There are “oceans” of albums out there, says the crane operator—more music than he could ever listen to in his lifetime, so he doesn’t try to keep up with everything anymore. Download as much as you like, but you’ve still got the same two ears and twenty-four-hour days. So just do what you can. The crane’s pulley creaks, and another pallet of frozen fish comes up from the hull of a freezer trawler.
‘Keep Frozen’, the first feature-length film from artist and filmmaker Hulda Rós Guðnadóttir, considers the necessary anachronism of manual labour in the modern world. Shot in Reykjavík’s old harbour, just west of of downtown, the film documents the grueling workday of the dockworkers who unload tonnes upon cardboard-boxed tonnes of fish frozen at sea, from the dark of a winter morning into the dark of a winter night.
Hulda Rós, who has worked in sculpture, mixed-media, installation and performance art, attends to the rhythm of work, isolating the repetitive, inexorable choreography of men and machines: boxes are heaved, stacked, ferried by forklift and wrapped in plastic on a sort of Lazy Susan contraption, whirring sluggishly. Other visual artists and filmmakers have lately been attracted to the late-industrial majesty of the fishing and shipping sectors; with its focus on the stevedores servicing the floating fish factories that consolidated and transformed the Icelandic economy, you could consider ‘Keep Frozen’ the humbler dry-land companion piece to Peter Hutton’s ‘At Sea’, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s ‘Leviathan’, or Mauro Herce’s ‘Dead Slow Ahead’.
But despite the rigor of its visuals, this film is not strictly abstract. Voiceovers complement the drudgery, like daydreams, as the men—they’re all men—reflect, in Icelandic and Polish, on their work. Their concerns are very contemporary: in their acknowledgement of the linguistic and cultural hierarchies which persist in long-running blue-collar concerns in the Schengen era; and especially in their flashes of nostalgia, which recall ‘We Are Still Here’, the recent documentary about shuttered fish factories and dying Westfjords villages, or more than one recent fiction film about phlegmatic farmers clinging to a way of life, way off the Ring Road. The subjects of ‘Keep Frozen’, trudging in workboots and safety gloves through the rapidly gentrifying Grandi area, with its boutique hotels and ice-cream parlours, express bemusement at Iceland’s brave new world of tourism and entrepreneurship (the tourists who came to take their picture, the suits who ask them to keep it down), while recalling where their scars came from. They’re proud of the work they do—they’re the guys with the hard-muscled forearms, who do the shitty work of shoveling food into your and my soft bellies—though any hint of machismo is short-circuited by the film’s overall tone of breakroom deadpan, with an impassive fixed camera capturing sparse, goofy banter and bone-dry small talk. Still, the film remains, in its way, quite patriotic. The title ‘Keep Frozen’ comes from the instructions on each box of frozen fish, but it may also suggest an imperative for Iceland to retain some close, frosty national spirit: Stay cold, ponyboy.
Watch the trailer here!