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The Gimli Film Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this year with a selection of feature films, shorts and documentaries that represent its unique niche within the circuit of North American film festivals, comprising Canadian films, with a special emphasis on Manitoba filmmakers; cinema from Iceland, Scandinavia and the circumpolar nations; and documentaries dealing with themes of                    environmental awareness and social interest.

This year the golden nugget at the core of its offerings was undoubtedly the extraordinary collection of fine documentaries selected for this anniversary year’s program, which include some of the most important films in this genre made in the last year: Dreamland (Iceland), The Cove (US), The Coca Cola Case (NFB, Canada), The Living (Ukraine), A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism (Iceland), Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould (NFB, Canada) and Reel Injun (Canada).

Dreamland, based on Andri Snær Magnason’s best-selling book of the same name, has been described as “quite possibly the most important Icelandic film ever made” (The Iceland Weather Report).

The film takes issue with the economic policies advanced in recent years aimed at harnessing Iceland’s enormous hydro-electric potential to make it the world’s largest producer of aluminum. At the centre of this controversy is the massive Kárahnjúkar dam, set to be the largest in Europe, which will enable the establishment of Alcoa plants in the East Fjords in coming years.

Featuring sweeping panoramic helicopter shots of Iceland’s majestic landscapes, segments of old-time home movies and contemporary news footage, as well as a sound track with the music of Björk and Valgeir Sigurðsson, this film is as stunningly beautiful as it is intelligent and thoughtful – essential viewing for anyone wishing to understand this small island nation that has only recently awakened to the necessity of environmental preservation in an age of multinational predators.

Hardly less controversial is the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove, centered on the Japanese practice of drive hunting, whereby large schools of porpoises are cornered in a watery cul-de-sac and then methodically slaughtered en masse.

The Cove is a real rarity amongst environmental films: a cloak-and-dagger detective story with underground microphones and cameras disguised as rocks in an undercover stake-out of unethical fishing practices that blends investigative journalism with the pit of the stomach tension of a mystery thriller to create a genre all its own.

Even more disturbing than the cruel harvesting practices of the Japanese is the wider discussion given to mercury contamination in the world’s fish supplies, including that economical staple of the supposedly “healthy” diet – tuna. This is a must-see film for anyone who has ever wondered why government agencies recommend consuming no more than one can of this protein rich fish per week.Much closer to home is The Coca Cola Case, an enquiry into the labour practices of the mammoth multinational beverage company headquartered in the US but with production facilities scattered across the globe.

This disturbing film by the National Film Board’s German Guttierrez and Carmen Garcia delves into the murky world of kidnappings, torture and murder that characterize labour relations at Coke bottling plants in Columbia, Guatemala and Turkey.

With the tag line “the truth that refreshes,” this film is both an exposé of working conditions in parts of the world far from the soft drink shelf of your local grocery store, and a legal drama played out in court by labour rights lawyers attempting to hold the Coca Cola Company accountable for the human rights abuses taking place under their watch.

The Living is a different type of documentary, a somber memorial of remembrance to mark the 75th anniversary of a catastrophic event in the history of the Ukrainian nation: the great state-imposed famine of 1932-1933, known as Holodomor. It tells the story of Gareth Jones, the Welsh BBC correspondent who tried to tell an unbelieving world how millions were dying of starvation in the middle of the largest grain belt of the Soviet state.

Through period footage, and interviews with the few remaining survivors alive today, it tells with quiet dignity the story of an indelible scar on the nation’s psyche that has marked its relations with the Russian state to this day. Icelandic director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson has, in his own words, a fascination with “marginalized people who don’t quite fit into ordinary life.”

Best known for dramatic films in this vein such as Children of Nature (1991), Angels of the Universe (2000) and his recently released Mamma Gógó (2010) he has now turned to the documentary genre to explore this theme further in A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism. His portrait of Margret, the mother of a severely autistic child, brings us face to face with the unique challenges that this developmental impairment presents, and interviews with leading figures in autism research deepen the mystery of what it means to be human.

This film, surprisingly luminous in tone for such a dark subject, features music by Sigur Rós and Björk and is narrated by Kate Winslet.And then, from the very heart of Canadiana, comes yet another film about Glenn Gould – and there can never be too many, such was the inexhaustible fascination of this uniquely talented eccentric who captured the imagination of his audiences as much by his personality as by his extraordinary playing. Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould reveals the man beneath the image with a vast array of new material never before presented publicly – new photos and film footage, personal interviews with his intimate circle of friends, and excerpts from his diaries.

