From Iceland — Pool Stories: Director Jón Karl Helgason Explores Icelandic Bathing Culture In A New Documentary

Pool Stories: Director Jón Karl Helgason Explores Icelandic Bathing Culture In A New Documentary

Pool Stories: Director Jón Karl Helgason Explores Icelandic Bathing Culture In A New Documentary

Published November 4, 2022

Photo by
Spessi

“The Finns have their saunas, the British have their pubs, the French have their cafes. We Icelanders have our swimming pools,” reads the description of ‘Sundlaugasögur’ (‘Swimming Pool Stories’). Above is a blue poster, an aerial shot of a person taking a dip. Everybody knows Icelanders love their swimming pools. But is there more to this story?

The big pool adventure

Swimming pools have a defining social significance for Icelanders. In an attempt to research the topic deeper, director Jón Karl Helgason took an adventure around the country, visiting swimming pools from Reykjavik to Patreksfjörður. “I think I went four or five times around the country,” Jón says. The work on the documentary began in the winter of 2013-2014.

“It’s so easy to get acquainted with new people in the swimming pool.”

“First, I would go to the swimming pool as a normal guest,” he says. “It’s so easy to get acquainted with new people in the swimming pool. You just tell them stories, and they tell you a story.” Once the initial trust was built, Jón started to bring a small camera to the pool. Oftentimes, he would have to come back a few times to get the shot he needed. Finding the people and stories for the film was the most challenging part, he shares.

Meeting place for old and young

“When I was six years old, I went to the swimming pool every day. It was like my playground,” says Jón. He recalls his go-to swimming pool, Vesturbæjarlaug, having just one hot pot. Over time, more hot pots were added, and more activities started to be introduced at the facilities. “People found out that they could do a rehearsal in a swimming pool, they could do gymnastics, yoga, etc.,” says Jón. “Since I started the film, there have been more and more possibilities. That has been the change since I was young.”

Regardless of age, gender, or where they live, Icelanders in the movie are drawn to their swimming pool of choice. They could be commuting from afar for their kid to go to swimming classes for infants or going to a nearby pool just to catch up with old friends. For some, it is just an old but healthy habit, for others, one of the only available means of socialisation.

The people and their stories, especially the bonds they’ve made at the swimming pools, inspired the movie. “In Þingeyri, there was a group of about 20-30 people that meet every day—they swim, they read stories, they look after each other,” shares Jón. “If somebody is not at the swimming pool, they immediately phone them and ask if they are ok.”

A man of many hats

After having been to almost every pool in the county, I wonder whether Jón has a favourite one. “Krossnes is beautiful. When you’re in there, you can see the horizon, the ocean and feel like you’re alone in the world,” he answers.

‘Swimming Pool Stories’ trailer on Vimeo.

Surprisingly, while the documentary does feature stunning music by Ragnar Zolberg and beautiful aerial shots by Egill Aðalsteinsson and additional drone operators, Jón made most of the movie himself. “I have been in this business since 1980 as a makeup artist, stuntman, camera assistant, cameraman, editor, director and producer. I’m still going strong,” Jón laughs. “By filming, I found out that it’s best to do it alone because these are such personal stories that people are telling.”

“You can’t visit all the swimming pools as an Icelandic person. But a lot of people go to swimming pools,” shares Jón. “I thought maybe they would like to see what’s happening in other pools around the country.” ‘Sundlaugasögur’ is currently screening in Icelandic cinemas, allowing viewers to dip into life beyond their regular pool. For Jón, work continues—there are too many stories yet untold. “I am doing five other documentaries,” he says.

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