Philosopher, filmmaker, writer and frequent-Grapevine contributor Haukur Már Helgason premiered his documentary ‘Ge9n’ (‘A9ainst’ is its English title) at the Skjaldborg film festival this spring. On the surface, the film purports to be an examination of the case and trial of ‘the Reykjavík 9,’ a group of nine seemingly unconnected dissidents that were charged with attacking Iceland’s parliament during the so-called ‘pots and pans revolution’ of 2008-2009.
The case of the Reykjavík 9 was an interesting and thought-provoking one (we’ve certainly printed enough articles on the matter) and one could rightfully assume that a documentary dedicated to investigating it would be all sorts of interesting. But upon viewing it, we discovered that it goes above and beyond being a straight up re-telling of the course of events and the following case and trial. It is an altogether different kettle of fish; it is an ambitious narrative that seeks to portray and criticise a side to Iceland and Icelandic society that—if it indeed exists—is quite alarming if not outright scary.
After viewing ‘A9ainst’ at Skjaldborg, Grapevine writer Ásgeir H. Ingólfsson wrote that “if enough people see it, it just might change the ways of the society it seeks to criticise.” That is a pretty hefty claim from Ásgeir, but while his review might be overstated it nonetheless becomes clear to any open-minded viewer of ‘A9ainst’ that rarely has Icelandic society been criticised in such a vicious and lucid manner on-screen. If nothing else, it does present a new way to look at our small community, leaving aside whether it rings true or not (that is for the viewer to decide for herself).
‘A9ainst’ will be premiered to the general public at Bíó Paradís on September 9. We wrote down some questions while viewing a screening copy the other day and sent them to Haukur Már—read on to learn more about what it all means.
IS HE REALLY COMPARING HIMSELF TO GALILEO GALILEI?
You are a philosopher, writer and filmmaker (and artist, even?), and while you don’t seem affiliated with a particular political party you can certainly be said to work within the realm of politics to the extent that it colours most of your creative output. How do the political and artistic realms collide within your creative persona?
There is still something to be learned from modernism. I’m not sure what comes first for me: philosophy, cinema or writing. Privately I refer to this founding moment of modernity, when Galileo Galilei turned a telescope towards the moon and the stars, and drew pictures of what he witnessed, which he then used to support the new Copernican world model. Turning everything on its head.
This may seem to be a little far-fetched, but there’s some focus there for my diverse activities. Galileo did several things at once. First of all, he used optics, the same optics cameras use today, to enhance or alter his vision. Only by looking at things a little differently did he actually see. Second, the essence of what he did: to look up, at the world, to see it for himself, rather than look down at the word of scripture. Third, he made himself into an automat, a camera, by copying as precisely as he could what he witnessed, the changing light on the moon’s surface etc. Fourth: no human can be a machine—his output, probably to his own frustration, had artistic value. Fifth: he supported his images with words, with theory, without which they would have remained mere doodles. Six: he published. He intended his discoveries to have an effect, not merely as private experiences, in the public domain. Seven: his published writing was rhetorically elaborate—but only to the extent of upholding evident verifiable truths, daring others to also look up and bear witness to the world. This, truthfulness, it’s very hard but it leaves space for fantastic humour. When faced with those authorities who would rather keep the Earth at the centre of the universe, Galileo mockingly gave in, because in the end his utterances would not alter the stellar orbits an inch.
So Galileo was a proto-filmmaker. Today we have three types of equipment to go on using our eyes as Galileo did: we have the telescope to look up at the heavens, the microscope to look down at miniatures, and then 50mm lenses to look around us, at people and their worlds. That’s how filmmaking lies somewhere between the arts and research. If your chosen subject matter is not the moon, but people then politics and power cannot be avoided. If you’re honest, they will enter the frame.
WTF IS ‘ICELANDIC CINEMA’?
Is there such a thing as ‘Icelandic Cinema’ and if so, what are its symptoms? What is its trajectory? Where is it headed?
