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Quite possibly the most important Icelandic film ever made

This past weekend, EPI and I went to see a new Icelandic film that totally knocked our socks off. It’s called Draumalandið [Dreamland] and it’s a documentary that powerfully depicts the insanity that has prevailed here on The Rock in the last decade or so [or, well, at least part of the insanity].

The film is based on the book Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation [English title] by Andri Snær Magnason, that came out a couple of years ago. Essentially it focuses on the madness surrounding the construction of the Kárahnjúkavirkjun power plant in East Iceland, a 1.1-billion dollar project that destroyed a vast area of wilderness and which was done in order to provide Alcoa with cheap hydroelectric power to fuel an aluminium smelter it intended to build in the village of Reyðarfjörður, also in the East. Predictably the project was highly controversial and completely polarized the Icelandic nation; however in the end, despite the largest turnout for an outdoor protest ever in Iceland’s history [around 10,0oo people marched down Laugavegur in a last-ditch effort to have it stopped] the powers-that-be managed to pound it through.

The project was on such a humongous scale for this little nation that the government found it necessary to jack up interest rates to around 15 percent in order to stop the economy from overheating, as a result of the inflow of foreign capital [read: loans awarded to the Icelandic state to finance the construction of the power plant]. Now, 3-4 years later, we see that these high interest rates played a major part in creating the bubble that eventually sank our economy last fall. [All to do with the so-called carry trade, plus it prompted Icelanders to start taking loans in foreign currencies to escape the high interest rates at home.]

But back to the film. As so often before, it’s impossible to do all the Big Issues justice in a short blog post, but one of the more striking points is an interview with John Perkins, author of the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man: The Shocking Story of How America Really Took Over the World, who was a guest in Silfur Egils just over a week ago. Perkins describes how economic hit men work, and Kárahnjúkavirkjun fits the bill completely. In the past it was mostly third-world and developing countries that were targeted, and Perkins believes that Iceland is the first Western country to be hit. The hit men go in, convince the authorities that whatever large project they have in mind is absolutely essential to the economy, offer to provide a huge loan to fund that project, and when the loan cannot be repaid, demand control over the resources. In Iceland’s case, this would be the cheap natural energy.

One of the things to raise a major red flag is the fact that Landsvirkjun [The National Power Company] has resolutely refused to make public the price at which Alcoa is being sold the electricity for the smelter, even though Landsvirkjun is a company in the public domain, owned by us, the taxpayers of this land. The hunch is that Alcoa is being sold energy at one-third of the price that it would have to pay elsewhere in Europe, which is lower than the cost it takes to produce it.

The film moves masterfully between Perkins’ descriptions of how economic hit men work to showing footage of Icelandic politicians going precisely through those motions, like string puppets. One of the craziest moments for me was when Perkins described how the local-level politicians are hauled in to support the cause, often being promised cushy jobs with “the corporation” once they step down. In many cases their duties are to act as liaison officers between the corporation and the municipalities that need to be drawn in for the next big project. Cut to footage of the former mayor of Reyðarfjörður, who is being interviewed:

INTERVIEWER: So … what do you do now?
FORMER MAYOR: I’m a project manager for Alcoa. [Long pause.] My work mostly consists of liaising between Alcoa and the people of Húsavík.

No points for guessing which location Alcoa is targeting next. That’s right! Húsavík.

Anyway, the film is a stunner. The reviews in the Icelandic press have been good to excellent … whereas predictably it has not been very popular with the pro-smelter crowd who have let fly phrases like “shameless propaganda”, “emotional pornography” and “something Michael Moore would be proud of” [gee, you say that like it’s a bad thing]. Sure, it’s propaganda, it arranges images for maximum impact … and yet it comes nowhere close to the propaganda that the aluminium companies have produced over the past few years. Somewhere I heard someone ranting about the fact that they had all these images of happy, healthy Icelandic children contrasted with Indian children suffering from the environmental impact of Alcoa’s plant in India … and yet it was the pro-smelter crowd, the pro-Alcoa crowd, who trotted those healthy, blonde, blue-eyed children out in their little Icelandic costumes waving Icelandic flags to greet the CEO of Alcoa as he flew in on his private jet. Glass houses, people. Glass houses.

Unfortunately Draumalandið probably won’t be available for general viewing in English for a while yet – I know the producers are planning to make the festival rounds and who knows when it will be available for purchase on DVD, for example. There is, however, a trailer available … don’t mind the translation, in my opinion it is not as dynamic as it rightfully should be to do justice to the subject matter … I’m hoping that will change once the film is translated in its entirety, however.

We’ve had intermittent showers all day – if this keeps up it should only be a few days before everything is green around here! Right now 6C [43F]. The sun came up at 5:59 am, will set at 8:58 pm [wow – so late!].



