March 4, 2009

Once Upon A Time In Iceland

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It’s safe to say that most members of the audience at the Johnson Museum’s screening of Heima Friday night have been dreaming of rolling tundra, dramatic skies and fair isle sweaters ever since. The documentary follows the band Sigur Ros during their two-week series of free, unannounced concerts across their native Iceland in the summer of 2006. The Iceland concerts marked the end of the band’s world tour for Takk …, their fourth album.
Heima is a film that leaves impressions first; its narrative is secondary to elements such as location, atmosphere and pace. Though it documents over a dozen concerts, it primary focus seems to be in creating a portrait of a landscape and the people that inhabit it. In the ways that only landscape and filmic portrait paintings can usually communicate, it portrays the panorama, mood and climate of Iceland and the character of the Icelandic people. The music is not the center of attention; often concert footage becomes sort of a soundtrack to another scene. In fact, while the first few minutes of Heima transition between nature shots and scenes from a concert smoothly, then splice the two together, the rest of the film is (thankfully) a departure from this sort of soundtrack-to-independent-action filmmaking. First, it seems, the director wants the audience to become acquainted with the physical setting — de-saturated and reversed footage of running water, mountain ranges and plains are a fitting introduction — and only after we have gotten chills from the humbling scale of Iceland’s backyard may we meet its inhabitants. More and more of the film, after this point, is comprised of interviews and commentary from members of Sigur Ros and candid shots of their audience. These moments of observing the locals are the most successful and telling; they seem to be the most poised, calm and welcoming people on earth, they are one and all interested and engaged in the concerts and they also have the best-behaved and cutest children.
During their interviews in the film, the musicians of Sigur Ros list off their various reasons for playing these free shows: they wanted to give something back to Iceland, to bring free concerts to towns so remote they’ve probably never hosted anything like them before and to wind down from their tour. Their Iceland concerts were not just part of the vacation Heima made them appear, however. In between the bonfires and croquet matches, the band was following through on a self-given challenge to really impress the Icelandic people, who are according to Sigur Ros, “so judgmental.” This tour wasn’t about showing off or making a profit from film sales, but about proving themselves to their peers and proving to themselves that they could make an impression on Iceland with their music. After all, they realized, it’s always “harder to play for people you know.” And depending on the specific location, the concerts highlighted local issues, history or culture. For example, Sigur Ros played an acoustic concert in protest of the imminent construction of a hydroelectric dam in Kirkjubaejarklaustar, used a long-abandoned herring oil factory as a venue in the once-thriving Djúpavík, and included a local raggedy marching band as backup instrumentals during their concert in Isafjörður.
Sigur Ros’ remote venues made for intimate, genuine and neighborly concerts. As darkness approached at each location, children put down their kites or glasses of milk and entire families settled in to enjoy the performance. Here, Iceland truly seemed the “safe haven” Sigur Ros made it out to be. The mission of the tour, to connect with the homeland, or heima, was clear and fulfilled. After the precedent these small shows set, the Reykjavík concert lacked their spontaneity and accessibility. However, it does illustrate, intentionally or not, Sigur Ros’ talent, flexibility and musicianship: if the Reykjavík venue is what the band is used to, then their ramshackle performances are really quite amazing. Sigur Ros is adaptable; its members can communicate the same music, in radically different settings and with different technical set-ups, unphased.
Though the film lasted close to two hours, it maintained a pace indicative of the traveling and stopping over it followed, and never dragged. It was both sweeping and intimate, like the setting and characters it detailed. Its shots were visually and formally beautiful without falling into a self-reflective dream-world. Most importantly, impressed upon its audience the atmosphere of the place it documented effortlessly as it told the story it was meant to tell.