Susan Buckland gets in hot water in Iceland discussing the most pressing issue of our times
The acclaimed Icelandic film and theatre director, Benedikt Erlingsson, has suggested we meet for the interview in one of Reykjavik's public hot pools. You'll be able to experience Iceland's pool culture, he explains. The British have their pubs. Icelanders have their geothermally heated pools and springs. They are favourite places for exercise, catching up with friends and talking business. There's nothing like semi-submersion in a hot tub to achieve consensus.
True. But in my case, retaining information while in a soporific haze of steam has never been a strong point. A request to meet on dry land is graciously met and Erlingsson's studio proves an atmospheric alternative. Stage props and film reels stack up on tables and along walls hung with interesting art. Guitar, organ and piano compete for space, and through the windows are views out to Reykjavik, Iceland's vibrant little capital and home to most of its 350,000 people.
Over cups of herbal tea, I tell my host that his prize-winning Icelandic film Woman at War inspired my visit to Iceland. Directed and co-written by Erlingsson, it's a compelling, quirky and darkly comic story about Halla, a genial middle-aged choir mistress by day who turns into a fearless environmental warrior by night. She's out to protect Iceland's pristine highlands from the squandering march of industry. The film is infused with striking music and landscapes. And, like Erlingsson's 2015 film Of Horses and Men, it's a significant contributor to Iceland's growing film and tourist industries.
Foreign film-makers are attracted to the country's rugged mountain and coastal scenery, and to accessible glaciers and lunar landscapes. Tours to the film locations, such as the the epic television series Game of Thrones, have mushroomed in their wake. But it's through the home-made productions that Iceland's character resonates.
The arts are an important investment in Iceland's future, says Erlingsson. They help preserve the language and cultural life, at the heart of which are the 13th century sagas, legends about Iceland's pioneering leaders. A national passion for books stems from the sagas and Iceland is said to have more writers and publishers of books per head of population than any other country. Christmas presents of books are a tradition and ideal gifts for hunkering down with during the long and biting winters.
The country's enthusiasm for the arts is centred in Reykjavik, where patrons flock to the National Theatre and a surprising number of independent theatres. The capital is home to opera, ballet and a symphony orchestra, too. And for Erglingsson, an actor as well as film director, the stage is where he honed his talents as a storyteller.
"I wanted to make another film and asked myself what story is worth telling. I decided to make an action film about the challenge of our generation. My way of trying to help save the world from the threat of climate change. The situation is much more urgent than many of us want to believe. Climate change scientists are more pessimistic off than on the record.
Halla's fight in Woman at War, to save nature from industrial greed and domination, goes to the heart of planet Earth. But the big challenge is to get the message across with a smile, says Erlingsson. "I hate films that preach. Environmentalists are interested in the long-term interests of everybody. Woman at War is not a propaganda film. Halla is not a terrorist. She doesn't kill people. To achieve her goal of discouraging foreign investors from building their environmentally damaging factory she strikes at the economy."
With thrilling accuracy. In the film's dramatic opening scene, Halla streaks overland in the dead of night like a 20-year-old athlete and takes out the power lines with her bow and arrows. Her hunters rampage in pursuit as she dashes home to her day job of conducting the choir. And to her dreams of motherhood and raising an adopted child in a world where there is hope.
"For non-violent protest to work, it has to have an economic impact," says Erlingsson, who chained himself to a whaleboat when he was 18 to protest whale hunting in Iceland. "Halla uses sabotage like Mandela did by sabotaging infrastructure in South Africa. Iceland's central highlands are like holy places for us. They form one of the largest uninhabited areas left in Europe. But they are constantly under attacks from the forces of industry."
A prolonged fight to prevent a huge hydro dam from being built in the highlands to power a foreign-owned aluminium smelter was lost in 2009. And on August 18 this year, the once-mighty Okjokull glacier, which spanned 38sq km in Iceland's highlands at the beginning of the 20th century, was officially declared dead, very likely the direct result of climate change. Iceland's Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir attended the funeral and laid a plaque to mark its passing. She expressed hope that the ceremony would inspire not only the people of her country but also the rest of the world because Okjokull is "just one face of the climate crisis".
"There's something compelling about seeing women fighting for Mother Earth or taking a stand against capitalism," says Erlingsson. "It's our Icelandic culture. Icelandic women have great strength of character. They are active in politics and fighting for what matters."
For her performance as Halla in Woman at War, Halldora Geirharðsdóttir was nominated for the European Film Award for Best Actress last December. She shares Erlingsson's view of the need to tackle climate change. The pair first met as 10-year-olds, acting in a children's play directed by Erglinsson's mother at Iceland's National Theatre and they went on to theatre school together.
In helping to drive home the climate change message, Erlingsson doesn't spare himself or the film industry. At a talk focused on sustainability at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in June, he described film festivals as "a carbon-farting crisis".
"They [film festivals] send scouts all over the world, farting carbon. They invite foreign guests, farting carbon. They eat meat, take taxis, turn up the air conditioning. Film festivals will have to find a new form if they are going to be sustainable. We have to make sacrifices. And persuade politicians to make the right decisions. We need to act now."
An unconventional storyteller, Erlingssonis likely to strike off in his own refreshingly frank direction with his next project. "Climate change will come into it because it's science-fiction, but not dystopian," he emphasises. "One part will be set in 2077, where we have found a solution to climate change; and the two other parts will be set in 1977 and 377."
