Imagine hundreds of Icelanders descending upon rural America to partake in what seems a very American pastime: racing, crashing and rapidly rebuilding oversized vehicles. Though this sounds like a cultural exchange program gone awry, it’s entirely authentic—so authentic that this Nordic escapade is the subject of a forthcoming documentary entitled ‘From Top to Bottoms’.
Off-roading—the act of competitively driving heavy-duty vehicles across unpaved tracks clogged with mud and rock—is not as quintessentially American as one might think. The sport, which is often criticized in the US for marring national parks and fragile ecosystems, has a long history in Iceland: in the late 1960s, a Jeep club in Akureyri started revving their engines across marshlands and lava fields. The activity became known as “torfæra”—which translates to “hazard.”
“I fell in love with the crowd and how they act and talk,” says Andri Freyr Viðarsson, the film’s director. “These are unique people, basically lunatics.”
Andri grew up in eastern Iceland, where kids in the 1990s ogled over torfæra and its kingpin, Árni Kópsson. “He was the coolest guy; he won every competition,” recounts Andri. “He used to drive around the country and sign posters and give kids Coca-Cola.” Andri had three posters in his childhood room, and one of them depicted Árni’s car.
When Árni retired in the mid-90s, torfæra went underground. But the sport still held sway over Andri: in 2015, he was invited to be an announcer for a competition in eastern Iceland. It was there he heard that 15 drivers and their retinue of crewmen and relatives were heading to Bikini Bottoms Off Road Park in Dyersburg, Tennessee—and what’s more, Árni was coming.
“When I heard he was going to bring his old car back, rebuild it and go with them after a 20-year break, I called him up, asked if I could go to his garage and follow him to America,” says Andri.
The rest, as they say, is history: Árni assented, the Icelanders crammed their cars into shipping containers, and off they flew to the land of the big, bombastic and beer-guzzling. When they arrived in Dyersburg, the motel manager gave them three rules: don’t hold hands, don’t say “Hillary” and don’t say “Clinton.” The next night he showed them his guns.
Rather than provide a play-by-play of the races, Andri wanted to discern what makes torfæra enthusiasts tick: many of the drivers work at sea for much of the year, then spend all their money on their cars during the summer.
“If it were me, I would be sitting on a beach drinking beer, not going from hard work in Iceland to work somewhere else even harder,” Andri says.
And the title? It’s not just a reference to the off-road park. It’s also a marketing tactic.
“A lot of horny people will mistake it for a porno and buy it,” says Andri.
‘From Top to Bottoms’ (‘Spólað Yfir Hafið’, or ‘Rowing the Seas’ in Icelandic) debuts at Bíó Paradís on 20 April with English subtitles.