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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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On Thick Ice With Kitty Von-Sometime

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Artist Kitty Von-Sometime and a crew, including a friend brought along to monitor Kitty’s temperature in the cold, watched uncomfortably as their trailer full of film equipment, an ice sculpture, soda, and other potentially hazardous refreshments bounced in and out of sight in the rearview window as they approached Langjökull glacier. They were on their way to shoot ‘Opus,’ more than a year after Kitty produced her last installment of the Weird Girls Project. Originally conceived to encourage her female friends to push their boundaries, The Weird Girls Project began as a one-time event: the participants showed up with costumes

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RIFF 2014: Critic’s Picks

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‘Art and Craft’ dirs. Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker Mark Landis, one of the more prolific art forgers in American history, shopped for arts and crafts supplies at Hobby Lobby; painted, stained and varnished over photocopies from auction catalogues; and donated copies of the same works to multiple museums. While observing the ease with which the suggestion of largesse will open art-world doors, the film is less a meditation on creativity and originality than a sympathetic character portrait. Landis, a diagnosed schizophrenic often seen hunching over TV dinners in front of reruns, with few anchors in the world

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Meet The Directors!

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The Reykjavík International Film Festival (en.riff.is) runs through October 5, at Bíó Paradís, Háskólabíó, and elsewhere. The program encompasses features, documentaries, and short films by more than 100 directors–a handful of whom generously answered our questionnaire prior to bringing their films to Iceland. Heike Fink – ‘Home in the Ice’ This documentary tells the stories of German women who, during the lean years after WWII, responded to newspaper ads soliciting women to come work on Icelandic farms. Is there any specific aspect of the film you’re especially looking forward to sharing with an Icelandic audience? It was very interesting seeing the

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The American Indie Filmmaker’s Guide to Iceland

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The old man is describing how impressed he was with Geyser. “A cum shot to the sky,” he says, in his throaty good-old-boy accent. “Like the Devil’s exploding.” In ‘Land Ho!’, which opens the eleventh annual Reykjavík International Film Festival on September 25, Iceland is the backdrop for unlikely couplings. The film is codirected by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, two American filmmakers known for ambling, engaging indies featuring plenty of regional specificity, low-key drama, and off-kilter performers. In the film, ex-brothers-in-law Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson, the above-quoted) and Colin (Paul Eenhorn) take a trip to Iceland to “get their

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Who is Alice Olivia Clarke?

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Aside from the leads, most of the actors in ‘Land Ho!’  are either Icelanders in service jobs, or people associated with the production. Alice Olivia Clarke, who appears in a crucial late scene, is neither. Canadian-born, Alice Olivia has lived in Iceland for over 20 years, and in addition to acting (you maybe saw her in Dagur Kári’s ‘The Good Heart’, she works in Hafnarfjörður as a mosaic artist and designer. We discussed her experience with the film over email. You play a visitor to Iceland. How was it getting into that mindset? Did you think about Iceland in a

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Capturing Biophilia

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Way back in June 2011, English film editor Nick Fenton was one of the lucky few sitting in the crowd at the Manchester International Festival waiting to experience the live premiere of Björk’s epic Biophilia project. David Attenborough’s voice came over the speakers, the screens lit up, and the lights went down, and for the first time an audience was transported into the magical world of Biophilia: from the young and excited girl-choir to the specially constructed stage and dramatic new instruments, the dizzying array of nature footage, the firing Tesla coil and, of course, the grand dame herself, bobbing

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