Andri Snær Magnason is an Icelandic writer and filmmaker. His book On Time and Water will be published in twenty-two languages in 2020 and 2021. Among his awards is the Green Earth Book Awards Honor Book and a Phillip K. Dick Special Citation for his sci-fi novel LoveStar. The Hero’s Journey to the Third Pole is his second feature-length documentary film.
Anní Ólafsdóttir is an Icelandic director, cinematographer, and editor. She has directed numerous short films and music videos and recently completed her first feature-length documentary, The Hero’s Journey to the Third Pole, co-directed with Andri Snær Magnason.
Art always finds a way, even when everything has been put on pause. In this multimedia piece, journey with dancers, musicians, and philosophers across Iceland during the lockdown and explore the question: What is the meaning of the great stop, the apausalypse?
We have been stopped. I never imagined it could happen.
Once I did an experiment in Reykjavík. I convinced the mayor to turn off all the city lights for half an hour while an old astronomer talked about the stars on national radio. The idea was to bring back the starry night to children who might never have seen a deep black sky. When the lights were switched off, many things were revealed. When the lights went out, the sound of the city also dampened. People began whispering; neighbors met in the soft autumn darkness and gazed into the sky. It took six years to convince the city to do this: to turn off the lights so we could see the stars for half an hour.
We have been saying for many years that we as a human race are going too fast. We are cutting too close to the Earth’s boundaries, diminishing biodiversity, and changing the climate. We expect the pH of the oceans to change more in the next eighty years than it has in the last fifty million. Glaciers and permafrost that have been intact for thousands of years are predicted to melt in the next eighty years as well. We have to slow down to avoid a total catastrophe. In my book On Time and Water, I ask this question: If we are sensible creatures and we know where we are heading, why don’t we stop? But never in my dreams would I have expected the world could be stopped so fast in such an extreme way.
Like most people, during the COVID-19 global lockdown, we experienced lost opportunities. I had just finished a documentary film with my co-director, Anní Ólafsdóttir, called The Hero’s Journey to the Third Pole: A Bipolar Musical Documentary with Elephants. After three years of work, it was scheduled to premiere nationwide in cinemas in Iceland, smack dab on the day orders were issued forbidding gatherings and closing all theaters. With no certain opening date on the horizon, our months of promotion went down the drain and a mental health awareness campaign would have to wait while the world discussed more urgent issues of physical health. We were frozen, our work halted for more than a week, when we began to wonder: Are we missing something? Are we sitting in the old world, grieving a lost opportunity, while a historical moment slips away?
The film industry was on hold, all equipment shelved, all talent sitting at home waiting. We decided to borrow an Arri Alexa cinema camera and ask a cameraman to join us. And then we went on a journey to capture the void—not only to capture the empty spaces but the thoughts of artists and thinkers in the midst of the uncertainty. We asked, “What’s in the air?” We wanted to capture this particular moment of not knowing where the world is heading. Is the world changing for the better or worse? What is the meaning of this great pause—what is it showing us?
Our first interview was with Sigríður Þorgeirsdóttir, professor of philosophy. She spoke about The Decameron, a story by Giovanni Boccaccio that took place in a villa outside Florence in 1348 while the Black Death ran through the city. The story is about ten young people taking shelter to escape the plague. They tell stories for ten days while the plague passes through. Sigríður told us she felt strongly that we need stories to understand what is happening.
We did not think too much about it. But after days of intense filming, we loaded everything into our video editing software to see what we had captured only to find we had inadvertently captured ten people telling us stories over ten days of filming. We had filmed some kind of a modern Decameron, and while we were at it, the days had passed in a flash, the peak had flattened, and the city was opening again. We had captured a moment that, hopefully, will never occur or be captured again.
We wanted to explore to what extent we could keep creating in this new restricted era. We kept to all the rules of distancing—traveled in separate cars, interviewed through windows or half-open doors—while each artist did some kind of a performance with us or for us. The idea was that art continues on regardless of the situation; art always finds a way, always, even when everything stops. The limitations shape the work: they are part of the art but not something that prevents it. But this was not art just for art’s sake; it was vital to understand what was happening, to capture and explore the possibilities of this moment. What is the meaning of the big pause, the great stop, the apausalypse? What does it tell us about ourselves, our bodies, our nature, and our systems?
Haraldur Jónsson, the visual artist, told us that the word “apocalypse” in Greek means to uncover something. And this was an apocalypse: an uncovering of our smog and smoke, an uncovering of our fragility, our supply chains, the competence or incompetence of governments; revealing to us how health is not an individual issue—because the health of every person on the planet is connected and again connected to the health of the Earth systems.
