D: Chris Burkard / 40m
With: Chris Burkard, Sam Hammer, Steve Hawk, Sigurdur Jonsson, Heidar Logi, Elli Thor Magnusson, Ingo Olsen, Justin Quintal, Mark Renneker, Timmy Reyes
For six highly regarded surfers, the chance to test their skill on a surfboard in the challenging waters of Northwest Iceland is a challenge that’s willingly accepted. Their timing might seem a little off though, as they arrive in Reykjavik during the Icelandic winter, and in conditions that none of them have encountered before – let alone surfed in. Journeying along the coast to connect with the ship that will take them to their planned destination of Isafjordur, they take an impromptu detour to surf some waves, and get the measure of the experience ahead of them. Once on board ship though, the advance of a storm that will come to be regarded as the worst in twenty-five years, forces the ship’s captain to turn back. But the surfers know that once the storm has passed, in its wake will follow some of the most breathtaking swells imaginable, and the opportunity to surf in a stretch of Icelandic waters that is almost virgin surfing territory. Aided by a group of their Icelandic counterparts, the six surfers decide to travel by road through the storm to reach Isafjordur, and those majestic waves…
Although only a compact forty minutes in length, Under an Arctic Sky is an engrossing, fascinating account of how surfing can truly be thought of as radical. A romantic’s idea of surfing might not stretch to its taking place in the depths of a bitter Icelandic winter, and at a location so isolated and inhospitable that the Icelanders themselves haven’t settled there, but there is a romanticism here that lends itself to the whole crazy endeavour. There’s a genuine spirit and sense of camaraderie between the men, all friends and mutual admirers, and their decision to surf the icy cold waters of Iceland’s remote Hornstrandir Nature Reserve. They’re also modern day adventurers, literally charting new territory in terms of surfing, and literally doing what no other surfers have done before. It’s inspiring, it’s incredible to witness, and it leaves you thinking that they’re all as mad as a box of frogs – but in a good way. Each time they take to the water, you wonder how they can stand the cold, especially as they’re warned at one point that hypothermia can set in in under ten minutes. Brave, foolish, mad, heroic? All of them? You decide.
But the key strength of the movie is Ben Weiland’s incredibly impressive cinematography. This is a documentary that features an embarrassment of visual riches, from shots of the snow-covered Icelandic mountains to the steel-blue waters that nudge against the Icelandic coast, and in the movie’s most powerful and uplifting sequence, the final, post-storm bout of free surfing, where Justin Quintal is framed against a backdrop of luminescent waves, while the sky above him ripples with the eerie glow of the Northern Lights; it’s simply awe-inspiring (and if you can, see the movie on the biggest screen possible – the image above doesn’t do the effect any justice). Directed with clear-eyed passion and verve, the movie leads up to this one moment, and the wait is worth it. Inevitably, the run time means we don’t get to know the likes of Quintal and Hammer too well, but this is a small price to pay when the rewards are so beautifully presented. Even the scenes set during the storm have a magnificent, rugged, terrifying beauty to them. In the end – and like all the best documentaries about a pastime that most of us take a pass on – it leaves you wanting to grab a board and hope that you don’t get raked over before you’ve even begun.
Rating: 8/10 – even if you’re not a fan of surfing, Under an Arctic Sky remains a compelling look at how the search for greater challenges can lead to the most sublime of experiences; guaranteed to impress purely thanks to its visuals, this is also a movie about a group of men who treat each other with unstinting respect and affection, and whose passion for their chosen sport is acknowledged with an equal amount of respect, and admiration.