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Is the seed vault turning us all into ice zombies?
Thomas Zimmerman didn't have what it took to be a Nazi, but turning into an ice zombie overnight in Longyearbyen was no problem.
"We had nothing better to do," he said.
So Zimmerman and Stefanie Mentele, visiting from Germany, spent the second day of their vacation walking semi-robotically back and forth across the road in howling winds with a chill factor of more than -30C, carrying and stacking large ice blocks at Guesthouse 102. While not on any tour company's list of featured activities, it seems this is everyday life in a post-apocalyptic world somehow linked to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
The couple joined two others volunteering as actors in "The Nightmare Of Noah," a short movie by Geneva filmmaker Pauline Julier scheduled for completion this fall.
She said the movie, promoted as "a video of exploration halfway between documentary and science fiction," focuses on a futuristic Noah who becomes unable to stand his confinement in the seed vault and emerges to find the world has apparently disappeared under ice.
"He thinks it's the end of the world and he's all alone and nothing is alive," she said. While battling conflicting feelings of fear and plenitude, he sees a snow-covered village only to discover "they are people who alive, but they are doing absurd things."
Julier said the movie is meant to highlight concerns being ignored in generally positive coverage about the year-old seed vault, the world's largest such facility with the ability to store 4.5 million species of seeds as a safeguard against catastrophic events. Advocates call it a modern-day "Noah's Ark," but some dissenting organizations and individuals argue seed banks place too much trust and power in government and agribusiness entities, resulting in less effort to help farmers adjust to conditions and situations where they grow the crops.
"I don't trust the way they present the thing," Julier said. "The press and journalists present it like it's something amazing for all eternity. I just don't believe that."
It's not the first post-apocalyptic movie about the seed vault. "Frozen Seed," a nine-minute Canadian film Tim Bissell wrote in 2008 after reading an article about the vault, focuses on two scientists trying to get to a seed cache in a frozen wilderness after a nuclear war. They hope to bring to seeds to survivors in underground dwellings, but meet a team of commandos determined to recover the cache to feed those the government favors.
Julier and Xavier Lavorel, the sound technician for "The Nightmare Of Noah," spent several days in Longyearbyen filming landscapes, buildings in town and ice moving on the sea. She said the seed vault scenes will be filmed at a set in Geneva since they were unable to get permission to film inside the Svalbard facility.
A casting call for "silhouettes" was posted around town for the filming of the ice block scene March 16. Julier hoped to get 10 men between 18-50 years old, but had to settle for three men and one woman all apparently of the right age – not that it was obvious under their heavy clothing.
Joining Zimmerman and Mentele were two students from The University Centre In Svalbard, who said they had no luck convincing classmates to come out of a pub into the cold for an hour. One was Carl Ballantine of Newcastle, who said the plot description on the fliers was intriguing.
"It sounds a little like 'The Da Vinci Code,' only with the seed vault instead," Ballantine said.
The other ice zombie was Erik Warming Andersen of Copenhagen, who said this is the first movie he's been in "that I know of." Zimmerman said he auditioned to be a Nazi in the upcoming movie "Inglorious Bastards" starring Brad Pitt, but was rejected.
The small group gathered around a lone digital high-definition camera on a tripod about 100 meters up the road from the guesthouse, where Lavorel explained their roles.
"The goal is to pick up one block of ice and then you move it there and you put it on the stairs," he said. "The way to walk is not like normal people – not robotic, but kind of."
The scene is expected to be two to three minutes of a 25- to 30-minute movie, but the filming lasted considerably longer as the foursome – and Lavorel – picked the blocks up across the road from the guesthouse and stacked them near the entrance. Julier kept the camera in place as the howling wind provided the ideal audio backdrop, aside from a vehicle or two briefly interrupting. She said this movie is the toughest technically of four she had made, but the biggest challenge is "not to be so close to the snowmobiles because they're everywhere."
The actors didn't get any lines because the movie doesn't have any spoken dialect, just subtitles in French and English, Julier said.
Work on the film will be completed in Geneva, where six people are involved with the project, she said. It will be shown at festivals, but any other distribution – including whether it will be seen in Svalbard – is undetermined.
Julier said she started making films about four years ago, following a stint of humanitarian work such as educating children in places like Guatemala and Africa.
Her previous movies are "Autrement Dit," "Outo Hiljaisuus" and "Pamięć." The latter, released last year, is her most ambitious at 33 minutes, with the plot focusing on the relationships of a daughter, mother and grandmother, wartime in Europe and the elder woman's struggle with Alzheimer's Disease.
She said her next project may be an artist residency in Spain, but "I have a big movie for maybe the year after. It's four men in a bar and they're just speaking about masculinity."
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