HUGGING THE NORWEGIAN COASTLINE IN THE HIGH LATITUDES ABOVE THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, THE LOFOTEN ISLANDS ABOUND WITH RUGGED SCENERY AND AN EXTRAORDINARY QUALITY OF LIGHT THAT HAVE LONG DRAWN ARTISTS — AND MORE RECENTLY FILMMAKERS — TO THIS REMOTE ARCHIPELAGO OF
Norway’s Lofoten Islands abound with rugged scenery and an extraordinary quality of light that have long drawn artists—and more recently filmmakers—to this remote archipelago of fishing villages. Isn’t it time you had a look for yourself?
Uncle Hans is wrapped in a shroud and laid out in a funeral canoe strewn with Arctic flowers, his bearded face pale beneath its snowy mane of hair. A solemn group of mourners is gathered around him on a beach that recalls the Pacific more than it does northern Scandinavia.
“A wolf pack is most vulnerable when it loses its leader,” declaims Trond Teigen in the local dialect. He stands at the head of the canoe holding a heavy Bible. “Now more than ever we must unite as one.” His face is as chiseled as the rocky promontories that rise precipitously on either side of the bay. Dagny Johnsen buries her face in Uncle Hans’s chest, sobbing.
Suddenly, the dead man coughs and opens his eyes. “Sorry,” he says, “I couldn’t hold it in.”
“And cut!” shouts director James Morgan. Our production designer, Solveig Elton Jacobsen, runs in with a big puffer jacket to cover Uncle Hans’s feet, which are starting to turn an authentically corpse-like shade of blue.
It’s late August in Norway’s Lofoten Islands, 80 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, and we’re shooting a pivotal scene in a British Film Institute–backed short fiction film that I’m producing. As is usually the case with short films, the budget is tiny and almost everyone is working for free. Fortunately, we struck gold with our Norwegian crew. The extras are friends and relatives of Gisle Normann Melhus, a talented local producer and screenwriter (he has just sold an animated TV series called Viking School to Disney) who we chanced upon and recruited as our fixer. Hans, Gisle’s uncle, built his own funeral canoe over a couple of days. Soon he will set it alight, together with an effigy of him that I’ve made from dried seaweed. Gisle’s girlfriend, Åshild Elton Jacobsen, is, like her sister Solveig, a successful fashion designer; now, she’s taking some time out from city life in Oslo and has offered to help with costuming, makeup, and set design.
That’s the thing about the Lofoten archipelago: its beauty is a magnet for creatives. And what beauty it is. Connected by narrow, sinuous bridges, each of Lofoten’s six main islands (including Vestvågøya, where we’re shooting) presents nature at her most majestic. Roads snake along green valleys and mountainsides that soar upward to form craggy peaks that resemble trolls. Drive round a bend and there’ll be a placid cove dotted with fishing boats, rust-colored cabins clustered around it at varying elevations. Vertiginous cliffs give on to bone-white beaches lapped by turquoise water that you wouldn’t readily associate with the Arctic. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the islands are remarkably temperate considering their northerly latitude.
Theodor Kittlelsen, one of Norway’s most beloved artists, drew early inspiration for his famous nature paintings from a two-year stint in Lofoten in the 1880s. Today, the islands are home to a wellestablished artist community as well as a high-profile biennial art festival, the next edition of which takes place this September. Scores of writers, poets, filmmakers, thespians, and sculptors have made their home here: Lofoten is one of those places whose frontier grandeur draws bohemian sorts in search of nature’s muse.
Art stands side-by-side with more traditional pursuits, of course. Chief among them is fishing. After we’ve finished shooting the funeral scene, we head back to Stamsund, the fishing village where we’ve based ourselves largely because all
our local crew hail from here. At the village pub that has become our unofficial office for production meetings and meals, we find the regular huddle of burly-looking men seated at the bar drinking frothy pints of lager. Most of them are cod fishers and whale hunters. Norway is one of the few countries that still maintains a whaling industry, albeit a highly regulated one.
Øystein Pettersen, the proprietor, is another friend of Gisle’s, a gruff but sensitive sort who bought the pub on something of a whim a year ago. “I suggested it actually,” Gisle confides as we all sit down to a hearty chicken stew. “He’s not really into it though—I think he plans to sell,” he adds with a rueful smile. Reluctant publican Øystein may be, but his food hits the spot after a hectic day’s shoot.
