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From Beirut to Iceland: Strife, Cinema, and Getting Unstuck

How Icelandic films became an unlikely source of solace and understanding in the wake of Beirut’s port disaster.

“[We] need the most powerful telescope… in order to penetrate precisely the nearest nearness.” -Ernst Bloch

On August 4, 2020, my city exploded. It was the last thing Lebanon needed. The country was already facing tremendously hard times: an economic meltdown, a currency collapse, soaring poverty rates, gas strikes, a massive protest movement, and a pandemic—all of this in addition to the normalized, status quo pollution, corruption, regional military tensions, entrenched sectarianism, and electricity blackouts that were rapidly increasing in frequency and duration. As if things were not already turbulent enough, just after 6:00 p.m. that evening the port caught fire—an apparent accident which in turn detonated some 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate. By most estimates, it was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions that the world had ever seen.

I was at a rooftop café less than a kilometer away from the port at the time of the explosion. The force of the blast threw me onto the floor, and I hid under a wooden stool as a giant mushroom cloud filled the sky. In an instant, the world turned dark, and Beirut took the guise of a war zone. Walls collapsed, vehicles were smashed, and windows across the city were transformed into weapons. Beirut, already a city of shattered dreams, suddenly became a city of shattered glass. Over 200 people were killed, tens of thousands were injured, and more than a quarter of a million were made homeless. 

Beirut has certainly seen its share of trauma in the past half century. Promoted as an idyllic vacation destination in the 1960s, this fabled “Switzerland of the Middle East” descended into a grisly civil war in the decades that followed. Neighborhoods became segregated ghettos, highrise hotels became snipers’ nests, and major thoroughfares became deserted no-man’s lands. In the years since the war’s end, it looked as though Beirut was gradually beginning to bounce back and reclaim some of its former luster, even if there were still visible scars and occasional setbacks like Israel’s month-long bombardment of the country in the summer of 2006. However, despite this tumultuous history, nothing could have prepared us for that calamitous day in August 2020. 

Despite my proximity to the explosion, my body was spared. I was one of the lucky ones, but the stress and emotional turmoil I experienced were still immense. For the next few weeks, I caught myself randomly weeping, and every time I heard a loud sound like a plane or a garbage truck, I flinched and almost ducked for cover. In the midst of this madness, I needed an escape, an outlet—a window into another world. I needed some distance, some sort of reminder that my current reality was not the only reality. As strange as it sounds, I found myself looking for this escape in the most unexpected of places: Icelandic cinema.

I do not know exactly why Iceland suddenly came to my mind. I had briefly visited that country once before and had even seen a couple of Icelandic films, but all of that was years in the past. In this moment of crisis, some pleasant memory of Iceland must have drifted into my consciousness. I needed distance from my devastating surroundings, and what could be more distant than a tiny, volcanic island situated in the North Atlantic? It just felt so far away, so remote and removed from my suffocating present, and if my body could not physically get out of Beirut, perhaps through Icelandic cinema my mind could.

The first film I decided to watch was Virgin Mountain (Fúsi), Dagur Kári’s quirky 2015 drama about a large, shy, middle-aged man named Fúsi (Gunnar Jónsson) who inhabits a small apartment with his mother Fjóla (Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir) and seems to be watching his dull, monotonous life pass him by. Although I had found several other highly-rated Icelandic films from recent years, including The County (Héraðið), Metalhead (Málmhaus), Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss), A White, White Day (Hvítur, hvítur dagur), and Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð), I decided to begin with Virgin Mountain—partly because of my familiarity with that director’s earlier film Nói the Albino (Nói albinói) and partly because of the curiosity evoked by the poster: a close-up of Fúsi’s unsmiling, bearded face, complete with a milk mustache. With the hot summer air still pouring in through my apartment’s broken windows, I started the movie.

In Virgin Mountain, Fúsi is portrayed as something of a gentle giant. Large and awkward, a social misfit and an outcast, he is benevolent but neglected, and when other people even acknowledge him at all, they either misunderstand him or terribly ridicule him. With few exceptions, his interactions are painful and sad. His neighbors do not trust him, and his co-workers bully him. Notably, the only people who treat Fúsi with any modicum of decency are a group of immigrant workers, their kindness representing the camaraderie of outcasts. As a response to this hostile social environment, Fúsi has increasingly withdrawn into himself, and the closed, isolated nature of his life is manifested in the film’s cinematography. If other Icelandic films are sometimes shot in a way that emphasizes that country’s stunning natural beauty (e.g., Woman at War), Virgin Mountain turns the Icelandic landscape into a cold, provincial prison. Fúsi’s closed social universe is thus projected onto Iceland itself. 

