My work as an artist & filmmaker usually draws upon our relationship to the natural world in some way; how cultural, political, and economic factors influence both managed and seemingly wild places. As a dynamic, volatile landscape, on the edge of Europe, Iceland has been somewhere I’ve wanted to travel to for some time. Plus I was intrigued by Iceland’s infrastructure of energy plants, and had read quite a bit about the issue of aluminium corporations that are exploiting its hydro and geothermal resources.
No, this was the first time in Iceland. I try not to plan too much in advance of a filming trip, relying on chance encounters and unexpected moments to influence the film. For me it’s more interesting, and less prescriptive than following a researched schedule or script. There were a few key locations I wanted to visit, but for the most part it was an unplanned journey around the full length of Iceland’s infamous ring road, for one week, plus a second week in Reykjavik and the surrounding area.
Aside from beautiful landscape shots, your film is also showing some terrifying and unexpected images of Iceland: dead whales, wreckage of an aircraft, industrial pipelines… When do you think these changes have begun?
My understanding is that it has always been a shifting and constantly evolving environment, characterised by massive natural forces as well as human intervention – though it’s probably changed more by human activity than anything else: 40% was tree covered when the first settlers arrived 1100 years ago, who then proceeded to chop all of it down.
Today there is an incredible abundance of astonishing landscapes of course; an epic and mind-blowing terrain, the likes of which I had never seen before. But I was particularly drawn to the unexpected, peculiar or differential features there – especially the more industrial architecture – so as not to make a generic, pictorial ‘landscape film’.
The absence of humanity gives us the feeling of a post-apocalyptic era. Combined with desert spaces plus the special architectures of the geo-thermal stations, we’re almost in Mars! Why give your film a science-fiction atmosphere?
The Atom Station forms part of a series of films I’ve been making lately, which, despite being documentary-based, I like to think have qualities of a sci-fi genre or mood, especially with the soundtrack. It’s one of the many layers I like to add to the film during editing, to take it somewhere a bit more oblique or atypical.
Iceland is extraordinarily otherworldly, so I was naturally drawn to that aspect, and the strange geodesic domes of the power plants. It’s no wonder that Iceland was used to practice the first Apollo moon landings, in 1967, (http://icelandnaturally.com/article/50th-anniversary-apollo-lunar-training), and of course its landscape is used extensively as an ‘alien’ location in many sci-fi films, including recently Interstellar, Star Trek and Prometheus.
There are two voice overs in your film : one is by poet W.H. Auden, reading “Journey to Iceland“, and the other one is from environmental activist Ómar Ragnarsson. Why mix up poetry and information together?
I mentioned layering before, especially with regards the soundtrack, and so these two voices are further layers which go towards building up the completed picture. In a loose or lyrical way, I wanted to create a correspondence between the past and present, between the poetic and the political. It’s interesting for me to select both separate and interconnected parts to their words and expressions, and juxtapose them with the images and score. Hopefully it’s a way of creating something distinctive and interesting; blurring borders between things, or shifting the narrative away from either the resolutely polemical or the purely poetic, whilst still giving appropriate context or meaning to their words.
We can hear a cold relation between Iceland and United States. What is the main problem between the two countries? The US still want to install a military base? Or is it about Alcoa (Aluminium company of America) installations?
There are excellent documentaries, such as Dreamland, which go into this in far more, expert detail. With The Atom Station though, I did want to highlight the issue of alluminium corporations, such as Alcoa Inc., who now harness over 80% of Iceland’s electrical energy, with more smelters and hydro-electric dams planned, threatening large areas of wilderness. Ómar Ragnarsson has been a tireless campaigner on this, and also produced his own documentaries on the subject. The issue is economic as well as ecological: Alcoa Inc. is structured so that their Icelandic subsidiaries operate in constant debt, but create huge off-shore profits to the parent company. The only profit that is left in the country is the wages they pay to their small number of employees, which accounts to less than 1% of national revenue.
So there are major issues of social fairness, exploitation, financial corruption and environmental destruction that many Icelanders are campaigning against.
Alcoa Inc. is also one of the USA’s largest weapons manufacturers, so I was interested in the past links and connections with the American military presence in Iceland, as satirised in Halldór Laxness’ novel The Atom Station. The book, set in the late 1940s, imagines Iceland sold cheaply to the USA, as a strategic military-industrial base. There’s a clear parallel there, with military/industrial corporations, such as Alcoa, buying their influence with today’s Icelandic government, and so that was the reason for naming the film The Atom Station.
Interestingly, news media has recently reported that the U.S. government have expressed a desire to reopen aspects of the NATO base in Iceland, in response to increasing Russian military activity in the region.
I have no idea how or why it is there. It’s an example of an unplanned, unexpected moment in the film. The kind of thing I’m always looking out for with my camera. If I’d tried to search for a running shower, in the middle of a lava field, I think I’d still be out there looking.
I’m very lucky to be working with Lord Mongo, who astounds me with his musical wizardry and mastery of atmospheric soundscapes. This is the second film we have collaborated on, the first being The Rising https://vimeo.com/71654042. Plus we are currently working together on a third short film, Thought Broadcasting, which I’m currently filming. Lord Mongo prefers to work ‘blind’, without seeing any footage before composing and recording the score. Sometimes I provide him with a few, rough descriptions of particular scenes (ie ‘dead whale on beach’), and he delves into his cinematic imagination to conjure up the distinctive sounds on his analogue synths or guitars or samples. It’s an exciting and rewarding way to collaborate, as the film is always evolving and developing in response to composed sounds and images during the editing process. More sounds from Lord Mongo: https://tudorplasm.bandcamp.com/
I have no idea, but I’d like to believe it’s true – it’s an a-‘peeling’ thought! If so, they must grow them in greenhouses, heated by geothermal steam. Conjures up a bizarre image and sounds like an idea for another film…