14 December 2009

Give Us This Day

As I continue my quest into the world of Icelandic cinema, I would first like to point out an invaluable web resource for anyone else out there interested in this small national cinema: Iceland Cinema Now. ICN is a fantastic resource for the latest news, and it's where I discovered my most recent watch, and one that will be incredible easy for all of you to get access to as well (see the end of the article for the link!)

Give Us This Day (Íslands þúsand ár, 1997) by Erlendur Sveinsson is what I would call a "period documentary" about fishers in Iceland. It is a documentary of a culture gradually becoming forgotten in the seas of time. In this it reminds me of a documentary made 40 years earlier called The Hunters about the Bushmen of the Kalahari. While this culture was still present at the time of shooting, it was already rapidly modernizing. Thus, the film's attempt to portray the way the bushmen hunted was not, in fact, how the bushmen in the film actually hunted. Rather, these men were acting out for the camera the way their ancestors had once hunted, committed to celluloid in a last minute attempt to preserve knowledge of this disappearing culture.

So too does Give Us This Day preserve a culture killed off by the grand globalization of the modern world. However, while The Hunters tried its best to hide the fact that it was, in fact, largely staged, Give Us This Day remains somewhat more honest in this regard. One of the central themes of the work is its claim that, despite the grizzled fishermen's connection with nature and their ability to feel out the changes to come in the sea, the weather, and the locations of fish, they cannot sense that the thousand year tradition of fishing is also on the brink of change. The entire documentary, from its protrayal of religion and magical superstition to its attention to detail on the life of a man at sea, is always focused on this desire to preserve a dying culture. While we are never explicitly told what is to come, the sense is always looming that this small Icelandic fishing boat with its simple men and their meager catches will soon be replaced by massive corporate trawlers and a practice that is now overfishing the cod populations.

The film, I think, works well in creating a somewhat unbiased view of this rural society. On one hand, it shows a certain sense of praise and love for these nobel fishermen, but it does so without casting a judging eye on what is to follow. It does not seem to suggest that this life was better, that the future is wrong. It recognizes their strength and courage without suggesting that we have truly lost it. Rather, it presents an attitude that this too shall pass. That this life is one of the past, and that it was a life of strong caste systems and many hardships, but that there is something important to it as well, something that we must remember.

Give Us This Day is currently streaming for free over at Poppoli Pictures. If you have an hour to kill, I think it's worth checking out.

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