Filmmaker heads far north in tribute to 'Arctic Jenny'

A Shetland filmmaker is to return to the same remote Arctic community captured by fellow island documentary maker Jenny Gilbertson 40 years ago.

Filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson, from Shetland, made several trips to the Arctic and made her last journey to the region aged 76. PIC: Shetland Archive.

Shona Main will venture to Grise Fiord in June to revisit some of those documented by Gilbertson, who last travelled to the Arctic aged 76, and chart changes to the community since then.

Gilbertson broke new ground with her 1978 programme Jenny’s Arctic Diary, when the filmmaker embedded in the community some 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle to live alongside those who survived largely on seal hunting and fishing.

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Filmmaker Shona Main will travel to the Arctic in June. PIC: Alan Richardson.

Ms Main, who was raised in Shetland and now splits her time between the islands and Dundee, described Gilbertson as a “phenomenal” woman and filmmaker who worked outside the system, funding, producing and distributing her own projects.

Ms Main, PhD Student at Stirling University and Glasgow School of Art, will spend six months in Grise Fiord with help in organising the trip received from resident Larry Audlaluk, who appeared in Gilbertson’s original film.

She said: “I am going to hear first hand from a number of people who lived and filmed with Jenny.

Jenny Gilbertson often travelled alone and shot, produced and distributed her films herself. PIC: Shetland Archive.

“I will be filming their life 40 years on. Things have changed quite dramatically there over time so I am walking into a different Grise Fiord that Jenny walked into 40 years ago.”

While the people of Grise Fiord have experienced fundamental political and environmental changes since Gilbertson visited the Arctic, Ms Main says some things have remained the same.

She said: “A supply ship comes once a year in September before winter really sets in but large amounts of seal and whale are still eaten, which of course I will fully embrace.

“They have one month of summer and by mid-November, the days pass in total darkness.”

Larry Audlaluk starred in Gilbertson's film Arctic Jenny 40 years ago and has helped to organise Shona Main's trip later this year. PIC: NLSMIA.

Ms Main, 48, is learning Inuktitut ahead of her trip to allow her to engage as fully as possible with her hosts.

The relationship between filmmaker and subject is a key aspect of her research.

Ms Main said: “Jenny made her films on the basis of friendship. She would cook for them, share food with them.

“She would show them how to use a camera. She would send her film over miles to be developed and she would show it to them. She was really interested in how they felt about being represented.

“She let her subjects do what they wanted to do and she basically followed them around with her camera. As a result of that, her work feels very honest.”

Ms Main will carry a “minimalist” film kit to the Arctic in reference to Gilbertson’s low-tech productions.

Clothing is being supplied by Glenrothes-based outdoor wear specialists Keela, who design garments for the emergency services, with a few home comforts being taken too.

They include a wooden butsudan - a little wooden shrine used by Buddhists - Earl Grey tea bags, Lidl chocolate and Farmacia Santa Maria Novella perfume.

Also amongst her essentials will be a Nielanell Fair Isle smookie, a type of fisherman’s smock, that will “never be off my back,” Ms Main said.

Gilbertson originally trained as a teacher, before taking a secretarial course with journalism in London.

She decided to go into filmmaking after seeing an amateur film of a Loch Lomond holiday and started to make educational clips.

Gilbertson arrived in Shetland to film seasonal life in January 1931 and by autumn had made A Crofter’s Life in Shetland. Several films on Shetland followed, with the harsh realities of crofting life documented.

After setting up a hosiery business in Shetland, Gilbertson decided business was not her future. Her career included several trips to the Arctic, usually travelling alone, with her work shown by the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

Ms Main added: “Jenny was from a merchant’s family but found it a very suffocating, conventional life. She wanted an escape. I think all women can relate to Jenny Gilbertson.”

The impact of climate change on the Grise Fiord community will be examined by Ms Main with health, food security, livelihoods and culture of the Inuit considered to be at serious risk from global warming.

Ms Main will also reflect on political changes in the community. The Land Claims Agreement, which created the territory of Nunavut, has given some rights to the Inuit with The Canadian Government also paying millions of dollars in compensation to families whose children were removed from their homes and sent to state-run boarding schools.

For more information and to support the trip, visit