Bitching about Politics on Facebook: Isold Uggadottir’s “Revolution Reykjavik”

Posted by Jonathan Robbins on 3.30.2012

When did you start shooting the film?
I began shooting the film in October of 2010, after about a year of developing the material. The actual screenplay came to life in a class at Columbia University’s Graduate Film Program, where I received ruthless but very effective notes from my generous professor, Eric Mendelsohn. From there, my thesis advisor, Hilary Brougher came on board and offered significant insight as the screenplay slowly began to take its ultimate shape. Pegasus Pictures in Iceland then produced the film, in association with my company No 9 Productions.

In a nutshell, what caused a young, up and coming filmmaker like yourself to make a film about a family's economic collapse?
The original idea for Revolution Reykjavik came to me in early 2009, following the economic crash of 2008, which culminated in our prime minister’s speech where he asked God to bless Iceland. (And this from a prime minster of a nation that rarely attends church and could effectively be called atheists, despite being Protestant on paper.)

The reactions of my fellow Icelanders can be likened to those of individuals who have experienced trauma: there was shock, denial, a great sense of anger and blame, grief and fear – and then later, some level of acceptance.  I do not know that I can state that we are fully at the acceptance point – although some are there – but I do think that people moved on (some even forget). Or simply moved. To Norway, which is what a troubling number of people are doing. 

For me, it seemed obvious that a film had to be made. I myself had witnessed this all from afar, but was nevertheless deeply affected on a number of levels. Being a graduate student at Columbia at the time, I relied on Icelandic Student loans to pay my way – the problem was, our Icelandic currency was dropping at an incredible rate, meaning that my rent and daily expenses where rising at frightening levels. Even before the crash of October 2008, it was obvious to me that something wasn’t right – throughout the summer and early fall, the Krona just kept dropping. I kept waiting for it to go back up…but then it never did.

Obviously, I was just one of thousands affected, so when the time came to decide on a topic for my thesis film, the choice of depicting a family grappling with the crisis was more than obvious.

Would you describe what the Icesave debacle was like for everyday folks from Iceland? Was there emigration on the part of native Icelanders or even one-time immigrants?
The Icesave debacle has been ongoing for so long now, with a forever-changing narrative, that has become hard to keep up with, not to mention depressing. It has even reached the point where the word “Icesave” has become a taboo word in Iceland, that you dare not mention at birthday parties or gatherings meant for pleasure.  I noticed that a host of a local Icelandic quiz-show felt compelled to apologize when the word was mentioned on a live national television broadcast recently.  

Essentially, it’s a highly problematic matter that involves Icelandic banks accepting staggering amounts of money from Europeans (amounts exceeding the GDP of Iceland) who were promised incredible returns on their investments.  When the crash took place, these Europeans lost a great deal of their savings, just as many Icelanders did. Now, the issue at hand is whether or not Icelandic citizens are responsible for the reckless actions of their immoral oligarchs. Obviously, I personally feel that it is ridiculous, and unjust, to demand that Icelandic citizens take on this responsibility.  But at the end of the day, it comes down to what is legal, and what was written in the contracts – not what is moral.   So, to make a very, very long and boring story short – Icelanders were offered referenda on two occasions, where they were asked whether they wished to pay back this money. Obviously, nobody in their heart truly wants to agree to pay back a staggering debt, that they in no way were responsible for taking on – so Icelanders voted against both bills that had previously passed our congress.  But it’s double-edged sword.  As a consequence, Europe is taking us to court – which does not reflect well on our public image, one would assume. And it is likely to be a costly endeavor.  

Icelanders have been torn as to how best to solve the issue, and have, throughout the last few years, been through constant debates back and forth. During the last referendum the nation was divided: 40% just wanted to sign the contract and get it over with (feeling that negotiations had reached a point where we would could do no better), while the other 60% stuck to the fundamental notion that Icelanders would, under no circumstances, take on the debts of banks and oligarchs.  It should be noted that the latter group was urged on by our president, a key figure in all of this.

As a result of a suffering economy, yes, there is plenty of emigration. Most venture to Norway, where we hear salaries are attractive, and the currency is stable.

There is a generational dynamic to your film. The mother and daughter seem to expect different things from the state. Would you agree?
The character of 58-year old Gudfinna in my film represents a class of people that vote for what is called “the independence party,” which is our version of a conservative party. Although not nearly as far to the right as your Republican party.

