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!].