Dreamland (Draumalandið) (Directors: Þhorfinnur Guðnason and Andri Snær Magnasson): My wife and I had the very good fortune to visit Iceland in September 2008, mere days before the collapse of their banking system. Since we were there partially to cover the Reykjavik International Film Festival, we were invited to a reception by the wonderful people at the Icelandic Film Centre where we saw clips of films in progress and were able to meet the directors. One of the most interesting projects we saw was Dreamland, based on the best-selling (at least in Iceland) book by Andri Snær Magnasson. I was able to speak to him that day and looking back, his sense of urgency as he warned of the short-sightedness of Iceland’s politicians was eerily prescient. The ensuing economic collapse has had ramifications around the world. So you can imagine how eager I was to finally see the finished film. Unfortunately, my high expectations were not to be met.
Dreamland starts out well enough, giving a quick primer on recent Icelandic history since achieving independence from Denmark in 1918. Founded to be resolutely neutral, it didn’t take long to become a cog in the Cold War shortly after World War 2. The government allowed the US military to build a base at Keflavik, and that base provided 2,000 jobs until it was closed in 2006. In a nation of just 300,000, this was a major economic blow, and so Iceland’s leaders went looking for a quick fix. With an abundance of clean geo-thermal energy, they decided to offer the surplus to the aluminum industry. Aluminum smelting is one of the most energy-intensive and environmentally-unfriendly processes in the resource business, but Iceland’s leaders figured that it would all happen in sparsely populated areas. Apart from the environmental effects, though, Magnasson argues that this kind of megaproject actually harms the Icelandic economy in the long run. He’s turned out to be right.
I’m sure in his book, all of this is laid out and argued in a coherent fashion. The same cannot be said for the film. Early on, we’re warned ominously by experts that politicians often use fear to control the electorate. Iceland’s politicians warned that if they didn’t build these megaprojects, the economy would not grow and that jobs might disappear forever. However, Dreamland stoops to the same fear tactics to make its case, and the irony seems lost on the filmmakers. Ominous music accompanies aggressive helicopter flyovers of unspoiled landscapes, and these shots are used over and over and over. Half of the talking head interviews are with Magnasson, who is only identified as “Writer” and not as co-director of the film nor as author of the book on which the film is based. The other interviews are unhelpful, with some subjects seeming to jump from one side of the argument to the other later in the film. Magnasson also presents a few too many shots of farmers and their families who will be affected by the aluminum plants. One or two farmers would have made his point.
The overall effect is that his few valid points are lost as the film becomes a heavy-handed and mind-numbing polemic. One clumsily-edited sequence attempts to equate the environmental damage of extracting bauxite (aluminum’s raw material) in India with smelting aluminum in Iceland, when the two processes are completely different.
I bought a copy of his book in English when I was in Iceland in 2008, and I’m looking forward to reading it, now mainly to see how a respected and intelligent journalist could turn it into such a jumbled mess of a film.