Gudfinna is nevertheless not wealthy by any means. She is a bank representative who takes pride in doing her job well, and retaining, in her mind, a certain level of dignity. 

Regardless of whether or not it serves her interests, she will vote for the conservative party.  Because, in her mind, it gives her status – and leads her to believe that she is part of an elite.

But, in the film, it dawns on her that this party that she thought could do not wrong, has in fact lead the country so off-track, that one has to look to the likes of the Enron scandal to find anything like it. Granted, Icelandic politicians did not commit the crimes themselves, but they merely watched on as the ship continued to sink.

Unlike Gudfinna, her daughter Maja does not concern herself with politics. She’s at a point in her life where any job is a good job to have – regardless of the status it brings her.

That is essentially where these two women differ. I don’t necessarily believe that it’s a generational thing. I rather think that it’s a character thing. Gudfinna deals with losing her job and pride by being in denial about the fact that she is heading towards the bottom. While her daughter, who was already at the bottom, is satisfied with a job at a grocery store (a job that for her mother, is traditionally looked down upon).

Do you find that Reykjavik is a city that is conducive to shooting films? Do you find many similarities between New York and Reykjavik ? Is it true that Harrison Ford's favorite restaurant is an Indian restaurant in Reykjavik?
I first moved to New York in 2001, so by the time I moved back home in 2011, I had spent 10 years in the city. Now, having spent nearly a year in Iceland I will admit to the fact that I miss the constant energy and commotion of New York. Every day in New York City can be an adventure, and often a race: Will you be able to get yourself into that overly packed subway car, will you find a seat, will you make it to that appointment on time, or will the subway be delayed for 15 minutes due to unforeseen circumstances?   Now that I am back for ND/NF I appreciate even more the little things; the diversity, the vibrancy, the noise, the smell – and even that constant race for a seat on the subway.

Iceland on the other hand is more serene – people relax at the pool or gym everyday, they spend time with family members, they read books in the deep dark winters – and then they never tire of bitching about Icelandic politics on Facebook.

I have shot films in both countries, and I think it’s safe to say that shooting a film in Iceland is easier. Just the space factor makes a great difference. The simple task of finding a parking space in New York City can be a major feat. And when you make movies, you need a lot of them. Finding people to lend their apartment is also easier in Iceland – granted, they will probably want to get paid– but finding people with big apartments in New York is certainly a difficult endeavor, especially when you are surrounded by nothing but struggling artists. That said, I hope to shoot films in both cities in the future. My next project will be Icelandic, but perhaps the one after will be New York-based. Gritty New York as a background is just as exciting to me, as the much-admired beauty of Iceland. 

Harrison Ford you say?  Yes, apparently he fell for our Indian food.   Perhaps just as much as Bill Clinton fell for our renowned hot dogs. And I was under the impression that we were just famous for our fish and lamb. My brother, the chef, tells me that, per capita (we always do “per capita”) we have the greatest number of quality restaurants in the world. That’s what all the tourists tell him, anyway. If you’re interested, his fish and lamb at Pisa in Reykjavik is to die for. 

Have things improved in Iceland, economically?
I am sure things have improved, although I wouldn’t really know since I am just a struggling filmmaker – boom or no boom, crash or no crash. Our currency is still very problematic.  At the moment every dollar costs me 127 Krona – I remember the days when you could buy a dollar for under 70 Krona. But that was when our Krona was hugely overvalued, which lead to flocks of Icelanders travelling to the USA, furnished with credit cards and travelers checks, to purchase everything from iPods to eyeliner.

There are constant debates on how to deal with our currency. Most recently I have been hearing ideas of adopting the Canadian dollar.  Before that, people spoke of bringing in the Euro; at some point it was the Norwegian Krona, and prior to that I think it may have been the American dollar.

Our unemployment rate is currently at 7%, which is an improvement over 2009, when it exceeded 10%. Unemployment rose very quickly after the crash, having been nearly at 0% prior.  Economic growth is on the rise, so I think eventually – I don’t know when – things will be back to what some consider normal. And when I say normal, I do not mean the lifestyles of 2007.  In Iceland, “2007” is a term that has come to denote excess.  Excess is out; modesty is in.

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