A Quiet Riot: Documenting Iceland's Constitutional Reform

A Quiet Riot: Documenting Iceland’s Constitutional Reform

Published July 23, 2015

A Quiet Riot: Documenting Iceland’s Constitutional Reform
Ciarán Daly
Photo by
Eileen Jerrett

In the years following the financial crash, a popular narrative of a ‘new’ Iceland emerged. This was an Iceland which had solved all its problems forever and for all time by jailing all of the corrupt bankers, by overthrowing its government in a so-called ‘kitchenware revolution’, and by ‘crowdsourcing’ a radical new constitution—one founded on transparency, civil rights, and directly democratic reform.

This narrative was—and still is—an inspiration to many people across the world, especially on the popular left in austerity-stricken countries like Greece, Ireland, and Spain. Many visitors to Iceland then find it confusing to encounter headlines covering each new petty, corrupt, plain ridiculous sideshow that seems to pop up each week in the circus tent of Althing.

Imagine The Thick Of It, replace the spin doctors with Lilliputians, and you’ve got yourself a pretty accurate image of what the current coalition government is like. While our Mayor Quimby-esque Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð, leaves parliament to eat delicious cake, the police smuggle weapons in from Norway, and the rich strip-mine downtown Reykjavík to make room for more puffin shops. It looks like business as usual.

Despite all this, there are grains of truth to the Icelandic utopian narrative. Namely, there *was* an end to the old government after months of protests, and a new constitution was indeed drafted and given a democratic mandate to pass into law by public referendum in October 2012.

So what happened?

Filmed in the years following the financial collapse, ‘Blueberry Soup: How Iceland changed the way we think about the world’ is unique in being one of the only sources to document, firsthand, the political movements that emerged between 2009 and 2012—from small sewing clubs, all the way up to the protests outside Althing and the eventual rise (and fall) of a new constitution.

I met Eileen Jerrett, the filmmaker behind the documentary, a day before the film’s homecoming screening at Nordic House. “Immediately after the collapse, I wanted to come and document what I thought might be an artistic movement,” she tells me. “I loved the art community of Iceland. I was compelled to think that the collapse would cause a shift—that the work coming out would be more angsty, message-filled, and with an edge.”

What she found upon arrival was something “much clearer,” she says. “The creative industry was merging with the political—and forming a movement.”

From the bottom, up

Eileen believes this was pivotal in stimulating a new approach to politics. “The whole concept of creative thinking was brought into society on a very functional level, which I had never experienced,” she says. This was embodied in the emergence of a grassroots thinktank, the Ministry of Ideas, founded by entrepreneur Guðjón Már Guðjónsson. “They were imagining ways they could make people invest in their society again—how they could bring back public trust.”

Out of the Ministry of Ideas came the 2009 National Assembly, a 1200-strong cross-section of Icelandic society. Its aim was to establish the informal social values guiding society, and to then work out how to build those into a reconfigured social contract. Prominent themes included equality, welfare, education, and the environment.

While the reform process fell further and further out of the hands of the public—from the National Assembly, then to an elected Constitutional Assembly of 25, and finally to a Parliament-appointed Constitutional Council—the way ‘Blueberry Soup’ is filmed manages to preserve a democratic essence that the Council arguably lost sight of.

“I tried to make sure I was interviewing people in the same vein as those developing the constitution were trying to
do—which was putting people first, not necessarily figureheads,” she admits. “That was a challenge in the film and it’s what makes it a challenge to show this film to other people, because they are often looking for authoritative figures.”

This personal, independent ethos is further reflected in the film’s production. Eileen came to Iceland on three separate occasions in 2009, 2011, and 2012. “I brought a cinematographer with me twice for a portion of filming,” she says. “But because we were so small and low-budget and I wanted to get something intimate, it was mostly just me with a big Mary Poppins purse and a camera. That’s why a lot of the shots are so close. That’s why a lot of the talking takes place at such a relaxed tempo.”

‘Blueberry Soup’ comes home

I was ten minutes late for the film’s screening at Nordic House last month. By the time I arrived, the film had already started—and the small auditorium was packed.

The film begins by following the meetings of sewing clubs around the time of the 2008 financial crash. Despite their name, the focus of these clubs often ends up being on hanging out and snacking, rather than sewing. Following the crash, however, they took on a new discursive meaning. They became centres of political discussion—particularly for women.

“The perspective of women is incredibly important in this film,” Eileen says. “On the Constitutional Convention, I had only interviewed women, trying to link their work there with their sewing clubs—to see the parallels of what they discussed there and how that kind of seeped over into the policy reform.”

With the voices of women often drowned out by men in both politics and film, it’s more than refreshing to see a diverse range of views and experiences represented here. It does particularly well in highlighting the connections between decentralised social groups like the sewing clubs, and larger political movements.

“I just thought I’d take something I saw that was amazing and bring it back home,” she says. “A lot of countries are feeling so downtrodden about democracy, feeling that people are too stupid or unimportant to participate. This whole thing is starting to awaken something in us—a sort of democratic spirit.”

Eileen has been more-or-less singlehandedly touring the film—a given, for a young indie filmmaker—but what she found really surprising was its impact primarily in the academic sphere. Last autumn, she took the film across North America, “talking to students about what this example might mean for us as a template
for participatory democracy,” she says. August will see the film visit South America, followed by Europe, while Eileen continues to crowdsource funds to help support the tour and the screenings.

“The very first screening we had was in partnership with Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor and one of the cofounders of the Creative Commons—a big name in media transparency and internet law,” Eileen says. “So he brought the film in and then taught a seminar afterwards with the film as a starting point for the students. It’s only then that we got thinking, ‘Oh, wow. This has a place in the academic sphere.’ I had no idea that it wasn’t going to take the festival route and end up in the classroom instead.” From there, the screenings took on a unique format—themselves becoming spaces for political discussion.

“An end is a start”

“One of the most common questions I’m asked at these screenings is, ‘So that’s it? It just didn’t happen?’” Eileen tells the audience of the post-screening Q&A. It’s not surprising, given that the film is bookended by an anticlimax—a brief subtitle explaining the government’s decision not to fulfil the second condition of codification, a vote in Parliament.

That’s perhaps why I was struck by an interminable sense of sadness in the air—the kind that only comes with a failed revolution. As some wiped tears from their eyes, it became very clear that a lot of people in the room had been involved since the beginning. This had not just been a political exercise, but a very important personal and emotional journey.

What is also very palpable is a feeling of hope—that this is not the end. In what feels like more of a democratic assembly than a Q&A, neither the speakers on the panel nor the audience seemed the least bit afraid of square one. The Icelandic members of the panel talk of the pressure “rising again,” of Iceland being “the canary in the mine” for the rest of the world. As ‘Blueberry Soup’ sweeps campuses and lecture halls worldwide, and the Pirates surge ahead as a recent Facebook poll puts the new constitution at the heart of their electoral policy, it’s not hard to see how or why.

Meanwhile, Eileen is just as surprised as anyone else that her lo-fi documentary has become a major part of this discussion—both in Iceland and abroad.

“I just thought I’d take something I saw that was amazing and bring it back home,” she says. “A lot of countries are feeling so downtrodden about democracy, feeling that people are too stupid or unimportant to participate. This whole thing is starting to awaken something in us—a sort of democratic spirit. I think it’s a time when people are listening again, and that the window is starting to open up again just a crack.”

Despite its low budget and the demise of the new constitution at the hands of the government, the film has already been making political waves across the world in the year since its completion. It ensures that the lessons of this radical political experiment endure, even if the project itself is yet to succeed.

To view the documentary online, or to find out more about screenings near you, visit the film’s website.


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