So saying, he throws a scarf round his neck, puts on coat and hat and offers to drive me back to my hotel via the local hot pools. "Just so you can see what you were missing," he smiles. Near the entrance he greets a couple of tall young women. Both very good Icelandic poets, he says. I could imagine the heated pools being conducive to musing, providing you bagged one of the small, circular tubs. The large pool is alive with children with poetry the last thing on their minds.
You will find plenty more hot pools and springs on your travels around Iceland, Erlingsson promises as we whizz back to the hotel. In Reykjavik alone there are seven public hot pools that include steam baths, saunas and Jacuzzi. A dip feels tempting but my immediate challenge is to collect the rental car and find my way to the home of film director Martein Thorsson. He lives in Hveragerdi, a small town less than an hour's drive south off Route One. It's the only highway connecting west with east in Iceland, so I assume it will be a quick drive. Wrong. The traffic is bumper-to-bumper out of Reykjavik. It feels as if every car in Iceland must be using this one major road at the same time. We crawl for the next 20 minutes.
Steam is rising from the ground on the approach to Hveragerdi. Hot springs surround the small town and a large geothermal plant harnesses pent- up energy beneath the surface. Nearby, steam wafts from Hveragerdi's 50m hot pool. Once again the temptation to take a dip must to be resisted. I am late for the meeting with Thorsson. Another of Iceland's prize-winning film-makers, Thorsson has made a cheesecake topped with freshly picked blueberries and cuts slices while recounting a childhood fascination with film and books.
"I was 6when I saw the animated movie, Alakazam the Great and developed an interest in the surreal from that film. As a child I spent hours at my cousin's movie theatre housed in a World War II army barracks and I was 8years old when I got an 8mm Bell and Howell movie camera. At school I used to screen 16mm prints for my fellow students. You could rent cut-down versions of films like Alien and Star Wars. As for books, I practically lived in the local library."
Now, with several prizes for television series and films under his belt, Thorsson, who is a dual citizen of Iceland and Canada, is about to make Recurrence, a supernatural thriller that dives into Icelandic folklore, intergenerational trauma and the nature of memory and dreams.
"It will be a hoot to shoot. I'm glad to reunite with actor Udo Kier, who was in my first film, One Point O. Recurrence has a female protagonist, as does the no-budget drama feature I'm currently shooting, called Backyard Village. After Recurrence I'll make Wild Summer, a father-and-son drama."
Iceland's film industry suffered after the country's financial crash in 2008 but is now making progress, Thorsson says. "Benedikt Erlingsson's Woman at War and Grímur Hákonarson's Rams are doing well commercially. Baltasar Kormákur is a prolific director and producer and it's great nice to see the success of Trapped, his Icelandic television mystery drama series. Kormákur has also announced a new joint venture with Netflix to produce a sci-fi series in 2020."
"It's also really good to have more women doing films," says Thorsson who, like Benedikt Erlingsson, admires the contribution Iceland's women are making to the film industry. "The actress-turned-director, writer and producer, Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir is an exciting new voice in television. She's created a very successful drama-comedy series called Happily Never After, about a woman going through a messy divorce after her husband cheated on her."
The Icelandic Film Centre and the public broadcaster RUV are the main sources of funds for Iceland's films, says Thorsson. A country-versus-city theme has been a long-running one in Icelandic films but contemporary social issues have more recently come to the forefront.
"The film-making community is resourceful bunch. The Icelandic 'let's just do it' attitude is vital to our survival. Personally, I'd like to see more experimentation with the film form itself. We don't have many surreal films but that also has to do with the funding system. I like most Icelandic films. The crazier the better. I admire the work of Kristín Jóhannesdóttir [Inter Nos, On Earth as in Heaven] because she was doing stuff that wasn't straightforward storytelling and she experimented with cinematic ways of doing things. Benedikt Erlingsson's Of Horses and Men was a fresh breath of air and I was impressed with Ísold Uggadóttir's And Breathe Normally. I'm looking forward to seeing Rúnar Rúnarsson's Echo, as it's not a straightforward narrative."
By now I've got the hang of the Icelandic surnames. Sons have the patronymic affix "son" and daughters the affix "dottir". It's not surprising to learn that Iceland, with its proud culture carved from centuries of isolation, requires its people by law to have Icelandic names.
It seems fitting, too, that the comical orange-and-black-beaked puffin that nests on Iceland's cliffs, lends its name to the coveted lifetime achievement award presented to an international film-maker at the annual Reykjavik International Film Festival.
Meanwhile, Hollywood is showing no signs of deserting Iceland as desirable screening ground. George Clooney is currently shooting a Netflix movie there. "Foreign film-makers like working with our excellent crews, says Thorsson . "It's financially worthwhile for them. In general, Iceland is not cheap but it's beautiful and the locals are a bit crazy, crazy enough to create all this art for a population of just 350.000. It's quite miraculous really."
The light is fading when I drive off into the treeless terrain in search of my hotel. The road is empty of cars apart from mine. I reach Hotel Ranga, set in what seems like the marvellous middle of nowhere. There's a hot tub outside on the field in front of my room. Under a dark sky and sprinkle of rain I sink into the tub. There's no sign of the famous northern lights. No matter. I'm blissfully up to my neck in hot water.