Iceland’s cold, snowy landscape as provincial prison.

These suffocating parameters are also symbolized in Fúsi’s job. He works at Keflavík Airport, loading and unloading other people’s luggage. Ironically, Fúsi has never left Iceland. Even though he sees passengers every day, he has never been a passenger himself. Fúsi is stuck in his small universe, trapped in a monotonous existence, and the large ear muffs he wears for safety on the airport tarmac serve to further signify his isolated state of being. He is cut off from the world around him, even at the aural level.

About 15 minutes into Virgin Mountain, it suddenly felt like the film was speaking directly to me. For Fúsi’s birthday, his mother’s boyfriend Rolf (Arnar Jónsson) hands him a box. Inside is a gift: a cowboy hat. With the sudden appearance of this prop, Virgin Mountain had my full attention. As someone who was born in Texas and spent the first two decades of life there, I drew unexpected meaning from this hat. It was a reminder of my roots—roots which, at that moment, had never felt so distant. Between the shock of the port explosion and the months of dreadful isolation we were experiencing because of COVID, home had never seemed so far away, and as ridiculous as it sounds, this piece of Western wear felt like a sign.

With encouragement from his mother Fjóla, Fúsi hesitantly tries on the poorly-fitting hat. Uncomfortable with the unusual gift and shy about the unwanted attention, Fúsi only lets it stay on his head for an instant before taking it off. Along with the hat, Fúsi is also given a certificate for line-dancing classes. Rolf’s intentions are not entirely altruistic; he is trying to get Fúsi out of the house in order to have more alone time with Fjóla. However, as the film progresses, this strange cowboy hat—this small intrusion from a foreign culture—turns out to be the first domino in a series of events that substantially alters the course of Fúsi’s life. 

Fúsi tepidly tries on his cowboy hat.

After being dressed up in a suit and tie by his mother, Fúsi heads to his first dancing class. It does not go well. Fúsi has second thoughts about the endeavor as soon as he steps in the door. Out of shyness and fear, Fúsi immediately returns to his car and spends the evening by himself in the parking lot, listening to heavy metal and watching the snow fall. Before he drives away, however, he has a chance encounter with another dancing student, Sjöfn (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir). She needs a ride home, and Fúsi gives her a lift. Their brief interaction provides him with the motivation he needs to try again, and he soon finds himself not only learning to dance but involved in something he has never before experienced: romance.

Watching these events unfold on screen, I interpreted the film wildly. My identification with the film—and with Fúsi—did not stop with the cowboy hat. His shyness on the dance floor paralleled my own misgivings about dancing, a discomfort I have carried with me since childhood; his love of angry hard rock music mirrored my own taste for that genre; and his turbulent, fitful romance with Sjöfn resonated with some of my own relationship issues. But the most significant parallel was yet to come. 

At the end of Virgin Mountain, we see Fúsi at Keflavík Airport, getting ready to board a plane. Although Sjöfn has broken his heart, he is already picking up the pieces, taking charge of his own life—perhaps for the very first time. He pauses for a moment on the jet bridge and surveys the tarmac below him. The airport employees—his co-workers—are loading and unloading the passengers’ luggage. Fúsi has been in this exact location countless times before but never as a traveler. He is now experiencing the world in an entirely different way, and the film ends with him sitting in the plane, looking out the window. For a brief moment, an ever-so-slight grin touches his lips. As the plane takes off, he allows himself to smile. It is the last frame of the film before the credits begin to roll—a beautiful moment of symbolic liberation. Fúsi has mentally escaped his suffocating surroundings, and this psychic liberation is symbolized with his newfound physical mobility. Fúsi is taking a solo trip, and in so doing, he has embraced life itself. His destination: the Middle East.

As his plane departs for Egypt, Fúsi finally allows himself to smile.

To be clear, Fúsi is headed to Egypt, not Lebanon. His interest in that country is explained as stemming from one of his hobbies; he spends his free time playing with toy soldiers, reenacting old World War II battles in distant North Africa. While Egypt is certainly not Lebanon, as I watched the film that night in my Beirut apartment, the specifics did not matter. Fúsi was heading to the Arab world, and as far as I was concerned, this was a message aimed directly at me. From the cowboy hat to the Middle East connection, it felt like my television screen had become a bizarre sort of window into an alternative dimension. Fúsi was stuck in Iceland, looking to an Arab country for his escape; I was stuck in Lebanon, looking to Iceland for mine. It was as if we were negative images of each other, and if Fúsi could find a way out of his predicament—that is, if he could become unstuck from his painful emotional and physical surroundings—perhaps there was hope for the rest of us, too.

All of us have experienced moments when a film seems to be addressing us personally. Indeed, this is perhaps one of the reasons why cinema is so powerful. It follows us throughout our lives, teaching us how to love, how to grow, how to suffer, and how to mourn. It anticipates our major life events—our weddings and divorces, our birthday parties and funerals, our successes and failures—and it gives us a model for how to act in these moments before they even arrive. But as familiar as I am with the power of cinema, I did not expect to feel so personally touched by an Icelandic film in the wake of the Beirut port explosion.

After finishing Virgin Mountain, I started watching more Icelandic films, a new one almost every night. I kept spotting the same actors over and over. There Fúsi is, playing a social worker in And Breathe Normally (Andið eðlilega)! There he is again, playing a child abuse survivor in The Valhalla Murders (Brot)! There he is again, playing a shady store clerk in Heartstone (Hjartasteinn)! There he is yet again, playing a sheep farmer in Rams (Hrútar)! The same is true for all of the film’s other actors. The woman who plays Fúsi’s on-again/off-again love interest is a small-town police officer in Trapped (Ófærð), and the actor who plays his mother is a bedridden housewife in Volcano (Eldfjall). The lineup of Icelandic faces that kept appearing on my television screen almost felt like a new family, and there was a strange bit of reassurance that came with their presence in role after role. 

But gradually, I realized that these films were giving me more than just the superficial comfort of familiar faces. As I continued my own personal Icelandic cinema binge, I began to reflect more on that small country, and I asked myself what meaning it could possibly hold for me at this time of crisis and catastrophe. Little by little, I started to imagine parallels. Like Lebanon, Iceland experienced a devastating economic collapse in the not-too-distant past, a crisis which, as in the case of Lebanon, resulted in a massive and sustained protest movement, the so-called Pots and Pans Revolution. Iceland’s 2008 economic meltdown, the kreppa, even formed the backdrop of some of the films I was watching—most notably, the short film Revolution Reykjavik (Útrás Reykjavík). One of the subplots of Life in a Fishbowl (Vonarstræti) likewise deals with the dangerous world of international finance, and other movies like Stormland (Rokland), Woman at War, and the series Trapped involve predatory capitalist enterprises. 

There were other parallels, too—some more obvious than others. Like Lebanon, Iceland is a small country located on the periphery of Europe. Both countries have long, complicated histories with the colonial powers, and Iceland was still a Danish colony when Lebanon declared its independence from France in 1943. These complicated relations have led to complicated forms of national identity which can be even further strained in times of catastrophe. As Kristín Loftsdóttir argues in her book Crisis and Coloniality at Europe’s Margins, Iceland’s 2008 economic crisis was accompanied by an identity crisis, and many Icelanders came to question the extent of their European belonging.

After the port explosion, I was seeing a similar identity crisis play out in Lebanon in real-time. Whereas the Icelanders had reacted to their crisis by distancing themselves from Europe, in Lebanon the opposite was taking place, and many people were clinging to their own sense of European inclusion. If other governments in the region were dominated by monarchs, clerics, and authoritarian strongmen, Lebanon was different, and despite its turbulence and sectarian strife, it was still celebrated as an outpost of tolerance and diversity—an imagined harbor of European cosmopolitanism on the shores of the Levant. Thus, when French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut just two days after the port explosion, thousands of locals greeted him in the streets with tears and open arms, and a petition calling for Lebanon to give up its sovereignty and become a French protectorate garnered nearly 60,000 signatures. With Lebanon’s collapse, the rug had been pulled out from under everyone’s feet, and people were struggling to come to terms with the fact that Lebanon was not the exception to the neighboring region that they had imagined it to be.

