In modern society, the definition of old would be a personal recollection of the World War II years in Iceland, or of the Geysir plane crash of 1950.
In my old age, the definition of old will no doubt be held to personal recollection of the deadly avalanches of 1994-1995 in the West Fjords. In hindsight, I suspect the political bullshit of the bank crisis years will seem of little importance when future historians dig through old documents and research documentaries like 66/23 North West, The Day of the Avalanche.
Future generations may find the rescue operations surprisingly primitive. The reliance on search dogs and the use of shovels in digging out men, women and children buried in the snow, some to live and others not meant for this world.
The film was released in 2010; 15 years after two of the most catastrophic avalanches reported in documented history of natural disasters in Iceland, devastated in part the small village of Flateyri.Photo: Icelandic Film Centre.
The first avalanche in 1995 struck in the late hours of January 16 and killed 14 people, both men and women of all ages, a number significantly high considering the overall population of the small isolated village.
The second avalanche devastated the community of Flateyri in the wee hours of October 26, at 4:07 am. To the locals, winter had not yet announced its arrival to the small village, although it had been snowing for three days and the weather was by no standards good, even in the eyes of the locals who knew bad weather all too well.
In North West, film clips and photographs are brought back to life through the narrative of survivors who still recall the hours spent buried in the snow under the debris, the survivors waiting for news of loved ones and the rescuers who looked for survivors, as well as news reporters and others involved in the operation.
The focus is on the Flateyri avalanche but the lessons learned in the first catastrophic avalanche helped rescue workers and locals alike to both survive and respond correctly to the situation.
For Icelanders old enough to recall waking up to the horrific news, the film brings back the frost in our veins as we waited for news. These were the days of dial-up Internet connections and people relied on radio, newspapers and TV news to report the latest news to an anxious nation.
I remember this event as if it happened last week. I remember how I felt. I remember how each time a person was found alive we rejoiced and each time a body was discovered we grieved for the community’s loss and perhaps also for the local hero who dug out a friend or family member only to find the spirit eternally asleep.
Photos of survivors and those perished in the deep snow appeared in the newspapers in the days following the event, each with a name, some brothers and sisters, some parents or young lovers who in the minutes and hours before the avalanche struck slept soundly side by side.
It was the first time I recalled CNN and BBC showing Iceland interest.
I was 15 years old at the time and it was the first time in my life I realized just how powerful Icelandic nature is, that it can kill and save lives all at the same time. When it comes alive, its power is sometimes just too awesome for the fragile existence of dwarf-size humans inhabiting the edge of the world.
It was also the first time I realized nature is ruthless in her selection of who lives and who dies and that here in the North, we sometimes depend on her to spare our lives.
All these sentiments came alive as I watched the film but without the sentimentality one could expect from such a documentary. With a smile on her face, a sister who at the age of 11 was buried under debris and snow for 9 consecutive hours, remembers her 19-year-old sister who did not survive, and the loving relationship they shared.
Another survivor who held onto his wife while the avalanche almost buried them with all its force, talks about his neighbors who lost a child.
In the first 15 minutes of the film, the economical growth of the community and the intimate relationship families and friends share with one another and the magnificent surrounding, is introduced to the outsider. As the film comes to an end, this intimacy ties together the beginning and end as the people of Flateyri come together in their time of need.
The resilient people of the West Fjords, whose lives have been intertwined in small communities, isolated from one another, are accustomed to weather conditions, which those of us raised in the mild southwest rarely experience in our lifetime.
The reverence they show Mother Nature and her awesome force, and the bonds they share bathed in the enchanting beauty she possesses, is not so hard to understand. She casts a spell on those who once form bonds with the rough nature that more often than not, is a white desert of steep mountain hills and a narrow flatland on the edge of the sea.
In her time of rage, when a tsunami of snow buried half the village, the residents of Flateyri responded with efficiency as they dug through layer after layer in an attempt to find a neighbor, relative or a friend, perhaps all of the above, while waiting for assistance from nearby communities and the capital city, and hardship while enduring personal grief in the face of an undefeatable foe.
The 3-D simulation by Halldór Bragason, unseen by the public up until now, displays how the avalanche devastated the small town in the northwest with its awesome force, and the snow quickly digested the homes and those within in matters of second.
North West, as it has been short-titled, is a film in which director, scriptwriter and editor Einar Þór Gunnlaugsson excavates a recent history of human tragedy and while doing so captures the spirit of the north, the true spirit of the north us South westerners can only pretend to possess.
And that’s why the film is worth watching. It’s not easy to watch. It’s not the kind of film you watch on a Saturday night before going to bed. It’s not even the Sunday night documentary. If anything it’s the Monday night documentary you watch because something sparked your interest.
There truly are no words. The recollection of the avalanche immediately takes me back to the moment I knew what had happened, the morning I woke up to the horrible news, the day every classroom was glued to the radio and class was dismissed so that we could watch the news with our families.
Whether you’re planning a trip to the West Fjords and want an insight into the history of the region, or if you just want to know the less public side of life in Iceland, North West is worth the 100 minutes.
As an Icelander who remembers October 26 1995, it’s a journey worth taking and for my foreign friends and family, an insight into a region where fortitude and strength prevails.
66/23 North West, The Day of the Avalanche (original title: Norð Vestur, björgunarsaga), with subtitles in English, is available in webstores such as Shopicelandic.com.
Júlíana Björnsdóttir – [email protected]