What is the meaning of this great pause—what is it showing us?
Photo by Andri Haraldsson
We met Ragnar Axelsson, a renowned photographer. He had spent the last few days driving around Iceland, capturing the void on camera amid the total absence of tourism and domestic travelers. The animals, he said, were different. It was like they had forgotten all about us. The birds did not move; horses were standing in the middle of the road. He told us a story of when he was in Greenland, following hunters out onto the ice. They told him, “You must never disrespect nature with words or deeds. It will strike you back.”
Dancer Unnur Elísabet was supposed to finish her degree in acting in Barcelona, but she had to cancel her big final performance and, taking the last flight to Iceland after the school closed, finish with a simple online task while quarantined alone in her parents’ house for two weeks.
We wanted to film the empty Keflavik International Airport, our primary connection to the outside world—normally crammed with people, now empty. We wondered if we could do something extra here and asked Unnur if she could dance her way through the empty airport. We made a few phone calls with the airport authorities, and it turned out to be no problem. They couldn’t have been more helpful. Well, why not? The airport was empty, with only two cargo flights taking off in the morning. So we asked again: “If there are no flights, can we dance on the runway? This might be the only moment in history that this will be possible.” “Can I call you back?” They called back with the answer: “Well, yes. You just need our staff to escort you.” So we started planning the dance on the runway and had another thought. It would be nice if we could drone the performance. So we called them again—this time you could hear a child singing in the background, as a homebound civil servant responded. “Can we drone the dance?” I asked? “Over the airport?” “Yes. Just fill in this form,” she said. So Unnur danced for us. She danced away her frustration over lost opportunities. She danced away her two weeks of quarantine, danced through customs and security, through the Duty Free Store and out onto the runway, just as the only flight to Europe that day, a cargo flight, took off.
Gunnar Kvaran played Bach on his cello for us. He had been mentoring students on Skype for the past few weeks. He said these events could not be a coincidence; the virus must be a warning sign from the universe. Scientists have warned us about climate change and what will happen if we do not take action. Governments and businesses have told us that nothing can be stopped. Now we are experiencing a great pause, and during this moment we must rethink everything. We stopped to save the lives of our parents and grandmothers, and now the question is: Can we make a similar effort for the climate in the name of our grandchildren? Gunnar said that now, in his late 70s, life has shown him how to listen to the universe, to take notice of signs and warnings sent to him. When he does not do so, the only result is suffering. If this applies to one human being, why shouldn’t it apply to humanity?
Poet Elísabet Jökulsdóttir spoke to us through her living room window, as she is triply vulnerable due to her age, health conditions, and mental conditions. We set the camera, and she called us on the phone. She told us that there was nothing positive about this virus, that she only felt terror; but it was up to each of us to use this experience for good or not. She gave us directions to a sculpture she had created in the village of Hveragerði. It is a stone by a river, with a carved seat, where you can sit and watch the river pass by. The art piece is called “It Will Pass By,” and it is dedicated to young people with mental problems and suicidal thoughts. Whatever you are dealing with and however painful it seems, eventually it will pass by.
Art continues on regardless of the situation; art always finds a way, always, even when everything stops.
We went to visit theater director Þorleifur Arnarson and his wife, visual artist Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir. They had taken the last flight to Iceland from Berlin after being in lockdown there for more than a month. Þorleifur was rehearsing Peer Gynt in Vienna, but the show was canceled. “Theatre is not only on hold,” Thorleifur told us, “it died. Even during Nazi times, there was theatre everywhere in Germany, official state theatre supporting the regime and underground theatre. But now there is nothing. It has died; it has died, and online theatre is not theatre. It is all about live performance and the audience and that is where the art takes place, in the connection of the two in flesh and blood. Now it is not possible; it’s illegal and has been labeled a nonessential business. How can theatre be the same again after this?”
Thorleifur and Anna’s eight-year-old son, Tryggvi, had not been in school for a full eight weeks. He had composed a song about COVID-19 on the piano, and he sat down, in his underwear, and started playing it for us. Made up of notes from the darkest keys to the far left, it sounded like an anthem, a frustrated scream of a generation of one hundred million children in lockdown. The lyrics went something like this: Shit shit shit shit, ass ass ass ass ass, I HATE COVID-19.
As we drove around the empty streets of Reykjavik to meet the artists, we listened to the news: Up to 2000 people, almost 1 percent of the employed population, had lost their jobs in that single day. Most of them were connected to the airport and Icelandair. Tourism had become a significant section of our economy in recent years, bigger than the fisheries or any other industry. We had been experiencing a boom ever since the Eyjafjallajökull eruption put Iceland on the map as a tourist destination. Officials declared that our borders would open on the 15th of June, but it was hard to say when people would be ready to travel again.
