That’s the burning question in The Future of Hope, a new film about
life in post-crash Iceland produced and directed by British filmmakers,
Heather Millard and Henry Bateman. The grubby, greedy, every-man-for-himself-culture that brought the country to its knees has got to change—this is the resounding refrain of the documentary that presents views on the crisis from “ordinary folk” affected by the downturn as well as entrepreneurs, academics and visionaries. As well as tugging heartstrings and stirring the soul with moving imagery and rousing soundtrack (by Ampop frontman, Biggi Hilmarsson), it is persuasive in its presentation of opinion and ideas. How Iceland can develop a more sustainable way of living forms the movie’s theme and those interviewed speak in English, indicating that this is a movie geared primarily towards foreign audiences. Nevertheless, if the standing ovation following the premiere last Wednesday in Reykjavík’s Háskólabío cinema was anything to go by, the natives were evidently profoundly moved by this analysis of the crisis in their homeland.
Universal message of hope
While Iceland’s particular situation is the subject of the movie, the lessons are universal and applicable to all nations and communities that have ever experienced recession. As the title suggests, this is first and foremost a movie with an optimistic message: take responsibility for what we’ve broken and move on. A well-meaning self-help diktat, sure, but there’s truth in it. The philosophy of sustainable living has to underpin everything we do – economics included. Rather than viewing economic collapse as necessarily negative, the general consensus among those interviewed is that it presents an opportunity to bring about root and branch reform of an entire society. As Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Dean of School of Engineering and Natural Sciences and Sustainability Practitioner puts it, the world’s population is set to rise to 9 billion by 2050. Our current way of living in the west is not sustainable. We have to move away from our dependence on oil and the short-term consumerist mentality that presumes the earth’s resources are limitless. With good planning and single-minded focus, Iceland can be a model for sustainable development across the world, she says. “We’ve got to wake up to the fact that the age of cheap flights is about to end,” she warns. “Oil is running out.”
The maxim “Eat local, think global” offers a good summation of the model of sustainability given expression in the film. The benefits of joining the Slow Food Movement are much lauded—grow your own vegetables, eat organic and seasonal, make your own clothes, mend stuff rather than throw it away. Architects, carpenters, builders—quit whinging that you’ve no business and get off your asses and find something else to do. Enter the farmer who was laughed at by his mates when he told them he was going into organic tomato-growing. Twenty years later he’s still in the business, clearly loving it and planning on branching into tropical fruits using water from a fish farm to water the plants! Iceland, we are told, with its expertise in renewable energy science has a major role to play in the testing of new technologies. The country also stands at the forefront of this type of education, the goal being to attract international students to its north Atlantic shores and send them back home as confident, creative leaders—a catalyst for change and hope to move beyond the oil era to the age of renewable energy. “Anything’s Possible” is the Icelanders’ motto (at least according to this movie), and a physics professor presents this scientifically by showing us the lush pink roses he grew in the arctic climate of his very own garden.
Change, innovation and sustainable development constitute the movie’s buzzwords, repeated as often as images of the country’s scenic beauty and cute pictures of little chicks swimming after mother ducks on calm lake water. The movie’s main flaw is the insistent consensus that “collapse is good.” Were there no dissenting voices anywhere in Iceland? Perhaps the speakers in this film were simply at pains to make a good impression on foreigners? At one point in the film an entrepreneur who lost everything he owned in the economic meltdown is shown pouring over recent bank statements, clearly at his wits end. Applause and whinnying cheers broke out in the auditorium when, laughing, he gives the finger to the banks. But there was no further allusion to the devastation experienced by people on a personal level. We never get to meet those who’ve gone under and stayed under as a result of the crisis. What about those who are still suffering the effects and do not see a way out? Those who are drinking themselves into an early grave or who have decided to check out of life early as a permanent way of numbing the pain wrought by the crisis? The film did not investigate the darker side and as a result could be accused of denial of the hardship in which many people still find themselves embroiled.
I’m from Ireland, a country that’s bang slap in the middle of the worst economic recession the country’s seen since the 1930s. The Irish don’t make an art of hope. If ever they did. And certainly not now. Ireland’s airwaves resound with gloom and doom stories. As in Iceland, the vagaries of the weather have always been a favourite topic of complaint. Of late, however, recessionary gripes now trump talk of “another wash-out Irish summer” as the preferred subject of public conversation. This film, with its triumphant message of hope and contention that change will come through cooperation and community spirit, desperately needs to be shown back home. We Irish need to be shaken out of our pathological clinging to cynicism. The Icelanders in the movie may come across as overly optimistic, but at least in their hopeful state, however naive or delusional, they’re passionate, committed to their project and connected. That beats languishing in a state of fear and paralysis any day. The Irish, like many other citizens of the world, could do well to learn from the Icelanders, portrayed in this film as a people who hope as easily as they breathe.