Short answer: Yes, there is. Filmmaker and writer Þorgeir Þorgeirsson used to complain that Icelandic cinema had no humanist roots, as the cinemas of other European countries—if Icelandic cinema had any hope, he said, it would lie in the talent within the ad agencies. This was not meant as optimism. A lot has changed since he struggled for funding. Perhaps the most important change lies in a wealth of documentaries—Róbert Douglas, Grímur Hákonarson—even Þráinn Bertelsson’s early light-hearted comedies today seem like first-class documents on life in a particular society at a particular time. Humanist. Same goes for Ísold Uggadóttir’s sense of comedy, and Ragnar Bragason for that matter. But it’s hard to find any one particular tendency within Icelandic cinema—except the dangers that we face, which are pretty much the same as those Þorgeirsson spoke of. Funding for his project of documenting the Icelandic fisheries industry was cut short when he did not focus on the most technologically advanced ships or the friendliest crewmembers. No state or business has an interest in cinema as a truth-machine. The struggle between interests and truth is global, of course. Iceland, however, this village of ours, sometimes seems extra-neurotic about its image.
Your film seems unapologetically biased. It tells a one-sided story about righteous activists, faced with a state that you mock as a paradoxical mix of brutal, stupid, powerless and cute. What sort of filmmaking is this?
Some stories have to be told this way. Actually, I’d like to leave this notion of story behind—a film is not mainly a story. A film is first and foremost an image, an aggregate of images, making, hopefully, some sort of whole. In general, there is no such thing as an objective image. Simply the choice of subject material is already a biased decision that this deserves to be shown. ‘Here, I want to show you this’ is the basic gesture of any image. What drove me was a desire to show these people, these political animals. Thinking bodies. The powers they stand against don’t need my support to be visible, they shows themselves off all the time. With make-up and proper lighting, of course. Open any newspaper—it will be split in half: half business, half mainstream politics. Most of the imagery will be as the politicians or the businesses themselves prefer it. Very little space is given to reveal anything actually human, let alone any real passion.
WHERE ARE THE RVK9?
I was mildly surprised to learn how small a part the protests and actual RVK9 case played in the film, serving maybe more as a background or framework for the actual documentary to work within. Is there anything to be said about the RVK9 case still?
The case itself is important, but in my mind mostly as an expression of how a state operates. A state remains a state, whether a republic, democratic and liberal one or something else. Before anything else, it wants to survive. The non-violent action in Alþingi, that the people were prosecuted for, probably felt like an attack for some state officials, because of its surprise-factor. Things like this were not supposed to happen in Iceland. Nothing was supposed to happen in Iceland. So the state fights back, goes to lengths to quell anything that feels like rebellion.
You choose to interview the RVK9 at various locations that at first glance have little to do with the case or the person being interviewed. Do the locations bear any significance, or were they chosen merely for their aesthetic qualities? Were they chosen by yourself or perhaps the interviewees?
They did have a certain significance at the outset, but currently I am more curious to hear other people’s interpretations of those than mine.
Were there any obstacles you had to overcome during the filmmaking process?
There were two locations that we did not get license to use: we wanted to film one interview next to German fighter jets that stayed in Keflavík in 2010, and we wanted to film inside an aluminium smelter. Neither proved possible. The military-industry complex is very neurotic about cameras.
But in what could foreseeably have been my major obstacle, finding a crew willing to work on the project for, let’s say, very uncertain financial gains, I was almost miraculously fortunate. Producer and sound designer Bogi Reynisson believed in the project from early on, and working with him has simply been a joy. Top professional. Same goes for cinematographer Miriam Fassbender, who stayed in Iceland for three weeks of shooting—our cooperation was more turbulent, but every drop of sweat payed off. Her contribution to the film is invaluable. A lot of other people have been unbelievably generous with their time and talent: composers, musicians, extras, and managers at most locations.
Whence do you derive the film’s title?
Gegn means several things in Iceland: ‘against’ and ‘versus’ is the most obvious translation. But it also means ‘through’ and it means ‘obedient.’ It hits several key notes. The 9 is then some sort of direct action against the title itself—9 forces its way into an otherwise rather tranquil little word.
IS IT TRUE?