That this complex yet playful personality should have grown up and thrived here in Canada, and nowhere else, still has much to tell us about our national identity and potential.And finally, Reel Injun lifts the veil on Hollywood’s dirty little secret: that Indians as portrayed on screen are nothing like the real thing – and that’s really quite funny.

Told with an endless supply of good humour and trenchant observation, Manitoba Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond’s documentary about the bizarre ways in which North American Indians are portrayed in film will bring a smile of recognition from anyone who has seen a John Wayne western or watched a TV episode of The Lone Ranger. The Gimli Film Festival ran from July 21-25.

An ingenious addition to this year’s festival was the shuttle bus that ran to Gimli from Winnipeg each morning and returned each evening, allowing film aficionados from the city to take in the festival as a convenient day trip to the beach.

 

This could be the year when, in Saskatchewan, it’s too wet for ducks. Certainly, in the 38 Rural Municipalities and 20 small towns and villages where local governments have declared disaster because of heavy rain, residents have noticed that there aren’t many baby ducks on the sloughs and roadside marshes.

There’s not much healthy-looking grain growing in the fields alongside those roads, either, even though Crop Insurance extended the final date for insured seeding to June 20. By then, R.M.s in the north east and east central parts of the province had declared an agricultural disaster.

About nine million Saskatchewan farm acres were not planted this spring. Add another four million acres that were seeded then flooded out, and that’s 18 percent of Canada’s farmland that will not produce a crop this year. In large parts of the Vatnabyggð area, only 29 percent of seeding was completed and some farmers did not ever manage to get onto the land.

Danny Thorsteinson of Foam Lake has planted 51 crops. There has never been a time, until this year, when he has not been able to put one in. “I got a third in. One third is washed out. One third of the balance is turning yellow from too much moisture and not enough nutrients. The rain is leaching away everything you gained over the years. It’s all going down the creek,” he said.

“Our income is the crop. Not seeding is like your employer telling you that you are not getting any cheques this year,” he said. But there’s an added problem for farmers. It’s more than just not getting that cheque. “We still have to control the weeds on the unseeded acres. We know that land has to be maintained and ready for next year.”

By early June, when Saskatchewan’s agriculture minister was invited to fly over the fields in the Vatnabyggð area, he discovered the stark truth. “There were a couple of guys out there actually trying to do something out in the field and all you could see was ruts behind the tractor. It just highlighted the effect of what all this water is doing. I think probably the biggest concern is it’s not letting up,” the minister said.

He might have been carrying a crystal ball. Not only did the weather not get any better, it got worse. In order for a farmer to successfully plant a crop, the soil needs an adequate level of moisture down where the roots are going to grow, but those roots also need oxygen and too much water suffocates them. The farmer also needs the fields dry enough that he can safely run very large, very expensive equipment. Following a cold wet April, the skies opened in May. By June, the average day’s weather forecast brought storm warnings for potential severe thunderstorms with high winds and damaging hail with periodic threats of tornadoes.

At best, the crop that is out there is in fair condition, said Foam Lake R.M. Reeve Chris Gislason.

“There’s way too much moisture. There are a lot or acres where the crop has died out. It looks sick.”

By July 15, Gislason’s rain gauge had registered 20 inches of rain. The area would normally have eight inches by mid July. Average annual rainfall is 12 or 13 inches. “I can’t get out with the tractor and cultivate,” he said.

South of Foam Lake, at the end of June, several farmers were hit with a storm that dumped five inches of rain and six inches of hail in 45 minutes. “I was wading in hail up to my knees,” said one. The day after Canada Day, an F3 tornado, packing 300 km winds, cut a 50 km swath two kms wide through the Raymore farming community and the Kawakatoose First Nations reserve, destroying houses, out-buildings, trucks and farm equipment and tearing out 2.5 km of power lines.
Super-saturated land can’t absorb any more rain. “There was a time,” said a Saskatchewan meteorologist, “when we would have 20 mm of rain and it would all soak in. Now there is nowhere for it to go and we see immediate puddling.”

“I have hilly land,” said Lori Bonar, whose farm was hit by the rain and hail. “In the hollows, it’s damp in the evening, but in the morning, there is water running. The water is leaking out of the hills.”
Lakes are at flood level. Roads are washed out – a chunk of the Trans-Canada highway at the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta disappeared after a quiet little creek turned into a raging torrent that took out the culvert and the road collapsed. It was finally repaired, but the major highway west of Humboldt is still awash in water. Local traffic is rerouted down gravel roads and the heavy stuff is sent to Highway 16, the alternative Trans-Canada.