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jessie April 14, 2009, 6:17 pm

    I’m looking forward to seeing this film (when it’s translated to English, if it is distributed in the US). I remember reading about the protests against Alcoa in Iceland a couple of years back and hoping the Icelandic government would somehow change its mind, step in and stop Alcoa from its exploitation. It’s interesting to hear that there is a correlation between Alcoa’s development (or destruction) in Iceland and the current economic situation, with interest rates, etc.

    I remember being introduced in law school to some of the things Alcoa and Alcan have done (I hadn’t even realized until then what Alcoa stood for). It seems the messages in this movie are not only relevant to Icelanders, but to many around the world, particularly here in the US.

    Here’s to hoping for more transparency to the public…

  • Joerg April 14, 2009, 6:32 pm

    Sounds like a very interesting film – I’d love to see it. Let us know, once it becomes available in English or German (Icelandic, but with English or German subtitles would also be fine – maybe even better than dubbed).

  • Joerg April 14, 2009, 6:45 pm

    Here’s the link to the official Website for the film:
    Unfotunately it also has no release dates for other countries.

  • Roy April 14, 2009, 6:57 pm

    And after Fjarðarál, Alco left for Surinam, a country about 1,5 times the size of Iceland to continue the exploitation! There´s no stopping these folks as long as they can “sell” their ideas to the local governments!
    The world is slowly being destroyed by greed….get used to it because
    it´s an unstoppable force!

  • Roy April 14, 2009, 6:59 pm

    Sorry for the typo, please change Alco to read Alcoa.

  • James April 14, 2009, 9:12 pm

    Wow, didn’t know this was out yet. I met the writer when I was in Reykjavik last September and urged him to submit the finished film to the Hot Docs film festival here in Toronto, but I don’t see it in the schedule, which is too bad. Would love to see it when they’ve added the subtitles. I did buy the book, though, and maybe this will spur me to read it now!

  • Sonja April 14, 2009, 9:31 pm

    This link seems to be relevant

  • Ljósmynd DE April 14, 2009, 9:35 pm

    I would be very interested to watch this film as I read the book Dreamland last year before the crash hit and was duly impressed and at the same time sad about how the Icelandic nature has been squandered.

    Last year I was in the Þeistareykir geothermal area, where test drillings for the Husavik geothermal power plant were going on. Already those test drillings prove highly destructive for the surrounding environment even though this is misleadingly labelled as ‘green’ energy.

    But I am wondering, how the kreppa will be affecting the future development and if Iceland with all its debts will have a chance at all to withstand multinational companies like Alcoa. The recently exposed extent of corruption in Iceland is not providing much hope in this respect.

    I really hope that the awareness of what is at stake has been increasing among the people of Iceland over the last years. The best approach to withstand propaganda from those institutions is access to information. I think it is important to get to know the land in danger and the destructive impact of the aluminium smelter so as not to fall for allegations like it’s just about some barren wasteland or the ubiquitous job creation legend.

  • namme April 14, 2009, 10:14 pm

    Apropos that rant you’re referring to, comparing Icelandic children to the suffering of kids in India: Well, it doesn’t seem like a really fare analogy. That kind of poverty doesn’t exist in Iceland (or does it? I certainly haven’t seen anything of that level there. I don’t think it’s Alcoa’s intent to make slums in Iceland), and I think trotting out the healthy ‘blonde/blue eyed’ kids to the CEO wasn’t really intended to do the same sort of thing. Besides, aren’t many kids in Iceland blue eyed and light haired and healthy? I guess I am not surprised that people would bring their kids to meet some huge foreign investor. Every country does crap like that when important people visit, it’s just a general ‘nicety’. Although, I know this wasn’t the most serious part of your post hehe.

    That said, I would be wary of blaming foreign companies and foreigners for everything that’s gone wrong, when it comes down to it some Icelanders had to make the decisions to let these companies come there, to build these power plants, etc. Like you said though, there is a lot of corruption in Iceland. There is a lot everywhere, it seems like everyone has a price, and even if people would say they don’t, when something is right in front of you it might be a little harder to say no.

    Yay now I went on a small rant.

  • alda April 14, 2009, 10:23 pm

    Thanks, everyone.

    James – I thought of you — this is right up your alley, so to speak!

  • Pwaro April 15, 2009, 7:28 am

    I heard about Alcoa’s plans YEARS ago, can’t remember where though – have a feeling it might have been National Georgraphic. But I never read any follow-up on it, so I kinda forgot about it. This movie sounds like a must-see!

  • hildigunnur April 15, 2009, 8:50 am

    namme, yes, nobody’s saying the corrupt politicians here are free of blame. But Alcoa and to a lesser extent Alcan ARE exploiting here, thinking people have seen this for years, way before the kreppa began. This movie just shows us even clearer what’s been going on.

    I think trotting out your kids and waving flags isn’t just a general nicety for investors, sure for a royal or political or presidential visit, but investors – no that’s just sick. People actually thinking they are in it for anything else than their own gain is veeeery stupid…

  • Scott April 15, 2009, 7:01 pm

    The average price of electricity (80% of which goes to the various smelters) is simple to assess from the financial statements. Take Landsvirkjun´s 2008 statement:

    2008 operating revenue from power sales is 388 M USD.
    2008 generation was 12.345 Gwh (12,3 E9 kwh)
    ergo 3,15 cents per kWh.

