As the last embers of Eyjafjallajökull’s volcanic ash faded from the sky last April, European and international flights were finally resumed. Iceland had never been on the tongues of so many international citizens before those few weeks. I had just made my flight to Toronto for Hot Docs, after others had suffered countless delays and cancellations. As I sat in the cinema one evening, waiting for a film to start, I noticed a peculiar ad on the screen: “Cheap Flights from Toronto to Iceland, Only $200!” How strange. I barely escaped a volcanic ash cloud and now I’m being encouraged to visit a physically erupting and economically collapsing country. But I suppose Iceland has always been the distant star of ecological beauty, and despite the risk, it might still be worth the cheap airfare. Then I saw Dreamland, and my casual dismissal shifted to a clearer perspective: Iceland faces an imminent catastrophe that stretches well beyond an erupting volcano.
The documentary Dreamland, is made by director Þorfinnur Guðnason and writer Andri Snær Magnason, who penned the original book upon which the film is based, Dreamland – A Self-Help Book For a Frightened Nation. They looked at capitalist ecology in Iceland, as large portions of the nation’s highly condensed natural resources and majestically diverse habitat are being exploited for the benefit of corporate gain. When the book was originally published in 2006, it became an instant bestseller and won the Icelandic Literary Award. It seemed that Magnason’s book was the first of its kind to speak to Icelanders philosophically about who they are as a nation and how they want their future to look.
The documentary, however, tells a more pragmatic story by finding a dominant antagonist in Alcoa, the world’s leading producer of aluminum, which has been building smelters in Iceland’s hydroelectric and geothermal areas. Alcoa is just one company out of many that operate in a similar way – moving in and taking over, one region at a time. “And they don’t stop, they always want more,” says Dreamland producer Hanna Björk Valsdóttir to DOX. “When they finish in the east they go to the next place. And that is what people in Iceland were not realizing. They thought it was just one investment. With Dreamland, we were trying to tell them – no, these companies are not going to stop!” Ironically, as the world cries out for a shift to renewable energy, we fail to recognize that the planet has a threshold, and tapping its pores for deeper investments can backfire. To some, wrath may come in the form of a revolt by Mother Nature, as exemplified by the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano. But to others, the plague may be the evitable economic collapse that occurs when a nation produces beyond its national product.
Plucking the psychological and metaphorical strings of economic growth and morality through interviews with writers and financial experts, Dreamland follows Iceland’s rise in the mid-90s as a highly developed modern society with no enemies – a country that missed the Industrial Revolution, yet reached the status of its neighboring countries without exploiting its natural resources. Then came the need for economic growth, and with it the corporations, the drilling, the pillaging, the empty promises. Bankruptcy devastated the nation in 2008, leaving Iceland a victim of economic hit men. Energy prices in Iceland are one-third of what they are in America and Europe: unbeknownst to them, Iceland was saving Alcoa 200 million dollars per year.
Threaded through Iceland’s history, we see the division between those citizens who champion corporate investments for increases in employment rates, and those whose devotion to nature far surpasses economic gain. What emerges is a template for third world countries that have been ravished by corporate greed, for which Iceland is a perfect fit. A corporation gives a loan to a poor country with natural resources in exchange to build infrastructure, the country is unable to pay back the loan, so the corporation moves in and buys up all the natural resources. Adding insult to injury, the companies will often make deals with local politicians, promising them jobs once their terms are up.
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