We’ve rented three self-catering wooden holiday cabins built around a jetty in Stamsund Harbor. These are the most popular type of holiday accommodation in the islands; the only conventional hotel is the glaringly modern Thon in the harbor town of Svolvær on Austvågøya. There are plans to build a five-star design hotel called the Lofoten Opera, but it’s not set to open for a few years.
The next morning, we drive down to Moskenesøya island at the southwest end of the archipelago and stop at a village called simply Å (pronounced like a Scot saying “awe”). Å is home to the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum, which has allowed us to use one of its antique fishing cabins for our opening scene—a tense exchange between Dagny Johnsen and Nick Boulton, the English actor playing the oil prospector who kills Uncle Hans’s character. I also borrow a set of scales from the on-site bakery (a visual nod to the film’s theme of justice) and take the opportunity to clear them out of their famous—and prodigious—cinnamon buns to keep the crew happy.
The cabin itself is filled with 19th-century fishing paraphernalia: sheepskins and thick woven blankets, glass fishing floats, nets, and nautical maps. Accommodation like this would have once been a relative luxury, though. According to Gisle, most fishermen in the 1800s were indentured laborers. “They were men from the mainland working for wealthy fishery owners who charged them extortionate rates for food, lodging, and booze,” he tells me. “They’d often head home poorer than when they left.” Many chose to sleep beneath their upturned boats to save money—and this during winter, which is when millions of Arctic cod migrate southward from the Barents Sea to spawn in the relatively warm waters of Lofoten.
I’m keen to learn more about the islands’ 1,000-year-old cod fishery, so Gisle takes me to a processing factory on the outskirts of Stamsund. The smell as we enter is so pungent it stings the back of my throat. We make our way past head-high stacks of wooden pallets laden with codfish, 100 tons in all. At the back of the warehouse
a man is standing in front of a table working his way through a large pile of fish, smelling and pressing each one carefully with his fingers before placing it in one of 10 different boxes.
“He is one of only five codfish selectors in the whole of Norway,” says Tom Olavsen, a co-owner of this family-run business. “They grade the fish based on smell, feel, traces of blood. The top-quality fish goes to Italy and is worth 20 to 24 euros a kilo. The lower-grade stuff is popular with Nigerians who grind it and add it to flour. It’s an important source of protein for them.” Italians, he adds, have had a taste for Lofoten stockfish—air-dried cod—ever since a shipwrecked Venetian sea captain named Pietro Querini brought some back after washing ashore on the island of Røst in 1432. “We have always had a good relationship with Italy. They’re a big part of the tourism industry here.”
Olavsen’s business also handles a far more controversial catch— about 40 tons of minke whale each year. The whales congregate in the waters around Lofoten to feast on the migrating codfish. Norwegians have hunted whales since as far back as the 10th century, and by the end of the 19th century they had decimated local populations. These days, commercial whaling continues, but it’s highly regulated—the maximum quota last year was 880 whales from a 100,000-strong population in the northeast Atlantic. Hunting is far more humane now too, if gruesome, as I learn later that evening at Kræmmervika Rorbuer.
I stumble upon the place quite by accident, thinking it’s a restaurant. It is, in fact, more of a homestay-cum–community center, comprising a group of 19th-century fishermen’s cottages ( rorbu) in a pretty harborside village called Ballstad. The owner, Yngvar Aagaard, seems unperturbed by our arrival and gamely cooks up a creamy and delicious codfish stew.
Yngvar turns out to be something of an advocate for whale hunting in Norway, claiming that the fishery is both sustainable and humane. “Look,” he says, grabbing a hefty harpoon that’s leaning against the wall, “this is how we hunt whales nowadays. There’s a grenade in the tip so the whale dies almost instantly.” And probably quite messily too, I’d imagine.
He continues to explain that whalers do double duty as research vessels and that the minke whale population is carefully monitored to make sure it remains stable. “Humans have been part of the ecosystem here for a long, long time. Yes, Norwegian whaling used to be incredibly destructive, but now there is a ban on exports and quotas are really low.” The formidable international consensus
Above, from left: Yngvar Aagaard brandishing a whaling harpoon at Kræmmervika Rorbuer; dried codfish is the islands' main export. Opposite: Ramberg Beach, Flakstadøya.
Below: Outside an old fishing cabin at the Norwegian Fishing Village Museum in Å. Opposite: Stamsund village.