From Iceland — Disappearing In Plain View: A Documentary Captures Glacial Decline

Disappearing In Plain View: A Documentary Captures Glacial Decline

Published December 5, 2023

Disappearing In Plain View: A Documentary Captures Glacial Decline
Photo by
Donal Boyd
Frank Nieuwenhuis

In a State of Change provides much-needed food for thought

“Sorry, that it made you feel sad,” says director Donal Boyd through my laptop screen one Monday morning. After seeing In a State of Change, a documentary co-directed by Donal and Frank Nieuwenhuis, this summer at the Hornstrandir Film Festival, we’ve made several attempts to meet for an interview. Yet, as often happens, life gets in the way, so this one is long overdue. The film follows Iceland’s diminishing glaciers from a personal perspective. And, honestly, it left me feeling heavy-hearted. “But one of the difficulties with this topic is that it inherently makes us sad,” continues Donal.

Donal, a wildlife photographer/conservationist, and cinematographer Frank, share similar journeys of relocating to Iceland – both moved here around the same time, captivated by Icelandic nature. The creative duo first came together in 2021 making the short film Volcano for the People, which follows the 2021 eruption through the lens of collective experience. In a State of Change is their second collaboration – an attempt to explore the implications of Iceland’s changing landscape through Donal’s eyes.

“We both saw the changes through our cameras and felt the need to do something about it.”

“The film was inspired by many different things,” Donal shares. “We’ve seen a lot of physical changes in Iceland – just from the places that we love to go to in the mountains and highlands that drew us here in the first place. Seeing them change in such a short period was an underlying basis of inspiration.” The book On Time and Water by environmentalist and best-selling author Andri Snær Magnason served as another major inspiration for the documentary. In it, Andri Snær explores the difficulties of talking about climate change.

“Donal and I share a similar journey with Iceland,” shares Frank, who always wanted to make a story about Iceland’s changing climate and environment. “We came around the same time in 2015. We both saw the changes through our cameras and felt the need to do something about it.”

“Both of us were living in our Land Rovers at that time,” laughs Donal.

Familiar landscape: then and now

While In a State of Change provides some scientific information, it was never meant to unload all the heavy facts on the viewer, but rather to make an emotional connection through beautiful visuals and personal stories. For Donal and Frank, it all started with one photograph. In his first years in Iceland, Donal lived in Þórsmörk, in the Volcano Huts area in the mountains. “There is a photograph on the wall in the Volcano Huts of a view of Steinsholtsjökull, one of the glacial outlets from Eyjafjallajökull. That photograph shows the glacier 100 years prior,” shares Donal.

IASOC

“With the film, we wanted to recreate that moment that we had when we both were in Þórsmörk and we both saw that photo,” Frank explains. The stark difference between the photograph from a hundred years ago and the glacier today was shocking. “We were there, we were familiar with that glacier and then we saw that picture. That’s when we realised more in a connected way that this is what climate change is doing,” Frank continues, adding that while most people are aware of the effects of climate change, it’s only through hands-on visual representation that you can truly grasp the scale. “Because we had that moment, we wanted to share that with the rest of the world. So they could experience that as well.”

“The idea was to shift people’s baseline back with photographs and stories from people living in Iceland.”

The original idea was to create a photo project comparing the transformation of Icelandic glaciers over the years. However, Donal questioned whether static images could evoke emotion as effectively as human stories. “One of the messages of the film that we wanted to get across is that we need to bring this to an emotional and relatable level. Photography is great for the impact and the immediacy of it. But I’ve learned and am still learning how powerful film can be for transforming people’s mindsets and understanding of the topic,” he says. Additionally, during the filming process, they discovered that similar photography projects already existed. One of them is even showcased in the film; that of Dr. Kieran Baxter, who has been documenting the glacier landscape in Iceland by combining historical photographs and drone photography. 

Shifting baseline

The directors explain that the concept for In a State of Change came from shifting baseline syndrome. Shifting baseline syndrome refers to how people’s perspectives and standards change over time based on their first reference point. For Donal, that was coming to Iceland and seeing Steinsholtsjökull for the first time. “Everything that I saw change was compared to that,” explains Donal. Then when Donal saw the 100-year-old photograph of the glacier at the Volcano Huts, his baseline changed from five years to more than 100 years back.  

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“When we don’t look back at photographs of old places, or we don’t understand or truly connect with that period, we don’t have a baseline and our baseline shifts to a newer timeline because the previous generation forgets,” he says.

In recent years, we have consistently come across news about the ongoing melting of glaciers, but trying to grasp the scientific data can be challenging, particularly if you don’t have anything to compare it to. “The idea was to shift people’s baseline back with photographs and stories from people living in Iceland,” Donal explains. It’s hard to comprehend complex scientific figures, “but if a woman who lived next to the glacier her whole life tells you a story about how she used to cross the glacier as a child to go pick berries and now she’s sitting in the spot where she used to walk to pick the berries, and you can see the glacier’s way far back and depreciated, and she shows you old photographs and talks about it, that’s a shift of the baseline.”

Lost in translation

IASOC

The woman mentioned above is Laufey Lárusdóttir, who grew up by Svínafellsjökull glacier. Donal and Frank highlight Laufey as their favourite interviewee, but it didn’t necessarily start out that way. They managed to get Laufey, who was 94-years old at the time, on the glacier, but since Laufey didn’t speak English, her daughter was translating. “We had high expectations for it,” Donal remembers. “But the interview just didn’t feel like it was lighting up.” Weeks later, the directors asked an Icelandic friend to translate the interview word for word and got an unexpected result. “She was sassy, sharp and witty. We didn’t get that at first,” explains Donal.

The film brings about personal perspectives of a cast of other people as well – starting with writer Andri Snær Magnason, glacier guide Olafur Kristinsson, environmental humanist Dr. Þorvarður Árnason and more.

Finding your role

In 2019, Iceland hosted a funeral for Okjökull, a glacier lost due to climate change. While often referred to as “the first deceased glacier,” dozens of unnamed bodies of ice preceded it and many more will follow. Some of Iceland’s beloved and oft-photographed ice caves may even disappear within the next year. The glaciers could lose half of their volume by 2100 – that may seem like a long way off, but it really isn’t.

Feeling overwhelmed, Donal and Frank almost gave up several times while making the film, before they realised that communicating about the problem is already a starting point. “Getting people to think about it in different ways – to empathise and to transform their understanding is already doing something,” says Donal. “Just from you watching the film, reflecting on your sadness, and trying to understand yourself, that is sort of the action that we hope people would take.” 

Watch In a State of Change online via waterbear.com

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