by Allan Fish
(Iceland 2002 86m) not on DVD
Aka. Last Stop
p Gerd Haag d/w Olafur Sveinsson ph Halldór Gunnarsson ed Olaf de Fleur Johannesson m Sigur Rós
Childhood memories are always somewhat hazy with me, but one thing I remember is regular trips to Lancaster on the bus and, while the journey itself is depressing enough, taking over an hour to wind its way through all the places it can when a car would do the journey in twenty minutes, what lay at the end was more depressing; Lancaster bus station. I loved Lancaster itself; its old railway station, the castle then and now half converted into a prison, the little priory next door with its tiny café, the long since gone shops where I would pick up VHS tapes; Our Price and Andy’s Records. Against all that was a bus station on an island that felt marooned, a triangular shape with over-hanging flat roof, dilapidated offices which no-one seemed to occupy and foul-smelling toilets. The Sally Army probably never bothered to go there on their Christmas soup runs. After seeing Olafur Sveinsson’s truly heart-rending documentary, one can be sure such terminuses exist through the known world.
Like the Lancaster terminus described, the one in Hlemmur (the title is the name of the bus station) is, essentially, an island (four sided here) at the heart of Reykjavik. For someone who has seen less Icelandic films than he has fingers on one hand one would be forgiven for seeing Hlemmur’s inclusion as a way of accommodating a film from Iceland into the selection, but in truth this isn’t a film about Iceland, rather about human driftwood the world over. Hlemmur bus station is a terminus in every respect, a hang-out for drunks, the homeless, those unable to work due to mental or physical disabilities, and teen thugs with nothing better to do than to harass the various types they feel they can kick around.
Sveinsson concentrates on various individuals to whom Hlemmur is their life’s congregating point. There’s a bus driver who has recovered from alcoholism after a 20 year fight (he once even drunk aftershave), been estranged permanently from his wife and children, found God but dangerously now has come to believe in Nazi philosophy. There are a couple on disability benefits for various mental conditions who can’t afford to marry as they’d lose a chunk of their benefits, and live their lives in the café opposite waiting for their only pleasure, acting – performing would be kinder – in the sort of plays put on for children in homes. Throw in a fifty-something man who has suffered from depression for over twenty years, saw his wife leave him for another man and take his kids with her, and who spends his day moving between the bus terminus and his shelter watching the world go by.
Also watching the world go by, but often from actual seats on the buses because he has better benefits, is a man who seems to be suffering from a form of motor neurone disease. He used to have kids and a wife, who likewise abandoned him. He feels he will one day get better, but we know he won’t. Last but definitely not least, there are a couple of drunks who congregate on an outer bench by a symbolic bin. The elder one spends his nights sleeping by a rose garden under a tree and tells of surviving through winter, waking up covered in snow and staying alive by downing cardamom essence. His friend is half his age, just 33, but despises his existence. When interviewed he can say that “I have my whole life ahead of me” but then say that he wishes that he wouldn’t wake up in the morning. Then, just like that, he gets his wish. When Sveinsson’s crew come back again after a break for Christmas, he’s died, so they film his older friend taking flowers to his grave. It’s one of the most truly distressing scenes you will ever see and when you then see the old man back at Hlemmur, where even the bench has been taken away and he talks of the friends who are now gone, it’s too much to bear. Hlemmur is one of the greatest testimonies to humanity’s cursed ability to look the other way at another’s pain.