One of the smaller, expectedly most pristine countries in the world has had its membership in Club Greed thrown up all over the big screen in this masterfully timed history of trading the devil-you-know for his bigger, uglier brother.
Coming just hours after witnessing Pakistan’s sorry past of outwardly flirting with democracy but more frequently embracing military rule in the name of the greater good for and by its citizenry (cross-reference below), there were times when dropping the oh-too-common narrative and letting the spectacular aerial photography and Nico Muhly’s string-laden score permit image and sound to allow the beautiful landscapes, flora and fauna as well as the growing few who still labour in the soil reassure us that, “Yes, Virginia, there still are vast swaths of the planet that have not surrendered their remarkable individuality” to the Never Never Land of economic growth.
Fiercely proud of its independence from Denmark (1944), Icelanders vowed to live a tranquil life without benefit of a home-grown military machine or massive industrial projects. However, as writer/co-director Andri Snær Magnason (along with Þorfinnur Guðnason) first described in his book of the same name, many of the planet’s most powerful countries owe their financial stability to war: What would happen to their balance sheets if there was a sudden outbreak of peace? What if the current global estimate of one trillion dollars spent annually could be shifted from “defence” to education and health? (This one is doubly dangerous: Would an educated public continue to vote for the usual suspects?)
Multinational corporations such as ALCOA would probably be forced into bankruptcy (even sooner if every pop can found its way to the recycle bin) rather than the millions who suffered catastrophic corporate-induced losses in the recent financial meltdown—whose “ore” was, similarly, high-grade, industrial-strength avarice.
When easily stoked fear of invasion boiled over in 1949, the island state joined NATO. Then, before you could say “Love your proximity,” the U.S. was allowed to establish four air bases for ready access to its—and its allies’—foes.
A wonderful sequence captures President George W. Bush chumming for the cameras with then Prime Minster Geir Haarde, just after the latter had requested at least one base remain operative (the economic impact of Yankee bucks was now worth risking that of targeted exposure). In his best aw-shucks style, Bush recalls his first NATO meeting and being made to feel immediately welcome by his Icelandic “important friend.” A wry commentator then concludes that anyone who thinks they can befriend a superpower is as mistaken as the myth of goblins and “hidden folk” in the highlands.
When the last base is finally shuttered (to become an international centre of learning—oh, the shame!), the Government of Iceland decides to replace the lost cash flow. Soon, the “Lowest Energy Prices” program grabs the imagination of possibility. Aluminum companies come a courtin’ before the legislators adopt a one-company/saviour approach and announce ALCOA as the solution to everyone’s future financial security.
Juxtaposing cheesy TV commercials (“We can’t wait” [to destroy the environment]), visions of dust-laden air and eager-for-the-camera Valgerður Sverrisdóttir (Minister of Industry and Commerce) shovelling symbolically as the habitat-drowning projects are celebrated, the filmmakers paint an uncomfortable portrait of industrial rape-and-pillage that is only supposed to happen in third world countries.
Once the reindeer is out of the barn it matters not—even when a hidden-away “secret” report reveals the chilling fact that the massive Kárahnjúkar dam has been built on a fault line. The naysayers have their turn at the mic, but nothing will prevent “progress” from marching forward, ALCOA CEO Alain J.P. Belda doubling his salary or a helpful local mayor getting his reward for paving the way: a post-public-office contract with the aluminum giant (Oh, did we mention ALCOA Defense is one of the biggest purveyors of goods to the military and that by re-jiggering Iceland’s rivers upwards of $200 million—compared to other markets—would delight the faraway shareholders?).
The closing moments tellingly intercut innocent, painted-face children and a perplexed nesting waterfowl see her emerging chicks killed by the rising tide of the dam’s resultant reservoir. Any of the somewhat preachy, unbalanced parts of the narrative are immediately forgiven in this wordless summation of the present reality and the future yet to come.
And, as everyone knows in the ravaged, natural semi-sanctuary, the promised prosperity was knocked away by the 2008 bankruptcy, which hit the country’s books with equal force—but, thankfully, not the equivalent loss of life—as the technical solution to Japan’s imperial designs.
Is it any wonder that Eyjafjallajökull spewed commerce-wrecking ash into the heavens? What will happen when Mother Nature really gets pissed off? JWR