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Saving Iceland

Published May 8, 2009

Most of the major disputes of the past ten years have now been settled. The War in Iraq was a terrible idea. Neo-liberalism was a terrible idea. Privatizing the banks was a terrible idea. However, the jury is still out on Kárahjúkavirkjun, the colossal dam in the highlands. From a conservationist point of view, the dam is an unmitigated environmental disaster. That much is clear. The question now is, what did we get in return?
    The movie Dreamland criticizes the project from both of these viewpoints. The book of the same name is one of the most important Icelandic books of the last decade or so. Its attention to detail, and the research involved, put most local journalists to shame. It also, incidentally, proved that a non-fiction work released in the spring could sell a lot of copies.
    The movie is more blunt. The scenes of the area from the air are breathtaking, the scenes of a mother duck trying to save her babies from drowning, heartbreaking. No one was expecting this film to be politically neutral; in fact, neutrality can be callous when the future of your country is at stake. But it starts to grate a little. A ditty about a bogeyman is heard when we see the head of Alcoa; the film goes all Michael Moore by showing the Minister of Business bang her head in a bus; and a piano teacher talks about the spirit of the mountain just after we have seen one of the staunchest opponents of the dam talk, doing him few favours. The film is at its most effective when it leaves narration aside and concentrates on real news segments. It is only when we step back and look at what was actually said that we begin to understand the magnitude of what has happened.
In the end, though, none of this really matters. The future of the country is at stake, and this documentary should not be judged on aesthetic merits, but on what it contributes to the debate.
    The highlands are gone. The two main questions remaining are:
a)    Did the building of the dam contribute to, or even cause, the economic collapse?
b)    Was Iceland to some extent bankrupted by economic hit men and/or aluminium companies?
    The film answers neither of these questions, but just by asking them it may offer a glimpse of the larger picture. The evidence that John Perkins submits regarding the hit men theory is circumstantial. Still, he says that if hit men were at work, we should expect to see former politicians become consultants for the company. This is precisely what happened with the mayor of Egilsstaðir.
    But did the dam bankrupt the country? One of the economists consulted thinks so. Sadly, the film, though released in April, was made too early to adequately deal with the connection between the collapse and the dam. Perhaps it should have come out later. And yet, it didn’t come soon enough. The movie predicts that if the dam will lead to an economic collapse, the only remedy seems to be to build yet more dams in an ongoing vicious circle. This is exactly what seems to be happening right now. It seems more likely than not that the true cost of the dam was not just environmental, but will have indebted the country financially for decades to come.
    One leaves the cinema feeling both sad and angry towards our former leaders who will probably go down in history as the most incompetent rulers of this, and perhaps any, country. In this sense, the film achieves its goal and should be seen by everyone. But a little more restraint might have made it even more effective.



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