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Courtesy of Hot Docs


Director asks if natural beauty should be sacrificed for energy

By Lisa Van de Ven

Directed by Thorfinnur Gudnason 
and Andri Snaer Magnason
(Ground Control Productions)

“Some say Iceland is the most beautiful country in the world,” an interviewee says. And with the stunning Icelandic landscapes on display in the documentary film Dreamland, many a viewer might end up with that same opinion.

However, Dreamland’s filmmakers Thorfinnur Gudnason and Andri Snaer Magnason aren’t just looking to show off Iceland’s terrain. They delve deep into the country’s attempt to persuade aluminum giant Alcoa to build a new smelter on its land. But with the promise of cheap clean energy and new investment comes several costs: sacrificing some of those beautiful rugged vistas and perhaps some of Iceland’s economic independence.

It’s a subject matter that showcases such a convergence of current issues that it’s hard not to feel drawn in. Iceland was among the countries hardest hit by the economic collapse of 2008. And the true price of ecological destruction in return for cheap energy and economic growth is a recurring public debate. 

But while the subject matter may be compelling, Dreamland never quite reaches its potential. A muddied narrative and an over-reliance on talking heads keep the story from truly coming alive. Watch the first 15 minutes and you’d be forgiven if you didn’t even know what the movie was about, as the film’s start veers between a history of the Icelandic economy and poetic asides on the problems with modern society. Alcoa doesn’t even come up until a third of the way through. It’s enough to leave you wondering if something in the narrative may have been lost in the film’s translation (it’s in Icelandic with English subtitles).

What do translate, though, are those sprawling shots of Iceland’s landscapes, stunning in their starkness. And the film itself — flawed as it is — provides the motivation to start rooting for this country. Because who’d want to see such beauty destroyed?

Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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