I admit that some of the parallels I was drawing were a bit of a stretch. The extreme neighbor-on-neighbor fighting featured in Under the Tree (Undir trénu), for instance, reminded me of Lebanon’s sectarian squabbles, and the world of racialized migrants, refugees, and sex traffickers dealt with in And Breathe Normally, The Deposit (Tryggð), and Trapped evoked the plight of Lebanon’s imported domestic servants, the kafala workers. Moreover, if Lebanon had just suffered an explosion, Iceland too has its periodic volcano eruptions—most famously, the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull which brought European air traffic to a standstill. 

As my mind continued finding ways to link these films to the disaster I was currently living, I realized that my attempt at escapism had not actually been very escapist. Like Fúsi’s journey to Egypt, Icelandic cinema had strangely brought me back to my Lebanese environs. I was watching Icelandic films, but I was thinking about Lebanon. Of course, this is not to say that there are no differences between the two countries. The disparities are indeed vast, and while the Pots and Pans Revolution had led to the Icelandic government’s resignation in a matter of months, things could not have been more different in Lebanon where neither the reality of millions of protesters in the streets nor the force of one of the world’s largest non-nuclear blasts were enough to budge that country’s political establishment, the sulta, from power. For Lebanon, the road ahead is rocky indeed.

But finding unexpected commonalities in the face of enormous differences is not necessarily a fool’s errand, and in contemplating Iceland, I began to more clearly perceive the nature of the problems facing Lebanon. As devastating as the port explosion was, this is only the most recent monstrous example of a much larger social and political malaise. To put it simply, Lebanon is stuck. The litany of tragedies befalling its population is serving to create a pall of paralysis—an atmosphere in which peering beyond the horizon of the nightmarish present is becoming increasingly arduous. My flight into Icelandic cinema had thus not only been a panicked response to the port blast; even more, it was an attempt to mentally flee the overwhelming sensation of being stuck.

In his 2015 book Alter-Politics, the anthropological theorist Ghassan Hage gives a name to this disease: “stuckedness”—that generalized feeling of immobility in which a crisis is normalized and experienced as a permanent condition. In such a bleak situation, people begin to perceive of waiting as their only course of action, and mere day-to-day survival is treated as some great, heroic victory. While Lebanon is hardly the only place to have fallen prey to this malady, Hage argues that the country offers a paramount example of it. In Lebanon, stuckedness results in a “shrunken political imagination” and an “inability to think of social alternatives.” The frequent opening of new shopping malls and Starbucks franchises might delight a tourist’s eye, but for most of Lebanon’s residents, such displays of capitalist wealth cannot ameliorate the total impasse that this country has reached in all directions—from the daily electricity cuts and water shortages to the presence of yesteryear’s war criminals in the halls of parliament and the Presidential Palace. “Lebanese politics,” as Hage puts it, “is a politics of people continuously staring at the abyss.” If the Lebanese were already staring into some metaphorical abyss when Hage wrote these words several years ago, after August 4, their gaze was directed towards an actual abyss: the crater in the middle of Beirut’s port. With the devastating explosion, I feared that Lebanon’s shrunken political imagination had only grown smaller. 

Exploring Icelandic cinema in these dire times did not give me any pat answers or easy solutions to Lebanon’s multitude of serious problems. Quite frankly, I do not know how Lebanon becomes unstuck—although the protesters’ popular slogan “kilun yani kilun” (“all of them means all of them”), the demand that all of the kleptocratic leaders across the board of Lebanon’s sectarian system be removed from power, had seemed like a good start. By watching these movies from another world and yet somehow managing to identify my own world in them, however, I was reminded that the crises we are experiencing as permanent, unchanging parts of reality are really just small options in a sea of endless possibilities. They are contingencies, not inevitabilities. 

Of course, not everyone in Lebanon can just pack up and leave, and most people’s passports and bank accounts make exiting the country a very difficult prospect indeed. However, even if one cannot physically escape Lebanon’s borders, the powerful grip that these socio-political surroundings exercise on our lives, our identities, and our imaginations do not necessarily have the final say. One does not have to passively accept one’s stuckedness. There are emergency exits hidden in the world around us—whether for individuals or even for larger collectives. Discovering these elusive escape routes can be very challenging, but they do exist, sometimes appearing in rather mundane forms: even in something as simple as a cowboy hat. After all, if Fúsi could find a way out of his predicament, perhaps so can we.

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