“The town is dying,” a then-24-year-old woman working at the Flateyri gas station told a Grapevine reporter, back in 2006. The reporter, now our editor-in-chief, continued: “in a few years’ time,” she felt sure, the small Westfjords town’s “population would be comprised of a mixture of those too old to leave and the immigrant workers who keep to themselves.” That was before the Icelandic economy collapsed, and the local fish factory went bankrupt.
‘We Are Still Here’, an Icelandic documentary playing with English subtitles from November 27 through December 2 at Bíó Paradís, tells the story of Flateyri (pop. 190) over the last decade. It’s a period that has seen considerable consolidation in Iceland’s fishing industry: under the quota system, as currently constructed, the right to fish is held by an ever-shrinking number of larger companies. These companies naturally centralize their operations in larger ports—quota isn’t tied to any particular coastal region, it can move around the country, and on-board freezing equipment means the larger vessels can stay out at sea longer than ever—and many Icelanders blame this arrangement for choking the life out of small towns like Flateyri, which aren’t large enough to be self-sustaining without the presence of that single monolithic employer.
‘We Are Still Here’ director Ásdís Thoroddsen shot footage in Flateyri going back to 2010, and the film watches the town’s fish factory change hands several times, as owners restart operations, and scramble to lease enough fishing quota to keep the factory floor occupied (while also trying to branch out into aquaculture and processing with fish byproducts). Our guides through this process are several residents of the town, who in interviews tell us what they reflect on the changes in the town since the crash years, and ponder whether to stay, and what to do.
We meet a Polish fisherman, and a fish packer; Icelandic sea captains; a local historian; and a truck driver, who’s paying off the debts on the high-end recording studio which briefly brought a little life to the town (back in our pre-kreppa article, the studio’s prospects looked much brighter). Everyone was born here, or came here to work in fishing. Late in the film, we meet a man from Reykjavík, who’s bought a house in town to use as a summer place—and, can it be, a glimpse of tourists?
The film documents the attempt to “save” the town, and its tone gives the viewer a real, humble, lived-in sense of the way of life that’s at stake. The interview subjects are patient and mostly soft-spoken, and the filmmakers give them plenty of time to warm up to the topic of the fishing quota and the future of Flateyri, allowing for digressions about the road administration, or explanations of family history. There’s a nice dozy rhythm many of the exterior shots; at times, we simply look through the windshield of a car on a dark winter morning, as the windshield wipers go back and forth and brush off the snow.
‘We Are Still Here’ is “very Icelandic,” in its focus on small-town life and the hardy, phlegmatic people who prefer it; we get gorgeous glimpses of mountains and fjord; and go out to sea, where the labor of butchering the catch is palpable, and the sting of the cold, wet air. But it’s also a very multicultural film: interviews are conducted in Icelandic and Polish (one subject speaks Polish in her early interviews, Icelandic in her later ones), and we see both native-born Icelanders and foreign-born workers lingering over coffee and debating local politics.
The film reflects the changing landscape of Iceland’s legacy—the dwindling population of fishing villages, and the workforce in the fish industry, is increasingly populated by foreign workers, as younger Icelanders look to the capital, and beyond. (In the film, we don’t often see the two groups mingle—except on the dance floor at a small-town midwinter feast.) By spending time with people seeking to maintain a self-sufficient community in this small, remote village, We Are Still Here pays tribute to the spirit of Iceland’s “independent people”—but it may also show their dependence on economic and political forces much larger than what they can control.