Quiet little creeks are in full flood. “My son called me,” said Harry Abtosway, who is 81. “He told me to brace myself. There was a two-foot wall of water coming at me down Milligan Creek.” Named after the first settler in the area, Milligan is typical of this province – flowing through flat land, it winds back and forth, twisting in on itself, a little high in the spring, because of the snow and the runoff, a narrow ribbon of water all summer and fall – except for this year. Where it crosses Highway 35 between Elfros and Wadena, Milligan has turned fields into a flood plain.

Terry Helgason, who farms south of Elfros, was hit with hail two inches across on Canada Day. Some of the stones were baseball-sized. He’s had 19 inches of rain. It’s so wet he can’t get across his fields and the rules call for farmers to keep weeds under control on unseeded acres. “I hired a high-wheel sprayer to spray what I couldn’t do,” said Helgason. And then he got another inch and a half of rain.

It isn’t just a concern about cereal crops – wheat and oats and barley – or the oilseeds, flax and canola, he said. It’s hay. If a farmer wants dry bales, he needs three or four days of sunshine to cure it. That’s not happening this year. “But if you put it up for silage, it’s too heavy to lift,” he said. Local farmers often bag green bales which turn into silage in the bag. Try moving it, he said, “and the tractor drops out of sight at the front wheels.” He, too, has seen that “every hollow is filled with water because it is bubbling out of the hills.”

The other problem for cattle men, said Danny Thorsteinson, is the quality of the grass that nourishes the animals all summer. “Grass growth is extremely good but it is not good grass,” he said. “It’s water grass. The moisture content is so high that every mouthful is more water than nutrient.” On the other hand, hay crops are looking good. But, he says, “If you can’t get off the main roads, you can’t get it. Those bales from last year that weren’t worth much are looking really good this year,” he said.

The provincial and federal governments are offering farmers $30 on their unseeded acres. Farmers who have crop insurance – and many do not because it is very expensive and they gamble that they’ll get at least some yield – get another $50, though there are some deductions. Chris Gislason said that it will cost him about $8 an acre for each application of chemical and for the fuel, not including wear and tear on machinery. He figures it will take three applications to do the job, which will fairly much eat up the $30.

It’s an even bigger problem for some local farmers, said Christie Dalman, who retired from farming near Wynyard two years ago. “A lot of the guys can’t get on the land to spray and they are hiring airplanes to do the job for them.” Around Wynyard, said Dalman, to the north is old lake bottom, sandier soil, which can absorb more moisture. The problem is with clay soils.                   

There is also a potential problem with wells. Saskatchewan Watershed Authority is offering free testing for flooded areas because of concerns about nitrates and E. coli and other bacteria getting into drinking water.

There are road closures everywhere in rural Saskatchewan. The gravel grid roads can’t handle the water. The Foam Lake R.M. Council leased a grader so that they would have four machines who could head out as soon as possible after each rain to try to save the roads as much as possible.

All four farmers say they’ve never seen a spring like this one. They point out that the true weight of the crisis hasn’t hit yet. Producers still have grain in the bins from last year. But when that’s gone, and the bills keep coming in, that’s when everyone is going to feel the results of this year’s weather. There are already some layoffs in rural areas – when farmers are not on the field, their equipment doesn’t need repairs and they don’t use fuel.

How do people cope?
Helgason was recently elected to the Emerald R.M. Council. The beavers are loving the weather and are busily building dams, plugging up culverts and causing more flooding. “When I can’t do anything, I can’t fix equipment, I can’t garden, I go out and clean out beaver dams,” he said. “It distracts me.”

Chris Gislason says he tries to take the attitude that he has more time to work on projects, to make repairs to buildings, and to see more family. Meanwhile, he’s counting on some warm windy weather – evaporating days, he calls them. This year’s crop is what it is, but it is essential for farmers to be able to get onto the land to repair their damaged acres before next spring.

Thorsteinson is taking time to listen to the talk around town. “The general public is taking notice about the farm situation,” he said. “I’ve had three people ask whether the price of flour and bread is going to go up. This may be a reality check for a lot of things.”

He has a suggestion for the farmers who have not been able to get a crop in and have time on their hands. “Every year you work your butt off and you have no time for your family. Let’s call this “The Year of the Family.” Let’s do things with the family that we didn’t do. It’s out of your hands. It’s nothing you caused.”

And Christie Dalman? “I’m so happy I am out of it,” he said. “This is my second year not farming. It’s a relief to be away from it.” Meanwhile, for everyone, there’s also a little Saskatchewan gallows humour.

Seems a reporter died and, as she waited in the judgment line, she observed that some souls were led away by St. Peter and immediately welcomed with cries of joy into heaven. Others were turned over to Satan, who threw them directly into the fiery pit. But, as she watched, she realized that, every so often, Satan would take a soul and dump it onto a slowly growing heap. She couldn’t stand it. She approached Satan.

