Morgunblaðið journalist Halla Gunnarsdóttir originally intended to be a primary school teacher, but went to Morgunblaðið in 2003 because she found that her extensive travels would interfere with teaching. More recently, she sold media station NFS the idea for a television show whose purpose is to examine the cultures of other countries in the world. The Grapevine met up with Gunnarsdóttir to find out why such a show is necessary.
/// Your education is in teaching, yet you work for Morgunblaðið and are now starting your own show on NFS. Can you explain the transition?
– I never actually made the decision to be a journalist. I just have a passion for writing, and thought Morgunblaðið would be a nice place to work. I’ve found that in many ways, being a journalist is the same as being a teacher. In both cases you’re taking something that you’ve experienced and are passing it on. What I do now isn’t that different from when I used to tutor my nephew in math when I was a little kid. I’ve always had to tell everyone about everything, the result being that I talk a lot.
/// What’s the concept behind the show?
– It’s called Þetta Fólk (These People), which is a reference to stereotypes, such as “Danish people drink beer.” On each show we feature one country, and talk to people who are either from there, have lived there or have written about the place. People have different areas of emphasis, so maybe one guest will be well-versed on that country’s art; another on its history and so on.
We’re trying to introduce Icelanders to these countries, from a wider angle, and introduce the country to “these people.” The news only goes so far in teaching people about other countries. This show goes a bit deeper.
/// Are you hoping then that the show will help dispel stereotypes people have about “these people”?
– My point of view is that generalising and categorising isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s what we do. When you start at a new job, for example, you look around you and categorise your co-workers. It’s normal. It only becomes a bad thing when it affects how you talk to others, or how you treat them. That can be damaging. When you decide how someone is, like thinking that “Arab = terrorist,” then it becomes a problem. But as long as you know that you’re using a stereotype, and it doesn’t affect how you treat or talk to others, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The way I saw the world when I was a kid was, Africa is filled with starving people; Asia is made of China and Japan; and Europe was the UK and Benidorm. But as you grow, and learn, and travel, you come to know more details. My hope is that this show will be able to provide some of these details.
/// So you think the show is meeting a need in the Icelandic media?
– Well, there are a lot of political talk shows out there right now, lots of focus on Icelandic and international politics, and less about cultures of other people in the world. There is life elsewhere than here. We’re very isolated. My feeling is that while we might be globalised technologically, we’re not very globalised mentally. We’re pretty far away.
/// How so?
– Well, one example would be in how we organise non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In central Europe, they’re in much better touch with what’s going on in the world. There are ideas being born around the world at the same time that either haven’t reached here yet or are newly arrived. It wasn’t so long ago that we were living in mud houses. We used to be a very poor nation, and in many ways that’s still with us. My parents’ generation didn’t have the same opportunity to travel that my generation does. While in the UK it’s been normal to go on a three-month holiday somewhere, here it’s typically “normal” to go abroad primarily just for studies. I don’t know how much we know that what we do here affects everything else.
/// I’ve often heard the argument before that certain Icelandic attitudes about people from other countries are due to how recently foreigners have been coming here, that they’re not used to it. Do you think this is the case?
– I think it’s a myth that we’re as homogenous as we think we are. Iceland is actually not very far from having the same percentage of foreigners as other Nordic countries. Further back in history, even as far back as the Middle Ages, you had sailors from France and England coming here, the Turks and Algerians coming to the Westmann Islands, and then more recently of course people from the UK and the US. People from all over the world have been coming here for centuries. So I don’t think we’re as homogenous as we say we are.
I think that our pre-conceived notions persist because we just like saying them, and they go on, and do so fairly easily in a country the size of Iceland. The good and the bad thing about the size of this country is that if you want an idea heard, you only need to say it once. The media can distribute these ideas pretty easily.
/// What is the one thing you hope people take away from your show?
– To open some people’s eyes. Just want them to learn something new. I’m not expecting to cause a revolution. I’m just hoping to provide a fresh, new voice to everything else here.
Þetta Fólk can be seen Sundays at 11:00 on NFS, and on http://www.visir.is/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=FRETTIR&template=kompas under “NFS í beinni”.