Three years after being charged with an ‘Attack on Parliament’, five of the nine people protesting in the wake of Iceland’s economic collapse have been acquitted, while the remaining four received a suspended sentence or fine. During mass street protests to express outrage at the government’s part in the financial crisis, the RVK 9 were picked from a group of around 30 protesters who attempted to enter the public gallery of Iceland’s Parliament on 8th December 2008, to read a declaration calling for the resignation of the government. Only two made it into the public House of Parliament, where they concisely summarized the text, shouting: ‘Get the fuck out! This house no longer serves its purpose!’
“Forty days later, in January 2009, mass protests succeeded in ousting the right-wing Social Democratic Conservative government and forcing a new election. That was the first time in Icelandic history that public protests actually achieving something as dramatic. For their part in the dramatic events of this winter the nine protesters, who have since been termed the Reykjavik Nine, are facing a minimum sentence of one year in prison. The maximum sentence is life in prison (in practice 16 years). Following the collapse of Iceland’s economy, no criminal charges have been laid against any of the bankers, financiers or government officials accused of corruption, criminal negligence and incompetence or other financial misconduct detailed in the Althing Special Investigation Commission report. The first public prosecution related to the 2008 economic collapse are these nine demonstrators – including anarchists and radical leftists.” From Support the Reykjavik Nine – Against State repression in Iceland
This extraordinary case is the subject of the documentary GE9N which focuses on the ludicrous nature of the charges through a beautifully filmed series of interviews with the demonstrators, and photographs taken by a tenth demonstrator who was not charged. The juxtaposition of his narrative explaining the moments of ‘violence’ (none of which are evident in the images), against the black and white photographs serves to highlight the absurdity of the case. There is one moment where a demonstrator grips the thumb of the Parliamentary security guard, and others where one of the protestors attempts to climb the railing and is thrown back down the stairs.
One of the protestors laughed that if he had really intended to ‘Attack Parliament‘, he would have brought weaponry and more support.
I attended the first continental European screening of the film, at the Altes Finanzamt in Berlin, where director Haukur Már Helgason, cinematographer Miriam Fassbender and Snorri, one of the nine demonstrators took part in a public discussion. I found this particularly illuminating, as the choices made in the film structure and narrative are highly deliberate, and offered a fascinating glimpse into the world of everyday society in Iceland. Public opinion surrounding the case is voiced throughout by an actor filmed in Ikea showrooms, and his appearance as a ‘chubby devil’ (according to one audience member) provided an irritating yet balanced view to the story. Giving these quotes from various bloggers and social commentary to an actor was in part a response to the fact that no-one interviewed on the street would actually say what was being written online, however I found it interesting to have the ‘other side’ and some quite extreme opinions about the protestors represented in this way.
Each of the nine demonstrators are interviewed in a site of production or capital exchange – a supermarket delivery bay, gigantic garbage heap, outside a building construction site, near an unspecified factory, on a fishing boat or on the beach under the new Icelandic School of Business and Economics. The locations read as if they are the place of work for that person, however this is not the case. The director spoke about how he deliberately chose to show parts of Icelandic society that are not the usual images depicting the country as a magical landscape of mountains and spiritual aspects. The government and tourism industry spend millions on promoting this idyllic picture of Iceland, however as one of the demonstrators, Snorri, pointed out in his response to the film, during protests against the building of aluminium smelters in this pristine landscape, people were threatened with arrest and deportation on the grounds of being un-Icelandic, despite their efforts to preserve exactly the vision of Iceland which is sold to the world.
This sense of a national identity is particularly strong in Iceland, which had granted only one asylum seeker residence in the 20 years until 2009. The laws against migration and the desire to maintain a ‘pure’ Icelandic society were discussed in relation to American soldiers based there in the past, and more recently with immigrant workers living in cargo containers, who are kept highly separate from the rest of the population. These film touches on these points, which provides an entry into the debate through provocative statements by some of the interviewees, however the focus remains on the details of the case rather than a wider overall social context. By giving each person a chance to express their views and experiences, we enter a far more in-depth understanding of the political and social climate through these stories.
All of the speakers are extremely articulate, talking about the nature of capital, freedom, peace, justice and the limitations of the political and state structures. There is a wonderful sequence of people standing in the various workplace locations and screaming, which gives a moment of release to the tension and becomes exquisitely humorous. As noted by one of the audience, overall the film has a light, even comedic touch, which is certainly unusual in relation to the deeply political and subversive subject matter. The director explains that the film was rejected by the national television broadcaster, who deemed the imagery ‘too dark’, which seems ludicrous given the above comic moments. Snorri mentions another film, commissioned by the same state television in 1974 to commemorate one thousand, one hundred years of Iceland as a human settlement, and which contained a similar vein of humour and imagery depicting the reality of everyday life. That earlier film was also banned, the director apparently moving to Russia where he drank himself to death, while his work remained unseen for twenty years. Note from Haukur: the 1974 film is called ‘Ern eftir aldri’ which means ‘Pretty sane given its age’ or something like that – it’s used to moderately praise old people who keep their wits. The director is Magnús Jónsson.
The public in Iceland is yet to receive news of the ‘Not Guilty’ verdict, as the ‘Protestors Attack Parliament!’ made national news headlines, however the eventual ruling three years later has not been picked up by mainstream media in the same way. The information about the trail is of course publicly available, and was reported by a live blog from the courtroom. Helgason talks about the national narrative and how there is a tendency for stories to fade out into a kind of vague unknown, with no clear ending. This will hopefully not become one of them, as I’m sure that the film will be picked up for distribution and along with the material online about the case, become part of the national identity. It was exciting to see vibrant political action can have an impact, even tangentially, and to be reminded of the many protests and demonstrations I have participated in over the years – no war for oil, reclaim the streets, G8, save the south east forests – where the outcome is never really obvious and the political machinery of the state rolls on regardless. Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir, one of the RVK9 spoke eloquently of her refusal to give any of her labour to the state or to be used in order to create capital.
I applaud this notion, although in practice it can be hard to free yourself entirely from the many facets of exploitation – both forces operating externally and from within – in a capitalist system.
In her keynote lecture at transmediale festival last week, ‘The Incompatible Public is Occupied‘, Jodi Dean talked about the Occupy movement from within, as “Hundreds of thousands of people have recently responded to capitalist dispossession by taking space, occupying sites that, ostensibly open and public, in the process of occupation are revealed as closed to the many and belonging to the few. As a tactic, occupation responds to communicative capitalism’s ideology of publicity. Communicative capitalism announces the convergence of democracy and capitalism in networked communication technologies that promise access and equality, urge participation, and celebrate creative engagement. Occupation accepts that promise. The resulting disturbance – pepper spray, riot gear, eviction – reveals the incompatibility at communicative capitalism’s heart.”
Noting that revolution does not happen at the click of a button (clicktivism is ruining leftist activism) – but through live bodies on the streets, Dean rejects the promise and hope of technology as a tool for change. Although technology plays a vital part in connecting and distributing the messages of various movements for social change and revolution – her ultimate message: “You can’t change the world from behind a screen.”
I guess it’s time to put down the mouse and take to the streets!