“Excuse me, Sir Prince of Darkness,” she said. “I’m waiting in the judgment line, but I am a reporter and I couldn’t help noticing that you are selecting some souls to throw into a separate pile rather than into the fiery pit. Could you tell me why?”

“Oh my raging headache,” said Satan. “Those are Saskatchewan souls. They are too wet to burn.”
 

That cry, at one time, struck fear in the hearts of farmers and villagers.

The Vikings were pirates. They attacked the weak, stole what they could, enslaved whom they could.

They were not someone you wanted to have come to visit. Think about three or four boatloads of young men descending on the shores of Gimli to rob, rape and pillage.

The townspeople wouldn’t be amused. As has happened all through history, young men get older, settle down, establish homes and families, take a day job. There weren’t a lot of choices in Viking times, of course. Farming, raising sheep, milking cows, fishing.

Still, as Vikings got older, a warm fire and good food must have seemed a lot better than an open boat in bad weather. When the Vikings come to Gimli, everyone is happy to see them. They set up their village on the hill in front of Betel.

They create a fence with a wicker gate and have two Vikings in chain mail guard the entrance. Inside the village, the modern-day Vikings provide both views of Viking life. There are daily battles but there are also peaceful scenes of Vikings making crafts or cooking meat on a spit over a bed of coals.

You know the Vikings in the village know more about Vikings than most people because their helmets don’t have any horns on them. They strive for accuracy; however, it is difficult because there is not all that much that is really known.

To confuse matters, a lot of people make up romantic versions of Vikings based on little or no knowledge. Viking wasn’t applied to any particular ethnic or racial group. It was used to describe anyone who went raiding.

The first settlers of Iceland cannot properly be called Viking. They didn’t come to raid and pillage. They came to settle. They may have left Iceland at times to raid or trade, to explore and so have gone a Viking.

It doesn’t matter to most of us. The Gimli Vikings are a welcome addition to Íslendingadagurinn. The Viking helmets with the cow’s horns are a lot of fun. The helmets even come with blonde hair now. A plastic sword allows for bloodless battle. In the end Hollywood always wins.

 


How many times have you made the Golden Circle tour? How many times have you seen Gullfoss and Geysir?

Are you ready for something you can brag about when you get home?

Something that hardly anyone else has done and yet you can be picked up at your hotel to be whisked away to this exotic adventure. You can even choose the ease or difficulty of your adventure.

Do you want to be able to say when you get home, “You won’t believe what we did.”

If you do, then the next time you are in Iceland, explore a lava tube cave. It’s a surreal adventure available to everyone.

When I think of caving, I think of people flat on their bellies, squeezing between narrow passageways far beneath the earth. To do that kind of caving, you have to be fit and not claustrophobic. Visiting a lava tube cave isn’t like that.

Because there have been lava flows in many places in Iceland, there are long tubes left from which the lava emptied out. Some of these caves have floors that are easy to walk on. There are short tubes and long tubes. There are organized tours. You can pick the cave that suits you.

When lava flows steadily in a confined channel for hours or days, it can create a roof as the surface lava cools. This turns the flow into a stream inside a lava tube. Once inside this tube, the lava stays hot because it is now insulated from the colder air. Because this lava remains hot, it can move great distances from the eruption.

How fast the lava travels depends on how thick it is. You have to think of syrup and water. Both are liquids but water runs much faster than syrup. The more silica there is in the lava, the slower it flows. The less silica there is, the faster it flows. Low silica content lava can flow at 15-50 kilometres an hour.

Many lava tubes are usually not completely dark because there are openings in the ceiling. One type of opening is called a spatter cone. It was formed when the lava was still flowing. The other type of opening is caused by the thin ceilings collapsing. In any case helmets are provided in the unlikely case something falls on you.

You can explore lava caves all over Iceland but some of the easiest to access are between Þingvellir and Laugarvatn. How many times have you been to Þingvellir and never known that there were lava caves below?

There is one company, Iceland Holidays, that offers two lava caving trips, Underworld summer and Underworld winter. The summer version is in Þingvellir National Park. In winter, because of the harsh winter conditions, they change to the Leiðarendi cave in the Blue Mountain area. At 900 meters long it is considered to be a subterranean wonder world. However, there are a number of companies who offer tours of the caves so you can choose both your caves and your tour guide. Extreme Iceland also offers caving tours. It is led by a geologist, Bjorn Hroarsson.