To what extent are you choreographing and editing your subjects’ statements to fit your own? The group is comprised of vastly different people that seem to adhere to differing ideologies, with maybe only their willingness to be radical or go against the grain as unifying factor (and maybe a shared discontent with the current state of affairs). Yet one leaves ‘A9ainst’ feeling as if a message or statement has been imbibed, even a coherent one (although one might be hesitant to point out specifically what that statement is). This leads one to imagine that the cunning filmmaker has created a narrative out of these different voices (perhaps this is what a filmmaker’s job is), but again I guess the question is: did that message or statement come before or after the fact? Or maybe there isn’t one and I’m imagining the whole thing?
Of course there is a common line there—at least the one that made it possible for those nine to unite in that one particular action. I definitely chose the subject-matter partly out of sympathy with their action and their common struggle, but during the process of making the film I don’t think I ‘choreographed’ them so much according to my own beliefs as according to the demands of the film as some sort of totality. I’m probably in the film no less than the subjects are, but it is not intended to be my personal propaganda machine. Rather some sort of truth-extractor. What truth gets extracted however will definitely depend on the viewer—I think many foreigners will see quite a different film than most Icelanders. What may be novel in an Icelandic context, for example to hear a friendly elderly female poet nonchalantly explain: ‘Of course I was a commie’ is measured on a different scale in an international context, where such a line remains, perhaps, mostly cute. I’m very curious about how foreign viewers will respond to it, if at all.
During the protest wave of 2008-2009 you founded and operated a news and analysis website, Nei., which provided some rather thoughtful and often radical commentary on the ongoing events, as well as articles and dissertations that seemed to probe deeply into Icelandic society in apparent attempts to understand what was happening and why? Could tell our readers a bit about that medium and its story, but more importantly: To what extent if any can ‘A9ainst’ be construed as a continuation of your work at Nei.?
The website-called-newspaper was something that felt very urgent when other media completely failed to satisfy the public. I think at some point every participant in the uprising read Nei. The lengthiest articles had the biggest readership, up to 6.000 or 7.000 visitors in a day. 5–17 pages, you won’t find such material in any printed newspaper today. But this was a strange year, certainly. Obviously there is a continuation in the sense of subject matter between Nei. and ‘A9ainst’, but they also function in very different ways. One being invested in the moment, during much turbulence, the other stopping by to dive into one point in time.
After the film’s premiere at Skjaldborg, Ásgeir H. Ingólfsson wrote in this magazine that it was a very important film that had the potential to shake and stir Icelandic society. Wow, huh?
If it has any impact, I would think it is a rather slow-breeding one. I hope the film may be around for a new generation coming along to ask its parents tough questions. Most adults already have too much invested in the status quo to seriously question the foundations of society.
How do you envision the movie to affect the community it is targeted at, i.e. what are your ‘desired results’ with this particular piece of work?
I would like people to see it, obviously. Where it goes from there is really not something I have thought about. I think seeing what is in the world has intrinsic value—seeing it and sharing it. How people then react to what is shown, that’s not really my business. We are all stuck in a political reality but I’m not a politician. And a film is not a politician.
What are your future plans in the field? Are you making more movies? Would you make ‘fiction’?
This film has to be marketed as ‘documentary’ to give it a place in a shelf. But I don’t think of this as a significant line of separation. Valid fiction is as much documentary as a decent documentary is. I don’t know, you’re supposed to advertise your next project in an interview like this, but I just don’t know what I will do next. And it is never yours alone to decide—you need people to work with, you need money. I’m lucky to be as interested in writing as filmmaking. It makes me less dependent on financing of projects. Filmmaking remains somewhat expensive. I just came from a conference of small publishers in Oslo, on behalf of ‘Perspired by Iceland’, which we now call a non-publishing non-house, and found it very inspiring to realise that some of the world’s most influential publishing houses, such as Semiotext(e), are run and have been run for decades, without any superstructure: without offices, without a phone system, without fund applications—literally publishing their books from their kitchens, bedrooms and cafés. That’s sort of how I’ve always worked, but in Iceland I always start felling like that’s something I must outgrow. We really need to rethink what it means to be an adult. .
What, if anything, did you learn in the process of making ‘A9ainst’?
I don’t know. Learning tends to take such a long time.
VIEW THE TRAILER RIGHT HERE: