Jón Ársæll’s latest work documents a 60-year search for gold
“This is not the film I set out to make,” says Jón Ársæll Þórðarson in his distinct, gentle timbre, peering intently from behind round, thick-rimmed glasses. “I had some ideas at the beginning, but the story took a different path and I followed it.” The film Jón is referring to is ‘Leitin að Gullskipinu’—‘The Search For The Goldship’ in English. It tells the story of a famous wreck, the stranding of the Dutch vessel Het Wapen Van Amsterdam off the south coast of Iceland in 1667. The ship was lost as it tried to return to Holland from the Dutch colonies in what is Java today, supposedly heavily laden with riches galore: copper, silk and fine linens, raw diamonds, and spices.
“People were always talking about it”
Specifically, Jón’s documentary looks at the life that this boat has led in the Icelandic consciousness ever since. Extensive searches for the ship have been conducted over the years, and a new endeavour, using the latest drone technology, commenced in 2016. “Ever since I was a little boy, I was fascinated by the story of the Goldship. My friendsand I would ‘make’ gold by taking stones and painting them. We would put the gold and the silver into small chests and bury them in the sand, and then dig it up every now and then. This was surely related to the story of the Goldship—people around us were always talking about it.” Later in Jón’s life, the story of the Goldship reemerged, as a team lead by Bergur Lárusson and Kristinn Guðbrandsson hunted for the boat in the 1970s and 80s—extensive archive footage of which is included in the documentary. The story dominated newspaper headlines for years, infecting the nation with excitement about recovering this famed ship full of riches.
The mission was ultimately a failure, recovering instead the wreck of a German trawler. Then, in 2016, Jón heard that Gísli Gíslason, an Icelandic entrepreneur, was planning to take up the project. He immediately got in touch with Gísli and asked to document the attempt. “It got to be a little bit of a problem, me involving myself,” Jón explains. “I wanted to be an independent filmmaker. But I am enthusiastic, and again and again, I kind of became involved.
“I am not part of the team.” Jón says, firmly—seemingly as much to himself as to anyone else. “But I’m terribly interested in the story. And if—when—they find the ship, it will be world news”This is perhaps partially what Jón means when he says the film took a different direction from his original plan. While progress has been made with the new technology employed by Gísli and his team, ultimately, no boat has been found as of yet. Jón’s moviedoes not provide the proverbial ‘money shot’, so to speak. For now, the great Goldship remains lost to the sands of Skeiðarársandur, and of time.
“The story goes on”
But the story of Het Wapen Van Amsterdam does not end here. Just as Gísli intends to return with his team and finally resurrect the long-lost vessel, Jón too is not finished with the Goldship. During his extensive research on the tragic wreck, and on the 17th century more generally, Jón uncovered a myriad of twists, turns and unexpected connections, many of which there was only time to briefly touch upon during this documentary. From tales of farmers sleeping on silken sheets, to the child fathered by a Dutch sailor whose ancestors still live in Iceland to this day, the winding narratives that stream out from this one, key moment in history seem never-ending. Jón intends to stick with them for now, and not least with the search itself.“The story goes on,” Jón says, emphatically. “I know that the ship is there. Finding it is a question of minutes. How many minutes? I don’t know. But it’s a question of minutes.”
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