The Gjábakkahellir cave is a perfect example of an Icelandic lava tube and is situated in one of the most active volcano areas in the world. It is 364 metres (1194 feet) long but because it is quite rocky, cavers will have to walk, crawl and climb so it is for the more fit adventurer.

Then there is Surtshellir the largest and best known of all caves in Iceland. Surtshellir Lava Tube has a long history, having been first described in 1679. For a time, robbers lived in the cave and used the cave as a base from which to raid the countryside. Local people believed that ghosts lived in the cave and would kill anyone who entered. The god Surtr was believed to have lived within the cave. He was a fire giant and people thought that he had created the cave with his fire.

There are lava fields and a cave tour close to Reykjavík. For example, you can visit the lava field Tvíbollahraun with its beautiful caves.

One of world’s most spectacular lava tube caves is Búri in the Leitahraun-lava field. It is probably the most prized of all the lava tube caves. It wasn’t known until Bjorn Hroarsson a vulcanospeleologist discovered it in 2005. It is considered one of the most important discoveries in Speleology in Iceland in a thousand years.

For visiting some of the caves you will need warm outdoor clothing, a waterproof jacket and pants. Good hiking boots and gloves are recommended! The company will, if it is necessary, supply a headlight and a helmet. You don’t need to know anything about caving to go on these tours. Check with the company offering the tour as to how long it will take and how easy or hard the visit will be.

When the tour is over, if you’ve any sore muscles, you can relax at the Blue Lagoon.

 

 

Is it possible to see Iceland in only two days? My husband and I did our best on our way to a family get-together in Europe at the beginning of July.

The Iceland Express website offered two free nights in a hotel in Reykjavík for customers flying to Gatwick, so we decided to take advantage of it, and arrived early one morning from Winnipeg.

After a brief nap we set out to see the city, and within minutes we spotted a poster for a free walking tour. Despite the constant drizzle, about 25 people gathered for what proved to be an informative and definitely an alternative exploration of Reykjavík’s centre.

Jónas Þorsteinsson offers a stream of historical information about City Hall, The Pond, the Alþingi, etc., peppered with humorous comments and ‘the story behind the story.’ At the statue of Skúli fógeti, Þorsteinsson reveals that the father of the city of Reykjavík was not an altruistic visionary who wanted to better the lives of Icelanders through trade, but an agent of the Danish king, paid to organize their colony so the Danes could extract more profits from it.

At City Hall, we learned voters recently turfed out Old Guard politicians responsible for ruining Iceland’s economy, leaving many people unemployed and indebted. Instead, citizens put their confidence in a professional comedian whose only election promise was to get a polar bear for the zoo. Þorsteinsson’s eyes twinkle when he says that the modern version of the mythical huldufólk are no longer hiding behind rocks in Iceland – they’re the country’s bankers, ducking for cover behind reams of documents and legal writs in the Cayman Islands.

Þorsteinsson has a Canadian connection (of course). The artist, photographer and raconteur lived in Winnipeg for three years during the 1990s and later in Ottawa. Despite his cynicism, he returned home because he thinks Iceland is a great place to raise his children – nearly crime and drug-free, highly democratic. He is proud that the Prime Minister’s phone number is openly listed in the White Pages. “And I hope it stays that way,” he adds, this time seriously.

By the time exhaustion forced us to rest we had swum at one of the city’s two geothermal swimming pools, ogled at the designer fashions in store windows, sampled delicious fish dishes at one of the many restaurants and attended a crowded outdoor rock concert at The Pond.

We were up early the next day for a Golden Circle tour. The 300 kilometre route shows the glories of Iceland’s geography – the imposing rifts at Þingvellir, the thundering waters at Gullfoss and the steaming plumes of Strokkur. Our guide offered excellent information about the geological formations and volcanic events that changed the landscape and the lives of Icelanders over centuries. In the distance, Eyjafjallajökull was shrouded in dust, but while it kept planes out of European skies for weeks, damage in Iceland has largely been confined to the area surrounding the mountain.
Sheep and lambs wandered freely over the countryside and we caught sight of the variety of colours of Icelandic horses, still used to round up them in the autumn. We also saw tourists wanting a more rustic adventure travelling on horseback.

Peering into Kerio – the crater lake where singer Björk sang unamplified from a barge in the centre to an audience perched carefully on the steep sides – we were awed by the power of nature and the ingenuity of human beings.

A serving of traditional meat soup and another stroll to Hallgrímskirkja and the harbour wrapped up our short visit. We were only passing through, but our experience prompted the desire to return to Iceland, to see and learn more about its majestic beauty and resilient society.
 
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg. She and her husband, Cecil Rosner, visited Iceland on July 1st and 2nd.

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