DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Johnny Lan­gen­heim

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.

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