes. There was a wonderful artist who darned his clothes in bright colours so he looked like a little raggedy patchwork pixie and I found the Sami people very gracious. To be treated to a yoik, a traditional Sami song, by one of the community's elders was extraordinary. I think there's a real pioneer spirit running through the country – they have to be able to ski and skate from a very early age just to get about; they're tough little children. From the age of six they start learning English and by the time they're 11 they speak three languages."

Although Norway is a country well equipped for Arctic conditions, Joanna says parts of the journey proved tough going. "There were only five of us – camera, sound, director, producer and me – in masses of clothing, lumping 35 pieces of equipment everywhere, which was very good for your waistline. When we were outside, filming in minus-26 degrees, the cold was so intense it took your breath away."

Joanna describes the majestic snowfields, mountains and fjords as a "fairytale vision, savage, sublime and quite overpowering", but its greatest glory comes not from Earth but from space where particles, carried on solar winds, are attracted by the magnetic poles. As these particles hit the top of the atmosphere, their energy is converted into the most astonishing light show – the Aurora Borealis.

"We saw a bit of a showing on another night, but not enough to film and, because we were on a tight schedule and all had other jobs lined up, we were stuck. It was almost our last night and we were getting a little bit tense when this extraordinary man, Kjetil Skogli – an Aurora expert – came to assist us. He told us that conditions where we were would be bad again, but he had a feeling that if we went to a particular fjord we might have a good chance. So we drove like mad to set up the equipment and get into our survival kit.

"We stood on the foreshore shivering, it was so cold. The moon was bright, the wind was quite hard and the stars were very bright, the water was glittering. We stood there thinking what are we looking for, what is it? Then just above one of the hills was this extraordinary bloom, like a kind of algae, just growing, like a weird fence or curtains or snakes. It began to throb and pulsate into a very vivid green and then it began to split up and change. For about the next hour and a half it was just mind-blowing, we were all shouting to each other, sometimes lying on our backs like babies, it was like nothing I'd ever seen.

"It's not earthly light, these are solar atoms hurtling past and getting sucked in by the magnetic force of the world, you have to slow the camera apertures right down to get enough of this extraordinary light in. I had to stand as still as a rock, with the wind blowing and buffeting, so that they could film and then later show it in real time; it's a weird way of filming, but there's no other way of doing it. I think it may well be the best film the world has ever got of the Lights, they are phenomenally hard to capture."


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fascinating documentary. Does it cover/discuss how indigenous people view and understand the Northern Lights? I think that would be a critical component.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like something I'd want to see. I've only seen the northern lights once here in New Jersey, and pretty low on the horizon. It was still thrilling.

I wouldn't characterize the aurora's effects on radio as "bad", though; it just makes things different. I actually look forward to auroras. By knocking out reception of strong stations to the north, often you can receive unusual stations to your south. And that kind of chance is what makes DXing interesting.

Jonathan Marks said...

It does cover how the Sami people explain the phenonmenon. I see that BBC HD will be showing it again 26 Dec 2008 at 16:15 UTC and 28 Dec 2008
17:00 UTC.

Jonathan Marks said...

@ralph. Northern lights are bad if you're at the Arctic and relying on mediumwave signals from the other side of the pole. But I grant you, interesting if you're in lower latitudes and interested to see what chance throws in your direction.