    You can see average prices paid by industrial consumers worldwide here:

    Interesting to see Norway, which seems like a fair comparison in terms of resource type (hydro) and cost of projects, at around 5 cents per kWh. Canada (with their big hydro) similar. France (big nuclear) similar.

    Not a well kept secret, just have to grab a calculator. Then draw your own conclusions.

  • idunn April 15, 2009, 10:05 pm

    Thank you for mentioning this. I look forward to seeing the film. I found no reference to Magnason´s book at Amazon, but Amazon UK has it.

    I happened upon an article in ‘SavingIceland’ today which appears topical. Apparently energy companies and foreign aluminum companies are being consulted on how Iceland’s new constitution should be drafted:

  • Don in Seattle April 16, 2009, 12:52 am

    Thanks, idunn, for mentioning finding this at Amazon UK.

    I would really like to read this book, but have found it unavailable here in the US. It sounds like a great read, and I hope the movie is made available here as well, though that will take time.

    Alda, as always, the information you provide is priceless.

    Keep doing what you do, you must know you have a very loyal following that extends worlswide.

  • Rozanne April 16, 2009, 3:59 am

    I would very much like to see that film. Maybe you should put yourself forward to do the translation?

  • Joerg April 16, 2009, 6:27 pm

    After reading this blog posting I ordered the book on Amazon and received it today. 🙂
    I’m really looking forward to reading it . I hope the film can play and important part in making people in Iceland (and elsewhere) more aware of environmental issues linked to these big industry projects.

  • alda April 16, 2009, 11:59 pm

    Don – thank you, as ever, for your support! 🙂

    Rozanne – I already have. Whether they decide to take me up on it is another story.

    Joerg – hope you like it. A lot of it is heady stuff.

  • Kath April 18, 2009, 2:38 am

    The pillaging of the earth everywhere is just relentless. Really, very discouraging. Iceland seemed so wild and unspoiled when I was there last summer (2008), at least most of it. Obviously, I didn’t see the smelter, etc., although I’d read about it and all the controversy over it. Ironically, didn’t Lewis in that infamous Vanity Fair article (or maybe it was in an interview, can’t remember now) comment on how natural resources (including the fishing waters) would be the “price” Iceland would be expected to pay?

  • Alexander E. April 19, 2009, 12:24 am

    Unfortunately Draumalandið probably won’t be available for general viewing in English for a while yet – I know the producers are planning to make the festival rounds and who knows when it will be available for purchase on DVD, for example.

    Strange, very strange…
    So producers are more concerned about their own publicity and revenew than about the idea?

    Also their claim:
    “the government started the largest mega project in the history of Iceland, …..
    The mantra was economic growth. Today Iceland is left holding a huge dept and an uncertain future.”
    is a false one.
    Taking that into account – how much are their other claims worth?

  • Douglas Brotchie May 1, 2009, 7:31 am

    Thanks for your excellent blog entry.
    You amassed there a lot of useful and relevant information and in addition said a lot of things that I felt after seeing the film earlier this week, but hadn’t yet articulated.
    The film is enormously powerful and basically unanswerable – which is presumably why the association of Friends of Aluminium Smelters in Iceland are so incensed …

  • gary aho August 1, 2009, 10:39 am

    I have written two short articles on Alcoa in Iceland: ‘Morris, Iceland and Alcoa,’ and ‘Morris, Iceland and Alcoa: An Update.’ Both appeared in the William Morris Society Newsletter, the first in Spring, 2006, the second in Winter 2009. In the second I praise Magnason’s wonderful book, Draumalandid, and I very pleased to hear about this movie.

  • Joao Rei February 17, 2010, 10:43 pm

    Does anyone know where I can find an English subtitles file for this movie?

    I think it’s a great movie btw.

  • Joerg August 7, 2010, 12:25 am

    Finally this is available in English (the interviews with English subtitles) on DVD. I bought a copy of it at Keflavík airport for a ridiculously low price (899 ISK) and just watched it. It’s really a must-see film. No idea if it can be bought or ordered from outside Iceland – but I urge everyone who has a chance to buy and watch this movie to do so.
    When watching it, be aware though that clearly it IS propaganda. The pictures are clearly trying to play with your emotions – like the bird sitting in it’s nest on it’s eggs to warm them when the water comes etc. The film has a clear agenda and is clearly not presenting a neutral view of the issues. That’s ok – but I think it’s important to be aware of this fact.
    Nonetheless this is an important film to watch to understand the catastrophe of the Kárahnúkar dam and similar projects.

    @Alda: maybe the info that this is finally available in English is even worth a short article/info on your blog in a more prominent position than a comment to this very old blog-post?