Review by Júlíana Björnsdóttir.
All my life, I have been drawn to the very opposites of my native country. At a young age, I turned a blind eye to the magic of the landmass in the north that I called home, and paid no attention to the massive glacier-covered land northwest of it.
I looked to the verdant hills of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the magnificent coves and beaches in the isles of Angra dos Reis and Ilha Grande near Rio de Janeiro, and walked in waist-deep water in Botswana’s Okavango Delta to experience real nature. I even spent a night with a majestic lion in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
It took a man whose native country is the very opposite of my own, rich in wildlife, blessed by the tropical climate of the Indian Ocean and the eternal African sun, to open my eyes to the extraordinary power of the nature in the northernmost part of the world.
Since my husband came into my life my enthusiasm for my native nature, so extraordinarily rare yet nonchalant to the local population, has grown in leaps.
Yet, sometimes I still forget and need a little reminder just how magnificent she can be. The Last Days of the Arctic (2011) is the kind of reminder that brings magic to a dull moment and inspires the viewer to seek out the mystery of the north.
Nature. Menacing is her presence, and ruthless she is in her intentions.
In daily life, we encounter her force in the unexpected wind speed or a sudden snowstorm blinding our view. We curse and escape to the indoor haven from which we can continue to observe her force through glass.
Ragnar Axelsson is a renowned photojournalist and photo essayist in Iceland. His initials, RAX, have become the name we recognize him by.
Unlike the frightened city dwellers he seeks his muse in the rawness of the temperamental Mother Nature, to whom a small population in the world owes their existence: the brave inhabitants of Iceland’s most isolated areas and Greenland’s eternal white desert.
I watched The Last Days of the Arctic, which documents RAX’s photo projects in those regions, on a beautiful Friday afternoon, when the orange hue shone through a gray veil in the skyline.
I have been meaning to watch the film since it first came into my possession last year and decided it was the perfect film for the first review of the year as it is truly unique.
Ten years ago, I had the honor of meeting RAX at the offices of the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið where he works.
He had agreed to meet with me to tell me about his job as a photographer, at which time I had neither heard of him nor knew of his work.
I was embarking on my first semester in a photography school. The way he described the thrill of capturing that perfect photo filled me with an inspiration.
Still today, his work blows me away. In his private photography tours he uses a black-and-white film and spends hours in the darkroom perfecting the images he captures.
His work is not a stroke of luck. He invests extensive time and effort in completing his vision: A photo of a herd of sheep returning to their home farm after a summer grazing in Landmannalaugar in the highlands took a year to complete. His photos of a wild polar beer on the east coast of Greenland were 15 years in making.
I don’t want to go into particular scenes of the film, which I consider a journey to a dying world, a journey to be experienced from one moment to another. Each new character and location unveils an invisible history of the people whose fortitude shaped the character of their nation, and even the very existence of RAX.
I expected the documentary mostly to include scenes from Greenland, but as it turns out, Iceland is as much a part of the journey.
In Iceland, RAX’s photo essays depict a dying lifestyle of a generation soon lost to our memory. Hermits who have chosen to live in the remotest region of Iceland and claim winter’s rage is no longer the menacing threat it once was, but more like the cool springtime and summertime they once knew.
The story of Guðjón, a blue-eyed Viking with whom RAX first walked the shores of Reynisfjara near Vík in 1994 is particularly moving. He captures the essence of the farmer, born and bred in hardship, without portraying the protagonist as a tragic lonesome hero forced to live in solitude.
Even at times of tragedies, such as the 1995 avalanche that buried the town of Flateyri in the West Fjords, RAX finds hope in an infant looking straight into his lens.
The film is not only his way to document the history of Old Iceland, but also an ode to the people of Greenland whose age old ways are constantly under the supervision of the super-powers.
Their old hunting traditions are restricted by rules and regulations and the villages are gradually becoming ghost towns in the middle of a white desert.
Without a voice of condemnation, he mingles with the locals, hunts with them and captures the void in the fishermen now forced to find a new way of living in a world utterly unfamiliar to them, and the deep penetrating look of the hounds whose lives are dedicated to their firm but fair masters.
Directed by Magnús Viðar Sigurðsson and narrated by RAX, the documentary puts a human face to Inuit hunting traditions and solitude of the desolate farmer.
The Last Days of the Arctic is masterfully crafted together with still life photography and clips from RAX’s many travels.
From glaciers to volcanoes, RAX has seen it all and invites the novice Arctic traveler to join him on a spellbinding journey like no other.
If you only plan to watch one film this year, this is the one to watch.
Last Days of the Arctic (original title: Andlit Norðursins), with narration in English, is available in webstores such as nammi.is.
Júlíana Björnsdóttir – [email protected]