ostensibly, heima is a documentary about icelandic post-rock quartet sigur rós. unlike with most rockumentaries, however, the band only appears in about half of the shots in the film. the rest of the screen time is devoted to the people, animals and foreboding landscape of iceland ("heima" means “at home” or “homeland” in icelandic). so it’s not hard to see why iceland naturally, a partnership between the iceland tourist board and a handful of icelandic private companies, would want to sponsor a one night-only screening of the film at the landmark e street theater on sunday. heima is a feast for both the eyes and the ears, a documentary whose saturated colors and deliberate pace are a perfect match for sigur rós’ atmospheric compositions. it just so happens that it’s also a great advertisement for the natural beauty of iceland.
shot over the course of two weeks by director dean deblois (best known as the director of the animated film lilo and stitch), heima chronicles a series of free performances that the band gave in small towns all over iceland. not content to simply play in remote areas, the band sets up shop in some of the most unorthodox settings that that they can find.
as you might expect, there are a number of outdoor shows played in valleys and fjords, iceland’s omnipresent mountains always serving as the backdrop. in an abandoned herring fishery in the western town of djúpavík, the band plays furiously, the hazy sound ricocheting off of the oil tank’s metal walls. in the highlands of kárahnjúkar, they play an acoustic set for a handful of activists camping out in the area, a show of solidarity for the protest against a hydroelectric dam being built. and in reykjavik, the tour culminates in a triumphant outdoor concert — said to be the largest such event in icelandic history. during these performances, you realize that the film isn’t just about how sigur rós interacts with these spaces — it’s about how the spaces interact with the band. whether it’s the chirping of birds blending into the quartet’s trademark glockenspiels and toy pianos or the lapping of waves washing over the band’s compositions, the landscape almost always manages to alter the songs in unforeseen ways.
in case you hadn’t already figured it out, sigur rós isn't shy about employing literal symbolism, and heima continues the band’s tradition of walking the line between pretentious and heartfelt. many of the film’s shots seem like literal renditions of metaphors that critics have invoked in attempting to describe the band’s sound: waterfalls running backward, time-lapse shots of clouds, birds in flight, ice melting, children flying kites. still, deblois manages to film these subjects in a way that’s consistently breathtaking: slow tracking shots impart a sense of scale while the film’s rich colors and crisp images seem to almost leap off of the screen. much like the simple chord progressions favored by sigur rós, deblois' presents this seemingly clichéd imagery in such a way that it feels almost ethereal.
yes, heima is a gorgeous film. for fans of sigur rós, however, the most gratifying aspect of the film might be the inside look that it offers of the enigmatic band. contrary to what you might imagine, the members of sigur rós speak english, goof off on tour, party with their friends and generally seem like normal people. considered in this context, environmental stimuli might have played a far larger role in the formulation of sigur rós’ sound than previously believed. “i guess it was our idea to give back in a way,” bassist georg hólm says at one point in the film, offering up an explanation for the tour. considering how much inspiration sigur rós seems to have drawn from the land, playing for the mountains is probably the least they can do.