Still, we were grateful for the actions taken here, as news of chaos and death came from Spain, Italy, the UK, and the US, accompanied by ever weirder remarks from the US president.
To our surprise, the Icelandic government had shown professionalism and competence in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. All its decisions were science-based, and the orders did not come through politicians but from daily meetings with our Chief Epidemiologist, the Director of Health, and the Chief Superintendent for the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police. A very likable and humanistic group, they gave strict orders but emphasized individual responsibility.
Polls in Iceland measured 96 percent trust in the government’s actions. We experienced anxiety and financial loss, but at the same time—and maybe for the first time since the 1990s—there was confidence and trust in the system and the government, the kind of trust you would give to a surgeon just about to put you to sleep and perform open-heart surgery. While uncritical belief in authority might not be healthy for the long term, after years of political polarization, this situation, this moment of trust in authority, was a strange relief.
And so Iceland’s government, with the help of Icelanders, managed to flatten the curve. There was extensive testing of almost 20 percent of the population. For those who were confirmed to be positive, there was precise tracing of those they had been in contact with: all of them had to stay home in a fourteen-day quarantine. More than 5 percent of the population, 20,000 people, went through that. We all downloaded an app to help trace who we had met and where we had been.
At the time of this writing, May 12th, we have had seven days without a new coronavirus case, down from 100 per day at its peak, and children are hugging grandparents for the first time in two months. Our intensive care units never ran beyond capacity, and the survival rate of those patients was exceptionally high. Of almost 2000 cases, we had 10 deaths, about a 0.5 percent death rate. Those who were diagnosed with COVID-19 were told to stay home, but they received a daily phone call from the hospital, and as soon as symptoms got worse they were called in.
Because of this, Icelanders feel grateful for the lives saved and the mitigated suffering. Most of the population has shared the experience of feeling stuck at home, missing the older people in their life, having all the kids around, lost opportunities, the unpredictable future, mass unemployment, fear of a second wave of the virus, and the uncanny weirdness of everything.
The interviews we filmed offered insights into a broad scope of thoughts. Some said that the crisis would not change us but rather would make us even more hungry for the old ways; that we would go running hungrier than ever into a new decade of “roaring twenties,” of consumption, production, speed, and waste. Others said that this experience proved that governments could act according to science and prevent harm; that capitalism and the industrial machine were not laws of nature, above and beyond the limits of the planet itself.
Sometimes it seems like Icelanders are more in their element during times of crisis than during boom years. After a thousand years of living on one of the harshest places on Earth, there is this deeply embedded feeling in our genetic memory that something is going to happen, eventually. Older women shake their heads during a good sunny day and mumble: This good weather is a bad omen. And they are right. Just over the horizon, there is always a winter frost or a cold summer, an epidemic taking the lives of up to 30 percent of the population, an avalanche, a volcanic eruption, a massive storm killing the livestock and drowning hundreds of fishermen, or an earthquake. Now a small virus has kicked us off track. We have to rebuild and rethink. Strangely, we knew this time would come. We had been joking about the tourist boom. How will we use this hotel when the bubble bursts? Elderly home? Artist residency?
The apocalypse has happened. And it has been an unveiling of everything. We can now see the structures; we can see the Himalayas, the sky over China is blue, the waters in Venice are clear. The virus has given us greater insight into the thought and imagination of politicians and governments. When the chaos raged in Wuhan, many could not imagine the same situation in their own country and so they didn’t take the needed preventive steps right away. When it raged in Italy, it was still a faraway problem. The crisis has shown us the importance of understanding science and applying it to future realities, yet we are slow to learn. Again and again, tragedy spreads because we don’t believe it will happen to us. But ultimately, everything was put on pause because of our concern for loved ones who might get sick next week. Our hearts recognized this danger as a real emergency. The big question now is, how can we act with the same urgency so that the foundations of life will be intact for our loved ones in 2050, 2060, or 2080? Can we translate how global inaction caused immense suffering during the COVID crisis and apply that to the future of the whole planet? Was there anything in this great pause that can show us the way?
Andri Snær Magnason is an Icelandic writer and documentary filmmaker. In this interview, Andri discusses his new book On Time and Water and our relationship to time in an age of ecological crisis. With Iceland having lost its first large glacier, the Ok glacier, this past summer—Andri discusses the ways in which geological time is beginning to move at the speed of human time. In order to bring about a planetary paradigm shift, he says, we need new ways to see and imagine ourselves into the future.