Somebody once told me a story about an English TV director who spent six months working on a series of Wife Swap in the US. He came home and met up with some friends who were just setting off on a European tour in their punk band. He decided to go along and try and film the tour. For three weeks he tried to force his friends into aggravating situations for his film until eventually his conflict-generating strategies got the better of him and he ended up in an alpine sanatorium. In the calming atmosphere of his lightly padded chalet, he could finally acknowledge the bitter truth; he should have been filming himself all along.
Anyone used to the conventions of the modern documentary (Metallica’s Some Kind Of Monster for example, or Holiday Showdown) may find Sigur RíÂ³s’ film Heima a similarly maddening experience. Sigur RíÂ³s have every reason to be happy and well-balanced people (for one thing the band has become a massive success without compromising its musical weirdness) but their reluctance to let this slip at all, even though there is a film crew around, comes as a bit of a shock. The film follows them as they play a unique series of free concerts around their home country of Iceland. Part of the way through, a national newspaper publishes an editorial about the events. Are Sigur RíÂ³s condemned as Satanists and cod smugglers? Do they have to evade arrest in a late-night escape, hidden under the sticky haul of some sympathetic Norwegian death-metallist trawlermen? No, of course not. The newspaper describes the tour as a gift to the country ‘brought forth with unforgettable modesty’ and encourages the population to go along in even greater numbers.
Not only is there no conflict in Heima, but the film actively embraces consensus. Brass bands and village halls, symbols of community, are celebrated in the film. The principle of the tour, playing free gigs in unusual and remote locations, encourages a sympathetic and unusually varied audience (old people, children and pagans), and it’s intriguing to watch how the rejection of commercial imperatives creates the setting for all this harmony. Maybe Heima really is the anti-Some Kind Of Monster, a film where the happiest band member we got to see was the one watching millions of dollars rolling in at an auction of art investments.
The other great virtue of Heima is the footage of Iceland. Not only are the band members and audiences cheerily appealing in a wrapped-up and hearty sort of way but the landscape looks amazing too. Sigur RíÂ³s’ music has a topographical feel and its sympathy with views of hillsides has made it commonplace on TV shows. In Heima, it gets the perfect accompaniment. Not just hills, but water, rocks and a disused herring factory. The musical sections are all filmed in different locations and the mood of these pieces is varied. Even so, unless you are a fan of Sigur RíÂ³s’ music or of heart-warming gestures generally, you may find that by the end you are badly missing Metallica’s interminable conflict-management sessions.