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Birth of an Island (1964) & Fire on Heimaey (1974)



Birth of an Island (1964) and Fire on Heimaey (1974) comprise Ósvaldur & Vilhjálmur Knudsen's documentary duology following the birth, destruction, and rebirth caused by volcanic activity in volatile Iceland. In addition to being documents of geological history, the Knudsens' films reveal a sure hand behind the camera that captures the forces of nature at play in a fashion satisfying our sensual and sociological curiosities. We observe not only the natural phenomena but also man's responses to them, inquisitive & defiant. The result is a history-through-film that may have made master Italian documentarian Vittorio De Seta (also a witness of similar struggles between man and nature) nod in approval.


The former short is distinguished as being the first film to capture an island being formed by a Surtseyan eruption, defined by Wikipedia as "violently explosive as a result of vigorous interaction between rising magma and lake or seawater." In other words, undersea volcanoes can explode beyond the surface of the water & pile up earth to the point that an island as large as the 1.4 square-kilometer Surtsey (the film's island which resulted in the phenomenon being given its name) is created. Columns of ash billowing hundreds of feet into the sky & tons of lava pouring a glowing path into the steaming seaside makes for awesome footage, and with exposition being served by narration instead of interviews, the film is free from interruptions to show its awesome imagery. Perhaps even more striking than the textures of earth, wind, and fire colliding is the juxtaposition of scale created by human figures in the landscape; Ósvaldur's camera captures science team members -- far from bespectacled nerds, they're rather strapping chads casually confident in the face of the geological upheaval before them -- out in the field, their forms precariously sharing the same frames as nearby tempests of debris & floods of molten rock.


The cohabitation of intelligent life & forces of nature is rendered urgent in Fire on Heimaey, documenting a crisis on the titular island that had witnessed the destructive forces of the previous doc just from afar. Its thousands of human inhabitants are endangered by sudden volcanic activity from the island itself encroaching upon their homes and businesses. Retaining the almost abstracted imagery of Birth of an Island, this tectonic terror is amplified by the threat of a pleasant, God-loving community being annihilated by fire and ash. Possibly as amazing as those visuals and sounds is how orderly the ordeal was seen through: the fear of the townfolk does not give to panic, as many possessions as possible were preserved, and many remained to carry out a plan to mitigate the advance of lava upon their homes with the use of trenches and water, with only one life lost in the whole tragedy. They even had church services! While a volcano was going off on the island! What a different time, huh?

These two documentaries comprise the entire filmography of the Knudsens -- as far as I can tell, anyway; info about them online is scarce -- but they made the most of their opportunity and didn't let these events go without being preserved by a mesmerized and compassionate camera eye. Don't let the absence of interviews or the presence of the dry British accent on the voiceover fool you; this has the emotional energy that skilled cinema can immerse you in. A small-scale story of survival told by sights of the elements rendered asunder, men standing tall before fire raging into the heavens, and a community reclaiming its conquered land to be as strong as before, one shovelful of ash at a time. Also, YouTube documentary series Down the Rabbit Hole's host is named Fredrik Knudsen. Coincidence? ...Yeah, probably.


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Freeman shows you the hidden methods & meanings of media in its varying forms.

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