Music documentaries about Iceland have had a fairly spotty past, and their titles are often met with extended groans, so when I came across the Australian-made title ‘Atlantis, Iceland’ in this year’s RIFF program, I knew I had to witness it. The description of the film presented it as approaching Iceland’s punk scene, which highly intrigued me, given that those are my people. I knew this one deserved a chance.
The movie begins with the basis of a potentially interesting central story about a nameless, faceless Australian man fascinated by three young Icelandic girls he had seen in a movie years ago. The film’s title eludes him but the images of the girls haunts him. As he arrives in Iceland, the country hits one of the many recent political fracases and the man’s inner activist punk is galvanized to engage.
Unfortunately the film quickly cuts away to poorly contextualized interviews with local bands who reinforce old clichés, clearly spurred on by poor questions. Answers from Allie Doersch—vocalist for Tófa, and an American immigrant to Iceland—seem to suggest basic questions about why she wanted to move there. The questions generally miss opportunities to ask people engaged in political punk rock about even the basic electoral process. Instead of examining the culture of being quiet and lining up properly at the polls, they simply state: “So quiet, so polite, so Iceland”—proving that the interviewers spent zero time downtown on a weekend night out. So loud, so belligerent, so Iceland.
The filmmakers take one opportunity to delve into political discussion by prodding the minds of the masses at a Halloween costume party, where the unnamed, intoxicated speakers deliver cringe-inducing repartee worthy of a 9th grade angst manifesto. At this point it feels like the movie may have veered entirely away from its original plot. It even seems to cease being a music documentary. But it all keeps circling back to these places in sharply edited, recycled footage and bizarre displaced narration.
One of the best parts of the movie is the inclusion of comedians Hugleikur Dagsson and Jono Duffy, who present one of the most realistic, down to earth and non-clichéd perspectives in the film. But again, it comes out of nowhere, existing in its own space. The scene ends and immediately cuts away to the banking crash of 2008 and the Panama Papers scandal.
The film’s return to constantly discussing how beautiful people outside of Iceland think the country is, and the rising tourist interest, comes across as grating and smarmy. It’s glaringly false when it’s claimed that Iceland is one of the last “untouched” places in the world, when huge sections of the country’s natural landscape have been decimated by heavy industry (see: Káranhjúkur).
The movie best holds together when it returns once again to the central plot surrounding the three girls in the movie. Eventually the mysterious man finds that these girls were from Chris Marker’s ‘Sans Soleil,’ but this anticlimactic reveal topples the projected ideal of perfect happiness that he derived from those images. The mysterious faceless character suddenly disappears from sight and seemingly from actual existence. He has realised that there is no Atlantis under this frozen rock, and the shattered illusion shatters the narrative. The movie’s bizarre conclusion seems to abandon any connection to its original aim and what’s left feels like the kind of sandwich you make when you’re high—two pieces of plain white bread on the outside and a lot of bullshit in the middle.