Why you should care
The radical sound of 1970s Greenland is now on film.
In 1972 Greenlanders were second-class citizens in the Danish Kingdom. Laws kept wages unequal to those in Europe, and the Danish language was promoted over the native Kalaallisut as part of the vast, snow-swept island’s “Danification.”
That same year Sumé (“Where”) was formed, a band that would forever change the course of Greenland’s history. In 1973 the foursome released their first LP, Sumut (“Where To?”). It was the first-ever album sung entirely in Greenland’s native language, and it called for a resistance to Danification. Words like “revolution” and “oppression” were added to the local lexicon. To the standard rock setup of guitar, bass and drum kit, Sumé added a traditional frame drum.
A fifth of all Greenlanders bought Sumut, propelling Sumé to cult-hero status. Now, 42 years after the album hit shelves, its creators are the subject of a film, Sumé: The Sound of a Revolution, by local director Inuk Silis Høegh. The documentary, which chronicles the band’s rise to fame and its effect on Greenland’s politics, has won admirers across the world, and is spearheading a new dawn in Greenlandic cinema.
By 1977, with two more albums released, the band had split up. Singer Per Berthelsen would forge a career in politics, heading up Greenland’s Democrats party, while fellow frontman Malik Høegh would found Greenland’s first record label, ULO.
Some people, especially those in Copenhagen’s ruling classes, denounced Sumé’s open use of radical, anti-colonial imagery. The cover of Sumut, for instance, featured an 1860 woodcut of a mythical Greenlandic beast, Qasapi, cutting the arm off a Norse colonizer. Critics pointed out that Denmark had dropped Greenland’s colony status in 1953 under U.N. pressure. Wasn’t that enough?
For most, no. Greenland remained very much subject to Danish rule during this period. But in 1979, riding a wave of “Greenlandification,” the country won home rule from Denmark. The Greenlandic language has enjoyed a rebirth in local classrooms, restoring its widespread use among the island’s 56,000 people.
Sumé’s old bandmates still play reunion gigs, and the band remains wildly relevant today, argues director Høegh. “The issues they sang about — finding one’s own way, standing up against authority, strengthening Inuit identity and independence — are still very important to discuss,” he says.
Høegh’s movie comes amid a renaissance for Greenlandic cinema. For decades there was nothing. Then, in 2009, Aka Hansen produced Hinnarik Sinnattunilu, a comedy that was the first feature to be produced entirely by native Greenlanders. Then came Inuk, a critically acclaimed film following a young boy’s journey from the south to the north of the island.
In 2012 Ivalo Frank, a Greenland-born Danish filmmaker, founded the Greenland Eye Festival in Berlin, which aims to bring local cinema to a global audience. In 2013 the animated short Tupilaq won awards and a spot at Sundance. What’s great, Frank says, is “growing a community from nothing, but also relating it so intrinsically to the politics of a region.”
Cheaper cameras have also helped, says director Høegh. But in Greenland, one of the costliest places to live on Earth, he’s impressed by what people can make out of minuscule budgets. Whatever it takes, Greenland has many more stories to tell, and they’re inviting the world to watch.