Art Imitates (Our) Life in ‘Trapped’

Trapped is a new Netflix series set in Iceland. (Ófærð in Icelandic, produced by RVK Studios in 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur). I binge-watched it over the holidays on the recommendation of my parents who told me I wouldn’t believe the sub-plot to the central story about a murder in a small Icelandic town.

Imagine my joy when, 20 minutes into the first episode, this scene unfolds:

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

 

If you want to find out what happens, you’ll have to watch the series — no spoilers here.

 

‘Near-Arctic’

Although a work of fiction, Trapped has its basis in reality. China has recently shown what the Economist characterizes as “inordinate interest” in tiny Iceland (population 320,000). In April 2013, the two nations signed a free trade agreement (China’s first such agreement with any European nation) and China maintains a large embassy in Reykjavik.

The attraction, it seems, is Iceland’s status as an Arctic nation. In 2013, China (which has taken to describing itself as a “near Arctic” state, although the shortest distance between its border and the Arctic Circle is 900 miles) along with India, Italy, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, secured observer status on the Arctic Council, which explains itself this way:

Established by the Ottawa Declaration in 1996, the Arctic Council is the preeminent intergovernmental forum for addressing issues related to the Arctic Region. The members of the Arctic Council include the eight countries with territory above the Arctic Circle (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Russian Federation, and the United States) plus six Permanent Participants (PP) groups representing the indigenous people of the Arctic, which include Aleut International Association, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Gwich’in Council International, Inuit Circumpolar Council, Russian Arctic Indigenous Peoples of the North, and Saami Council.

Writing in The Diplomat in November 2013, Arthur Guschin, senior analyst at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that China is pushing for full AC membership, arguing that:

…under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea the Arctic Ocean is a shipping commons, and that climate change has negative consequences for Chinese food security, particularly with the flooding of its coastal regions.

But is China trying to build a port in Iceland? Not exactly — Guschin cites a “preliminary plan,” issued by Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2006, which called for the development of a “logistics hub that would be a transit port between Asia and Europe.” Says Guschin:

It is obvious that the completion of such a large logistics project would place a great burden on Iceland’s budget and would require outside investment from China, not the EU, given the political tensions between Brussels and Reykjavik.

(Iceland applied for EU membership in 2009, but negotiations foundered over the question of a fish-catching quota and remain on hold.)

 

Our Young People Are Not Coming Back

On the other hand, there is talk of an Arctic Port in Finnafjordur, near the Icelandic port town of Þórshöfn (population 400). Þórshöfn is located just up the coast from Seyðisfjörður, where Trapped was filmed. The Republic of Iceland has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Icelandic engineering firm ELFA and the German consulting and engineering firm Bremenports about the development.

In 2016, reporter Jennifer Kingsley visited Þórshöfn and spoke with Siggeir Stefánsson, production manager at the town’s fish plant and mayor of the neighboring community of Langanesbyggð (population 530). His reasons for wanting to see the development sound familiar:

If you live in Reykjavik, you can choose from 100 kinds of work. Here you cannot choose from so many. Our young people are not coming back.

That’s not the only part of Kingsley’s article that will give Cape Bretoners a sense of deja-vu:

[A] bay just over the hill from Þórshöfn, called Finnafjörður, is unique in the North Atlantic for a combination of factors including depth, sea state and strategic location. In 2004, they earmarked 167 hectares (412 acres) of land to support a deep-sea port and transshipment hub. It could become part of a new Arctic economy that’s emerging as sea ice disappears, but it requires thinking way ahead. “We cannot say now the exact structure of this idea,” said Siggeir, “but if this transporting over the North Pole is going to be, we will need more harbors and they have to be somewhere.”

Of course, all this excitement about the Arctic is predicated on the melting of the polar ice-cap, an event that keeps environmental scientists awake nights worrying about its implications for climate change. Plans to exploit the Arctic’s oil and gas resources seem perverse, given scientific consensus that climate change is a) real and b) the result of human activity. (As I’ve said before, it really seems to be the equivalent of hearing the Titanic is sinking and running off to raid the bar.)

Still, watching Trapped is oddly comforting. If nothing else, it shows us we’re not alone. Consider the pitch by the port promoter (who is not headless, despite what it looks like in my screen capture) to the town. (The dialog, with the exception of the old man’s question, is all the promoter’s):

 

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

 

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

Scene from 'Trapped,' RVK Studios 2015, created by Baltasar Kormákur

 

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