Northern lights

Tom Webber finds a warm welcome and plenty of cod roe at a film festival in Norway's Arctic Circle

The farthest point on the horizon visible from Tromsø harbour is pincered between two hulking stone mountains, shouldering heavy coats of snow. I am here for the first time, entirely ignorant of Norway beyond the anguished wails of its artists and writers for a life not hemmed in by endless fjords. A limp glimmer of God's light blears in through the gap, from somewhere far, far away in the south. This luminous moment will last another hour at most before night descends at lunchtime, and I feel ready to sit in a cinema again. My insides squirm inside me like a bag of snakes. The taste of endless different fishy parts is still coating my mouth: the previous night I was invited to a banquet of cod steaks, cod cheeks, cod roe, cod liver, cod arsehole . . . I am a self-made victim of excessive hospitality.

Tromsø throbs with activity. The 17th International Film Festival is starting up and the city is full of foreign guests. Here to enjoy critics' week, I have been treated royally, handed the resources to make myself dangerously drunk in a succession of bars decorated with stuffed polar bears. Food is laid on at every turn, mainly buckets and buckets of delicious cod. To keep up, I have eaten shovelfuls of the stuff. At each party, I am shown around by droves of beautiful Nor wegian women whose petite frames belie the appetites of polar bears. They stuff in mountains of food with Viking-like gusto. Their appetite for cod in all its forms is matched only by their appetite for culture.

On arrival, I am informed that Tromsø is a great cultural centre. Can this be true? We are 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the final significant conurbation before Norway bends right and stretches off through the wasted tundra of the Sami people towards the North Pole. Everywhere in town the "northernmost" claims of each establishment - from museums, churches, libraries and universities to breweries and Bur ger Kings - are loudly trumpeted. "Cultural centre" would seem to be a hopeful claim.

We are on a tiny island in the centre of a bay, at the bottom of a bowl between mountainous meringue-peaks. Tromsø has a thoroughly frontier-town feel. All life happens on the main street, a lengthy, part-pedestrianised ribbon, lined with two-storey clapboard houses, that appears only recently to have forgotten the echo of horses' hooves.

Norway's northernmost trading and whaling city has long been famous as the "gateway to the Arctic", a beginning for fantastic journeys. Arctic game-hunters, explorers and dreamers have all started out in Tromsø. I meet a London director so taken with the place since he showed a film here, that he has just shot a feature set on the Svalbard archipelago. Another London acquaintance is preparing to be dragged off into the tundra by huskies for six months to deal with his mid-life crisis. Roald Amundsen and Fridjtof Nansen set off from here. Yet concurrent with this frost- bitten history is the city's self-identification for the past 200 years as a "Paris of the north".

In many ways, this is a very Norwegian as piration. Norway has long searched for a self-consciously liberal national identity, particularly since it became incredibly rich after discovering it was sitting on millions of barrels of oil. Part of that drive has involved the establishment of endless cultural festivals. Tromsø alone has a jazz festival, a rock festival and its film festival - coinciding with the day the sun comes back over the horizon and brings to an end what local people call the mørketid, or "dark times". It is a hugely enjoyable, chaotic affair. The city's mayor, Herman Kristoffersen ("Red Herman"), opens the festival with a speech in which he claims that this is a great place to see crap films. I see him, later that night, piling away pints in a bar. Clearly this is a man who does not go to the cinema much.

The programme is extensive and thrilling: alongside international blockbusters and worthy documentaries set in the circumpolar regions, the festival showcases Kill Buljo, a parody of Kill Bill set in the lands of the reindeer-herding Sami. At least the rest of the (mostly student) audience is far more eager to see what is on offer. A packed house sits through to the end of a feature-length Japanese ghost story erroneously supplied without subtitles. And one of the festival's biggest hits is a zombie sheep film from New Zealand.

It is an astonishingly friendly and straightforward occasion, with none of the usual peacocking of directors and producers. I speak to Kjell Fjørtoft, a local writer and activist whose dogged determination seems typical of the local spirit. He began making documentaries about the oppressed Sami people in the Sixties, a time when there were no film labs locally, or film stockists, or editing suites, compounded by the problems of trying to film in a land with little daylight.

At the last party I attend, I am taken outside by one of the many Elisabeths I have met, who waves a white handkerchief at the sky, yoicking "Au-ro-ra bor-e-alis" into the darkness. She promises that her personal magnetism will make it appear. Sure enough, like smoke rising from an invisible chimney, a plume of northern lights streams across the firmament. I stand rapt with a group of foreign journalists. "Come up, come further up," she pleads, and leads us to a hill at the top of the city. She steals a snow-shovel from a block of flats and we take turns to sledge on it down the street.

A Tromsønian in a string vest films us from his front room on a digital camera, then watches it on his flat-screen television, hooting with laughter as Elisabeth films him back through his front window. A Palestinian critic squeals with delight, unable to keep his footing on the ice he has never before experienced. He crashes into me and, still drunk, still in my city shoes, I slither all over the street before landing on my back, staring up at the green-streaked sky.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia