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A Tale of Two FYRE Documentaries.

Which unfinished camp do you fall into? Netflix or Hulu? Here is a quick review of both and my personal preference. 

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NETFLIX : FYRE 

First thing to note about this documentary, it’s created by the marketing company behind the festival, F$@!Jerry. That’s important to know as an audience member so you can understand the bias of the film. Documentaries are inherently biased. This is hotly debated among creators. I think understanding the creators is almost as important as the documentary itself. So what does that mean for FYRE? 

An exclusive behind the scenes look at the infamous unraveling of the Fyre music festival. Launching globally on Netflix on January 18, 2019. Created by Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, Fyre Festival was promoted as a luxury music festival on a private island in the Bahamas featuring bikini-clad supermodels, A-List musical performances and posh amenities.

I think the most interesting thing about this documentary is the victimized stance of anyone involved in the creation of the festival. Everyone seems to point fingers at Billy. Especially the marketing company. They even take the stance that by not paying Billy for an interview, they are not contributing to the madness any further. Yet, that are ok with profiting off the story. Yeah, ok guys.

It just falls flat.

While this documentary is shot really well. It’s flashy, it’s funny and feels outrageous because the story is outrageous. It takes no stance on the subject or the depth of it’s characters. The narrative is: “Look at this train wreck story, isn’t it crazy?”

To me, it feels like one long marketing video for F@!$Jerry. They position themselves as the geniuses who made FYRE huge and then watched it burn to the ground without taking any responsibility for it’s creation. I imagine a big corporate client watching this and going “Hey, we should hire them!” They don’t dive into any real discussion about the responsibilities of marketers in our digital time. That is a huge, deep and interesting topic. One that influences elections, money and power in ways that we are only really starting to understand.

I did love hearing the story of the initial promotional video. I’ve been there. Unreasonable expectations by a client to create the MOST EPIC VIDEO OF ALL TIME, while going around every filmmaking process that ensures great results. But we glossed over a major dynamic on this shoot. The use of the girls. The toast JaRule gives says it all “Here’s to living’ like movie stars, partying like rockstars and F$!@ing like porn stars.”

No one talked about the ethics of what they were doing while filming the promo. They show interactions between Billy, JaRule and the models and it made me want to cringe. Men with power, filming women on a deserted island with no structure. They came up with ideas that would be “cool,” and ask the models to participate in the fantasy. It’s gross. A rich boys club gone wild. I kept waiting for some of the interviews to point out the ethics of it all. Not just the creation of the marketing, I wondered where the responsibility of everyone involved. Seriously, what was with the “take one for the team,” story. Borderline harassment. If my boss ever told me to give a blow job for the good of the team, I’d report him. Tone deaf to include that and gloss over it like it was a locker room story. Ick.

The “characters," keep moving the project forward, claiming to be on an almost unstoppable train. I wondered, why? No one really answers that question. 

As a director, I wonder why we don’t go here. It’s the most interesting exploration of human behavior. Why did people continue to play along when there were clear red flags in every direction? The filmmakers never ask this. The best interviews were from the workers on the islands. That community had the most substance simply because they had the most to loose out of this situation.

At the end of the day, F$!@Jerry made a documentary on Netflix that got us all to watch, point our fingers and go “man how messed up is that!” But the real underbelly of the story isn’t explored. This documentary barley touches on consequences of the fraud of the festival or what happened to the islanders afterward. It ends almost abruptly. The most interesting footage at the end is the business meeting where Billy and JaRule try to convince employees to stick with them. They attempt to share the story about VIP NYC but I didn’t fully understand it till I saw the Hulu documentary. Then, like the festival, the documentary ends. With a whimper and a cheese sandwich. 

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The documentary attempts to poke fun at the fact that the world loved seeing the festival fail and that’s the most interesting stance it takes. It lacks a meta voice. An outside perspective to place the story within social and cultural context. I wanted more zeitgeist. Fyre is a documentary created by a marketing company and it feels like just that. 

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The best thing to come out of this one is what happened after it’s release. The owner of the catering company that lost tons of money on the island, Maryann Rolle, raises over 100K on go fund me as a result of her tearful interview and Jerry Media donated over 30K of that.

So good for you guys.

The real victims of this whole story are the islanders and none of the documentaries attempt to tell their story with the depth that it deserves and cost of that deception. This tearful interview is all you will get between both docs. I think we could do better.


HULU: FYRE FRAUD 

FYRE FRAUD is a true-crime comedy exploring a failed music festival turned internet meme at the nexus of social media influence, late-stage capitalism, and morality in the post-truth era. The Fyre Festival was the defining scam of the millennial generation, at the nexus of social media influence, late-stage capitalism, and morality in the post-truth era.

Right out of the gate, the title and description should clue you in. The tone is different than the Netflix documentary. A true-crime comedy. They secretly drop their documentary the night before Netflix. Sneaky, sneaky guys.

Worth noting, Hulu’s documentary paid for an interview with Billy. So this story has Billy as a main character in it’s structure. Hotly debated is paying for that interview. People are paid for interviews all the time. We pay criminals for their stories all the time. So personally, I don’t care that they paid him. It does add a nice element to the story. 

This documentary takes a stronger stance on that meta voice that I felt was missing from the Netflix version. I really liked how they dove into Billy as a character. They hit the fraud harder. They place the instagram campaign in social context in ways that helps me think about the bigger picture. It’s not a home run. Some of the themes I mentioned above don’t get a deep dive, but this documentary tries a little more to have a meta voice and structure.

Fyre Fraud takes more of a stance on story.

Fyre Fraud takes the position that the festival and Billy were fraudulent from the beginning. It seeks to tear down the “We tried something so big, we got in over our heads and failed,” narrative that the lawyers for Billy have spun. It paints Billy as a con artist from the get go. It’s not as flashy as the Netflix version. It’s not as funny. But it feels more like a documentary to me. There is more research. More outside perspective interviews and a larger point that they are trying to prove.

Billy’s interview tips the scales for me. I am really interested in how the Billy’s of the world are created and perpetuated by society. I loved the millennial lens. The connection to escapism and fantasy selling. Discussion of wealth and power. But we still don’t talk to the islanders enough. I don’t think the consequences of the story are as clear as they could be. 


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The closer we get to people arriving on the island, the more the footage is the same. It’s almost like both documentaries were working with the same batch of collected footage with a few new surprises. Cutting back and forth to Billy, who looks like he is shrinking in his seat, is more compelling than the Netflix version. From here, we get a closer look at the lawsuits and issues that arise after the attempted festival. 


The new information we get here is what Billy did in the hours and months after the festival, his conviction and, the depth of his delusions. They pose the question about his six year prison sentence, was it enough?

Finally some one says what I’ve been thinking: “Don’t just focus on Billy. There are lots of people who helped Billy create fraud so they could make money too.”

Was that enough to satisfy my point? Not really. I would have loved to see the creators ask people about their responsibility in a deep and critical way. A credit sequence reveals that the workers on the island were never paid, Grant was fined, JaRule distances himself from the backlash and they point out that F@1$Jerry made the Netflix documentary and they pose the question about marketers responsibility. I didn’t like that we waited till the end to do so, but I’ll take it.


The verdict: I think FYRE FRAUD attempts to tell a fuller story and at least booked you into that villa on the island. So it gets my vote as the better doc. 

I think that the FYRE Festival is a great zeitgeist of our time. A reflection of the power and influence that marketing can have to create big things while at the same time exploiting others for financial gain. We LOVED seeing rich white kids fail. The meme’s were hilarious. I think everyone likes a good train wreck story. I also wonder why.

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The perception of white collar fraud in our country is flawed to say the least. I think most people see these documentaries and don’t fully understand the depth of the crime. We poke fun and make a joke without understanding the real consequences beyond sunburn and delayed flights. We create the perfect martyr in our con artist Billy persona and watch him fail with delight. We gloss over the racial and social justice topics. It doesn’t bother anyone that they essentially exploited a poverty stricken island for the festival and then didn’t pay them? What happened to the islanders? Why do we tell Billy’s story and not theirs? Where is the responsibility of everyone involved? How do we prevent the Billy’s of the world from creating more situations like this? If it were me, I would have told the story from the perspective of the islanders first. That would have been compelling.

Honestly, wasn’t crazy about either of them. It’s a great story but both lack depth. Ironically, like the almost-festival that they document, they disappoint.

Good documentaries entertain us, Compelling documentaries ask great questions and challenge our perceptions.

Neither of these are compelling by those standards. They do entertain though. I am curious, what did you think?

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Ghost Ranch; New Mexico at Sunset

GHOST RANCH @ GOLDEN HOUR

Every sunrise and sunset that I missed on our trip to New Mexico felt like a tragedy. As an artist, I know the value of good light. It literally hurts my soul when I travel to a beautiful land and can’t sit and watch that magical golden hour. I comically explain this concept to my husband, who as a musician understands only slightly. He’ll indulge me when I wake him up at 4 in the morning to drag him out on the road in Iceland or will put up with driving late at night to come back from a sunset scout. After dinner near Ghost Ranch, I asked if we could turn around and drive back for golden hour. I am so glad we did. I was able to grab these images with enough color detail to hand paint in the vibrancy we saw in person. So gorgeous!

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Being?

I don’t know how to be a question mark. 

Nor can I take up space. 

For its place used to be a period, 

but a comma took its face. 

I don’t know how to be a question mark. 

A point I can exclaim. 

I’m not sure how to BE in the this moment. 

Tense is present; past tense all the same. 

I’m used to picking a direction; 

writing betwixt the dark. 

But I can’t even find my apostrophes, 

So how can I be a question mark? 

An obscure place in my sentence, 

has no answer to start.

So I bash the words together, nay 

And curse that question mark. 

That period oh, she mocks me.  

So certain in its end. 

No matter which direction I push,

the exclamation point won’t bend. 

I tired to finish this story

All dashes and ampersands, 

but I still don’t know how to be a question mark,

and that is where I stand. 

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A Comprehensive guide to planning your Iceland Trip. Travel Tips From Our Life Changing Trip

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A Comprehensive guide to planning your Iceland Trip. Travel Tips From Our Life Changing Trip

Planning a trip to Iceland? Need some answers to burning questions? We learned a lot on our trip that would be helpful for those planning to visit this amazing country. I am an uber-nerd when it comes to planning trips. If I could figure out how to make money being a luxury tour guide ... I totally would. My husband and I seriously talked about what that would look like on this trip. He's always amazed by my itineraries and the research that I put into our travels. Not to mention, I take amazing photographs. Maybe one day I'll find some wealthy benefactors that will pay me to be their guides, but for now, you can have all my travel nerdism for free. It's a few months of planning and I was surprised how hard it was to find direct answers for things about Iceland online, so I hope this is helpful. 

Enjoy! 

Melissa

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It's worth noting that I am an american midwestern white woman and this guide is written from that perspective. My husband and I are what we call "adventure level medium." That means we are adventurous enough to travel to far off places and try new things but not so adventurous that we would sky dive, rock climb or drive motorcycles. We will venture off the beaten path but not if it puts our lives in danger. Iceland seemed like a good place to get hurt so we were cautious.   


ICELAND IN 5-10 Days 

TOP FIVE THINGS WE WERE GLAD WE DID BEFORE WE LEFT.

  1. Get a WIFI Hotspot. We booked a WIFI hotspot that we could pick up at the airport and drop off in a mailbox at the conclusion of our trip. Iceland has amazing WIFI service all over the island and we never needed to use our cell service. It saves us a ton on roaming fees and allowed us to stream Spotify for our entire trip. This service was great. 60 bucks for the week, unlimited WIFI and could even make phone calls with it.

  2. Do the road trip. Rent the car and do the road trip. Iceland drives on the same side of the road as the US and many of the same laws apply. While the terrain and weather can change on a dime, the highways are beautifully maintained and easy to navigate. There is so much to see and it is really spread out. You'll want to drive all over and you'll want the freedom and flexibility to get around the tourist buses. Make sure you rent an automatic car if you can't drive stick. Most of Iceland's rental cars are stick. Cars are all rented from the same spot just outside the main airport. There are about 5 companies to choose from and they are all lined up in a row. A shuttle will take you over there from the airport. It's super easy.

  3. Buy the rainproof gear. We used it all the time and it also allowed us to walk in places that the crowds couldn't go. Good rain boots, waterproof pants that you can slip on over your jeans and a rain jacket were priceless for all the waterfalls and rain we encountered.

  4. Pack dried goods. Food is expensive. You'll read that in every blog. Honestly, we didn't think it was THAT expensive but we were grateful that we packed nuts, dried noodles, oatmeal and a few premade meals like you would for a hiking trip. It allowed us to be selective about how we spent our food budget. You will pay 20 bucks for a burger - but it'll be the most amazing burger you ever had because Iceland's farming standards are phenomenal. We packed all the dried goods in our boots so they didn't take up extra space in our luggage.

  5. Make a google maps list. I spent some time combing google maps and making a list of favorite places of all the things I wanted to see AND all the things I was interested in seeing. Weather can close a park or attraction at a moments notice and having those extra options already vetted made our days really easy. Here is my google list.


Flights / Seasons 

I am a big fan of Iceland Air. We flew to Paris on Iceland Air a few years ago and couldn't beat the prices. The stopover program is also wonderful. We got our roundtrip tickets in late April for 340.00 each. That's right. For less than it costs to go coast to coast in the US. They fly into most major airports so if you live near big city, chances are you can find similar deals. 

  • STOP OVER PROGRAM. If you want to work Iceland into another European vacation, you can. They allow to up to 7 days in Iceland for no additional fee. So you really have no excuse. Going to Barcelona? Add three days in Iceland on the front or back end of your trip.

  • SUMMER IS MOST EXPENSIVE. Most people try and go in the summer. High season allows you to explore the highlands when the roads are safe for travel. If that is important to you, you will pay more for your flights. I recommend booking all your lodging and car rentals far in advance for summer. It is a small island and things can book really fast.

  • TRAVEL IN THE OFF SEASON. I always like to travel to places in the off seasons and I never mind the colder weather. So we chose April. I was so glad we did. It was a nice, mild 60 degrees the whole time with a little spotty rain. That said, I think we will go back when the highland roads are open. The remote places looked really beautiful and things weren't quite green yet.

  • BOOK LUGGAE FEES UPFRONT. Sometimes the deal flights don't include luggage. The overhead bins will not fit large luggage. There was a story about a guy who tried to wear all his clothes on the plane to avoid fees and they didn't let him fly. You save money by booking your bags before you go to the airport.

  • IN FLIGHT SNACKS ARE YUMMY. The food is really good. Rare for an airline.

  • EXIT ROW. The exit row on these planes don't offer much wiggle room for your hips. While you do get extra leg room, the seat widths are smaller. I have big hips so it wasn't a good option for me. Keep that in might when picking your seats.


The Weather / Car Rental Tips 

  • GET THE RIGHT RENTAL. If you plan on driving in the highlands, you need an off-road vehicle that is high off the ground and four-wheel drive. The car rentals are all low to the ground and they will charge you for any damage to the chassis as well as any sand damage to the paint.

  • SAND DAMMAGE. What is the sand damage you ask? Especially on the southern roads wind will pick up the sand at high speeds and literally sand the paint off your car. The weather is wild. So pay attention to the conditions.

  • HIGHLAND ROADS. The highland roads are all gravel. So if you want to drive them, you need a vehicle that won't kick up the gravel and damage the under part of the car. We didn't plan on doing any off-roading and we didn't miss it. The main roads got us to see everything we wanted to see.

  • WEATHER. The weather, however, is a thing. The island has really unpredictable weather. In April the storms seemed to have a mind of their own. Between the high plains, the mountains, volcano and coastal climates the weather changed every few miles. You could be snowed into a town for an afternoon. The locals are used to this so they can help you figure out accommodations if it happens to you. If you go during months when it snows, be aware of the weather and be ready to have to stop.

  • DAYLIGHT. In April we had almost 10 hours of daylight to use to explore. That really extended the ammount of things we could see. This site has lots of useful information about the conditions in Iceland that were helpful. In summer, the sun never sets, so you really get a lot of time to explore sites. In the winter you only get a few hours of daylight. This was another reason why April seemed like a good idea.

  • ROAD CONDITIONS. They have great systems to update you on road conditions, use them, download the apps.


SAFETY 

  • DON'T BE STUPID. Icelanders will delight in telling you how stupid tourists are. They don't want you to get hurt but they don't understand why you won't listen to their wisdom. We learned all kinds of new dangers to worry about. Sneaker waves, Lava sink holes, boiling rivers, sulfur clouds, avalanches, ice currents, falling rock and inclement weather. That isn't to scare you. It's as safe as you are, so don't be stupid. They have a joke about how many sheep died "discovering," new lava caves by falling through a sink hole and being the first to find a new cave. The volcanic earth can be dangerous and they have clearly marked things that are safe and unsafe. Listen to the warnings.

  • KNOW THE CONDITIONS. This site provides a lot of wonderful information.

  • REGISTER WITH THE HIKING OFFICE. You can also register with the Icelandic tour department if you plan to hike some of the more remote areas. So if you don't show up and check back in by a certain date. They know where to look for you. Leave your travel plan here. Especially if you are camping.

  • RENT A PLB. If you are a high level adventurer, and plan to adventure in remote areas. Rent a PLB. It will send your coordinates with a distress beacon to emergency management.


COSTS / BUDGET

Flights: 340 RT per person
Air BNB for one week: 800.00
Car Rental for one week: 300.00
Groceries: 80.00
Blue Lagoon: 300.00 for two with lunch
Gas: 40 - 50 per day for a tank, 250.00
Eating out: 150.00
Parking: 20.0
Black Sand Beach Suite: 150.00

Total: 2,910 or 1,455 per person.  

If you do the WIFI hot spot add 60.00 to the above. 

We splurged on a nice suite to stay in on the south coast and a day at the blue lagoon. I bet you could get this down to 1K per person. If you like camping, you could probably go even lower and do it for 800 per person. 

TIP: We got a credit card that had no international fees and 0% APR for a year and put all our expenses on it. Then set a goal of paying off the bulk of it before our trip. We booked most of it 6 months out and by the time the trip came, it was paid off.  Then any of expenses while we took the trip we still had 6 months to pay that off.  Iceland is a credit card country so you won't need cash. We had the whole trip paid off 2 months after we went. Doing it this way motivated us to work hard and play hard. We try and keep all our big trips to 3K or under.

Monthly: We put away 130.00 per person each month in a savings account and within a year you'll have enough to go to Iceland! 

GO IN GROUPS: We agreed that the next time we go, we wanted to find a few more people to join us. Splitting the air BNB and Car expenses 4 ways would make this trip even more affordable not to mention fun. 

Rent a camper: Save money on hotels and rent a sleeper van. We saw these on the road and thought they looked fun. Happy Camper. 


THINGS WE DIDN'T DO

We looked at a lot of tours. In the end we decided that we didn't want to spend the money. Each tour seemed to take up a lot of time. The only one we wished we had booked would be a guided glacier hike. The glacier looked so cool and we wish we had someone to teach us how to use crampons and walk around on the ice. 


BOOKS AND PODCASTS 

If you are like me, you'll want to dive into the culture and history before you go. Whenever we book a trip somewhere, I dive into the history of a region full speed ahead. Iceland has some wonderful rich Viking histories and myths that are worth reading before you go. Here are a few of my favorites. 

 
 
 
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Raise your hand if you love Rick Steves.  This book just came out this year and it was incredibly helpful.  He's funny and includes a lot of history for us nerds. We took this book with us and read some of the passages while we were standing in some of the places. It made the trip really fun. 

We don't recommend skipping the Northern Peninsula like Steve did. In fact, we think you should make it a priority. BUT he does offer a lot of itinerary information, tips and history that made planning easier for us. 

Also had lots of maps which were helpful when we weren't using our google maps. 

 

 

If you like reading about the ancient history, The Sagas of Icelanders was a great read leading up to our trip. 

This book was well researched and gave lots of context for the stories in our modern world. As we drove through the landscape on our trip, my mind came alive with some of these stories. 

Best thing about this was you could read one story at a time. So I read a few every few weeks leading up to our trip. 

 

My father in law gave me this audio book before we went. I was so grateful for it. It made driving through the landscapes magical. Download this audio book for the road. You'll be driving through the lands of Thor and Loki. It also is easy to do one story at a time. So you can digest it slowly. You'll be driving a lot and sometimes music got old. Having this to switch to was amazing. 

 

I adored Jules Verne when I was a kid. This was my favorite of his books. He got the inspiration to write this book after visiting Iceland. 

You can tour the very cave that he visited and see the volcano for yourself. 

So I added that to this list. It is a fun refresher and I really enjoyed seeing these places first hand. I can see how the geology here would inspire you to write such an iconic story. 

Download for free here. 


 

Add One Minute Icelandic podcast to your Spotify list. I even went as far as working them into our music playlists. Icelanders speak English fluently but if you can learn a few greetings and phrases, you'll make instant friends. It's a complicated language but don't be afraid to try. Icelanders have an incredible sense of humor and they enjoy hearing you make an effort. 

At the very least, learn Hello and Goodbye it will only take a minute. 


MOVIES TO WATCH 

A lot of movies and TV is shot in Iceland. There were many times where I was standing somewhere and I yelled out OMG this is the location for that movie. Obviously, I am a film geek, so I think that is cool. Iceland feels unreal, so it makes sense that science fiction and fantasy films are shot here.  I also enjoyed the many travel vlogs posted below. 

Iceland is by far one of the most unique places we've ever visited. It honestly felt like we were on a different planet! It was like a photographers dreamland, because the sunset lasted for 3 hours (hello golden hour!), and the sun never fully went down.
follow the journey on INSTAGRAM: @jamesnicholas55 // Shot on a Canon 1dx mark II, Mavic pro, Gopro hero 4 Black, and Canon 80 D over a one week span in the south west coast of Iceland. Song: Starlight by Jai wolf (4AM remix)

HOW TO CHOOSE WHAT TO DO

We didn't have the time off work to be able to do the entire ring road. We wish we did. So if you can spare the time,  do the full island road trip. Yes, it's a lot of driving but it's driving in some of the most surreal landscapes we have ever seen and the view changes every five minutes.

  • I actually preferred the northwestern coast to the south coast. I liked the fjords and mountains more than I liked the coastal regions in the south. That said, I'd like to go back and explore Þórsmörk. I'd actually set aside a few days to hike these trails. This area was really interesting and the volcano was beautiful.

  • Using google maps and Instagram, I studied people's pictures to see where I wanted to go. As a photographer, I gravitate towards the most visually appealing spots. Over a few weeks it became clear to me what regions I kept saving and I used that to plot our course. I included a few of my favorite people below.

  • Ultimatley you will pick a direction to drive in each day, a park to hike in or a landmark to see.

  • Reykiavik is fun, plan at least a day there and go out at night. The locals really enjoy being out in the evenings and you are likley to have lots of fun.


Link to my google map and saved locations.

Link to my google map and saved locations.


Iceland is changing rapidly. I think in ten years, the things we experienced may not even exist in the way we experienced them. Tourism has changed a lot of the local landmarks. Icelanders are very proud of their island but they don't want it destroyed. I quite agree. The island is magical and should be protected and respected. So when asking a local for the location of the amazing photograph you saw on Insta be respectful. They aren't going to give that away. In fact, I won't be giving away a few things were lead to by locals. It's better off you discover them on your own and keep them a secret. 

If you want interaction with the locals, you won't find it out on the road. In fact, you will meet more tourists from around the world than you will locals. So if you want to soak up the culture, plan to stay a little bit in Reykjavik. 

We made Reykjavik our basecamp and decided to drive out and back from there. This allowed us to spread out the things we wanted to see and beat the tour buses. We planned different things to do on the drive out and on the drive back. This gave us the luxury of being able to cover a few regions more deeply and the luxury of changing things up if the weather was looking better for one activity in the morning versus the evening. But it meant that we weren't going to see the entire ring road. You would need months to see everything the island has to offer so pick a few key things and start there. 


5 TIPS FOR PLANNING YOUR TRIP 

  1. Decide on a few things that are important for you to see each day. My husband and I had a list of things to do each day. We had our favorites and our back up plans. We didn't always get to see a favorite because of the weather but we were never disappointed because we always had a backup plan.

  2. Google "Iceland Tours," and find the itineraries for tours for the places you want to go. Especially the Golden Circle Tours. Then plan to leave two hours before them. This may mean you are on the road at 4am but you will have sites all to yourself and you will thank me when 6 tour buses of 50 people each are pulling into a landmark while you are pulling out. We LOVED beating the tourists. It felt like winning.

  3. Soak in the local pools in Reykjavik at every chance. Geothermal water is freaking amazing. All the hot water in Iceland comes from the volcanos. It is mineral rich and abundant. We felt amazing after every soak. I wish we could get that in the midwest. The local pools were the best places to meet locals and the cheapest soaks. We really liked Vesturbæjarlaug.

  4. Be realistic about what you can do in a day. If you don't leave time for exploration, this is likely to happen: You'll pull into a site, park and go see an amazing waterfall. You'll look at your clock and realize you have to get on the road if you want to see the next thing because it's an hour away and get mad. We saw so many people run out to something, take a picture and run back to the car. Such a shame. You'll want to have time to sit and stare. Marveling at the wonder of the majestic landscape is why you came. Don't overdo it.

  5. Look at other bloggers. I found our favorite natural hot spring on a blog. We would never have known it existed. In fact, it looks like it was recently removed from google maps. All I can offer you is a coordinate: 64.832217,-22.318500. This spring was all over travel blogger feeds, so it's not a major secret. But you would have missed it in the guide books or driving on the road if you didnt know about it.

    1. Hot Spring tip: If you go to the coordinates above, you are likely to encounter other travelers like yourself looking for a secret dip. Be respectful. I recommend approaching the person soaking and negotiating a time when you can switch. Then start your timer and leave them be. It was really awkward when people stood around and watched our soak. These sites are not managed, so you'll need to take the initiative to be diplomatic. We organically started a line and made some new friends. Also, clean up after yourself.

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FOOD PRICES 

Everyone online seemed to freak out over the food prices but no one seemed to know the average price of anything. Honestly, I thought it was going to be much worse then it was. The thing is, farming standards in Iceland are high. The mineral rich earth and climate make growing food here a challenge but they know how to tackle it. Everything is organic here. If you stick to the local fare, you won't be sorry. Fish, Lamb, Beef were staples and the most reasonable prices. Yogurt and bread and butter were some of the best things we ate. If you ask us our favorite Icelandic food, we will tell you the yogurt. Buy a great big tub of it and eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

We shopped at the local Aldi like chain called Bogus. We stayed away from processed foods and bought meat, dairy, produce, eggs and bread. We spent about 80 bucks on groceries for the week. We brought in granola, noodles and trail mix from the US in our luggage. I had one deyhdrated hiking meal that we used stratigically. Outside of that, we ate fish and chips, burgers and lamb stew at various resturants for about 20.00 USD per person. The food was so amazing, we didn't care about the price. You'll never have anything like it. No, we didn't try the hot dog we were too full when we saw a vendor. 

I would budget 30 USD per person, per meal for things like the above. I would budget 50-60 USD per person per meal for a nice resturant. We don't drink so we didn't buy alcohol. That also helped. For groceries for two people, 100 bucks if you didn't bring in anything. 200 bucks for a week for a family. You'll likley have left over budget in the above equations for things like a snack, coffee and pastries. I approached our DIY meals like college. We needed lots of carbs for all the hiking we were doing so ramen and Rúgbrauð off set a few of our meals and snacks.  

TIP: We packed dried goods in our luggage. I filled our boots with granola, oatmeal, noodles, trail mix and a few dehyradted hiking meals. It saved us quite a bit of cash. 


THE BLUE LAGOON 

There is much debate about this lagoon. Yes, you can soak for less in other places in Iceland. But if you like luxury spas, this one is as unique as it gets. In that regard, the price is reasonable. Locals scoff at the price as they used to soak here for free, before it was a spa. So there is a hipster like mentality to damning the corporate man here. Mention it to a local and you are likley to get an eye roll. I say, don't skip it. This place was very romantic and we loved our experience. There is enough space to spread out when it gets crowded and you can't beat the blue waters. All in all, we spent about 300.00 USD on the day and that included an amazing lunch, the upgrade for robes and slippers and extra masks. We've spent more on luxury spa days in the states that were not magical at all. So when you look at it like that, it justifies the cost. Where else can you soak in mineral water of a Viking volcano? See how much fun we had? 

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We saved money on our flights by getting into Iceland at 7 am. We needed something to do while waiting for our hotel to open so we went here first. We were glad we did this first and not last on our trip. I think it was a great way to start and get over our jet lag. 

  • DO. Reserve your ticket well in advance and plan to either come when they first open or a few hours before close. As it got closer to lunch time it got crowded.

  • DON'T. Wear a suit you care about. The minerals in the water will starch it. My fabric is still messed up. This was the only place that did that to me. The silica is rough on your hair too so make sure to use the conditioner.

  • YES. It smells like egg farts at first. You'll get used to it. In fact, all the water in Iceland smells like egg farts at first. It goes away fast.

  • EAT. The prefix menu in the restaurant LAVA was amazing and reasonable for a five-star meal at a luxury spa. We were expecting to be underwhelmed by the reviews but as foodies, we can confidently tell you that we were wowed by the meal. Reserve for the first time slot they have for lunch and you'll get the best seat.

  • YOU HAVE TO SHOWER. The biggest cultural faux pas you can make in Iceland is not showering naked BEFORE getting into a hot spring pool. This is to preserve the waters and ensure the springs are clean for everyone. Water is a valuable resource that they treat with respect. So don't be upset if you get schooled by a local, they care about their hot springs. Don't be shy. No one cares. Strip down and scrub scrub.


THE GOLDEN CIRCLE 

Þingvellir (Thingvellir)

Þingvellir (Thingvellir)

At 4am we packed the car and headed out for our first morning in Iceland. There was no one on the road. As the sun came up we had arrived in Þingvellir (Thingvellir). This drive was made more breathtaking by the dawn. It felt like we had all of Iceland to ourselves. My husband is a musician, so we like making road trip mixes. We started by listening to this one.  It was the perfect soundtrack for our first drive. 

Þingvellir (Thingvellir)

Þingvellir (Thingvellir)

We were the first car to arrive at Thingvellier that morning. That meant we had the whole place to ourselves. We marveled at the continental divide. Laughed about the meaning of the "all thing," and had our breakfast in front of the waterfall above. By this time we had already shed a few tears at how beautiful this place was. When we finished our hike a few people started to trickle in. By this time we were already packed up and moving on to the next stop. 

If you Game of Thrones, a few iconic scencs were shot here.  

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Arya, The Hound and Brienne all collide at Thingvillier.

Arya, The Hound and Brienne all collide at Thingvillier.

You can scuba dive the continental divide here. We aren't much for diving but that was the other option for things to do in this location. We did stop at the Geysir. It's fun for a minute but we noticed the tour buses were catching up, so we moved on to Gullfoss. 

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The drive between Thingvellir and Gullfoss was beautiful. Take your time. We parked on the lower level away from the visitor center at Gullfoss. The tour buses all park up top first, so you can beat them if you park lower. No picture will do this place justice. You have to feel it.  

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We had lunch at the visitor center before moving on to the next thing. At this point, we had a decision to make. We knew we wanted to end our day at The Secret Lagoon. Most people go from here to the krater or the hot springs river. The river was closed while we were there so we opted to drive out to a waterfall that was supposed to be for our South Coast day instead. This ended up working out great. We again beat the tourist buses as we left Selandjafoss. 

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Selandjafoss ended up being our favorite waterfall of the day. We hit it just as the afternoon sun created rainbows from the spray. If we had seen it at any other time, that would not have happened. It was about 3pm when we saw this. The sun rises behind Selandjafoss, so if you want the best light, see it in the afternoon. A tip: my Iphone 7 plus is waterproof. I took these photos with it. You'll want that rain gear we talked about here. You'll be able to march right up to the falls and enjoy without getting soaked for the ride back. We skipped the second waterfall in this area and saved it for our South Coast drive back. That gave us more time to sit under this one. We cried again here. Nature was starting to take over our souls in ways we were not ready for. The energy of this waterfall was unlike anything I'd felt before. Sitting right up underneath it for a while felt like taking a trip to another planet. 

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We circled back to The Secret Lagoon to have dinner before a soak. The lagoon is a good ways away from Reykjavik and the tour buses seemed to pull in here at around 3 pm. So I reserved a ticket for us at 6 pm. We had dinner at the fish and chips outside the lagoon entrance for 20 USD per person. OMG the best fish and chips we've ever had. No joke, the fish here is really good and a great price. As we finished dinner, the last tour bus packed up and left. We yet again, had the place to ourselves. #winning 

We stayed till closing at about 8 pm and head back to Reykjavik. We made it back around 930pm and went straight to bed. This was a magical start to the trip and we were pinching ourselves at how lucky we were. If you only doing one day in Iceland, The Golden Circle is likely all you'll have time for. If you are doing a stopover - give yourself two days so you can really enjoy this area without having to rush back to a flight.  


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Bonus hot spring here. Hrunalaug (Hruni hot springs). It's a little hut and a hole in the ground. Again, be respectful of others and clean up after yoruself. This is technically private property that you are allowed to use. If you are using the secret lagoon, try this spot first and see if it's empty. They are literally around the corner from one another. 

Use the google maps to find it. Parking is on the road and you walk in. 


Snaefellsnes Peninsula

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All the guide books said to skip this if you aren't driving the whole road. But I couldn't miss seeing this part of the island. Two of my favorite authors were inspired to write stories here. Including the first novel I ever read, The Hobbit. New Zealand may be where they filmed the movies BUT Iceland is where Tolkien got inspired to write the books. In fact, Mordor's design is based off this landscape. Jules Verne also wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth after visiting this area. The volcano they enter the earth in, is the volcano in this area. Not enough to peak your interest yet? Do you know a little show called Game of Thrones? Almost all the scenes with John Snow, north of the wall are shot here. So yeah, it's a nerd mecca.  

I used this site to pick a few spots to start. There is so much to see and do in this area. I wish we had planned to spend an overnight up here.
Next time, we are going to start in this area and go further along the northern coast. 

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This was by far the most beautiful drive we did yet. The winding roads and cliffs are unlike anything I have ever seen. I could see why Tolkien would draw Mordor here. The backs of the mountains look like dragons. Local legends are all of the trolls. Lava rock has this amazing ability to play tricks on your eyes. We started to see trolls, dragons and mythical creatures in the landscape. 

Entrance to cave.

Entrance to cave.

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We started our day at Vatnshellir Cave, rumored to be the cave that Jules Verne used for his characters to enter the center of the earth. It was formed over 8,000 years ago and was formed all in one day. I geeked out hardcore here. Verne and Tolkien. My childhood literary idols. Here I was in the spot of inspiration. 

Lidenbrock translates the note, which is revealed to be a medieval note written by the (fictional) Icelandic alchemist Arne Saknussemm, who claims to have discovered a passage to the centre of the Earth via Snæfell in Iceland.
— - Jules Verne
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This beach was the most magical mythical place we saw. Our guide said he used to play there as a kid and told us it was his favorite walk. So, I can't tell you where this is. It's a secret. 

Just kidding. There is a marked turnoff for a place called, Djúpalónssandur beach. It's marked on my google map I shared earlier. Here the lava meets the ocean and does amazing wonderous things. The formations are wild. I can see why this place is the inspiration for Mordor. We kept waiting for the rocks to come alive and start talking. They all looked like creatures. If you have kids, this place is sure to stir the imagination. We spent a lot of time here. Just be mindful of the tide. It is a coastal beach and those waves are quite powerful.

Our guide told us that it was the beach they used for the Hard Home Episode of Game of Thrones. You know the one with the big white walker battle? We laughed, there is no running from zombies on this beach. The rock is an inch thick and you sink really fast. The shot they reference is the last one where John snow is in the boat and looking back at the beach full of white walkers. I think they used the landscape in some of the compositing. There would be no way to film a zombie battle that big here. It's too risky. But it was freaking gorgeous. 

 
 

Hard Home Scene for those who don't thrones. 


If you are staying overnight up here, you'll have more time to explore. I marked a bunch on my map for you to look at. 

We drove from here to the most photographed mountain in all of Iceland. Kirkjafell. Tolkien borrowed a lot of his inspiration for The Hobbit from Icelandic folklore. If you read the Sagas I mentioned above, you can see the connections. Norse mythology is all over the stories. Elvish and Icelandic even sound similar. This mountain, Kirkjafel, is rumored to be the inspiration for the drawing on the map of the lonely mountain.

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Driving through this area there are lots of folklore about trolls and hidden people. Even the traditional Viking houses look like Hobbiton, the Icelandic horse looked like hobbit sized horses. I could see all of middle earth represented on this day. Mordor, Hobbiton, Mirkwood, The Lonely Mountain,  and the ruins where our necromancer becomes Sauron. This place was unreal. So it was of no surprise to me that someone worked them into myth. I couldn't help but think about how this trip was forming a myth inside me, one that was bursting to come out on the page. 

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We made our way to the hot springs I gave you the coordinates to earlier and had the most amazing soak before heading back to Reykjavik. The soak was for lack of a better word, magical. Good luck finding the turn-off. It took us a few tries. 


THE SOUTH COAST 

There is a lot to see along the south coast. Making the decision on where to plot our days was hard. We wanted to drive all the way out to Skaftafel and I knew that meant an overnight. So we split this drive into two days. This gave us a chance to see something on this road twice. The drive wasn't nearly as magical as the Western Fjords until we made it to Vik. We set out before dawn again and decided to drive the full length and work our way back to Vik where I booked a hotel for the night. 

The coast was a different kind of breathtaking. A waterfall on every cliff. Cute little farms tucked into the nooks of glacier mountains. We stopped at the touristy spot, Skogafoss on the way out. We ran into a lot of people but thanks to our trusty rainboots we avoided them and walked right up to the waterfall in the river. In a full rain suit, we played like kids in the icy water. Away from the tourists who didn't want to get wet. #winning.   

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We set out to drive to Skaftafel from here. The canyon no one can pronounce was closed, Fjaðrárgljúfur. I was really disappointed. Fjaðrárgljúfur was the first place I wanted to see in all of Iceland but the rains had left the paths dangerous to walk and I didn't want to risk my death for a photo. So we skipped it, I'll see it next time. We at lunch at  Systrakaffi.  Everything in town was closed but this and the gas station. This was the last town for a while so we knew we needed to eat. Remember that life-changing burger I mentioned. We had it here. 

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Before you head out to drive from here to Skaftafel, do yourself a favor. Cue up two songs on your Spotify. Paint it Black and Dark Side of the Moon. About 15 minutes west of Vik, you'll know why. Hit play when it happens. You'll come across another planet entirely, Laufskálavarða. Imagine the lava flowing from the volcano. That was 8,000 years ago. Look around. This is baby earth. Mineral-rich beginnings of our soil. Really puts time into perspective. We couldn't get enough of this place. Laufskálavarða is truly striking.     

Laufskálavarða Lava Fields

Laufskálavarða Lava Fields

Be sure to stay on the worn paths and don't off road. We saw lots of tourists stuck on the side of the road here. Idiots who thought they could drive a rental over a lava field without consequences. There are plenty of places to stop that are safe. The lava field is soft and climbing them is risky but we found worn paths and used those to go for a walk. If you want to join the long list of sheep that discovered sinkholes by climbing the formations, be our guest. 

 About an hour after the lava fields we made it to our destination. Skaftafell / Vatnajökull National Park. 

Svínafellsjökull Glacier

Svínafellsjökull Glacier

Here we got to see the glacier up close and do some real hiking. The paths here are well marked and easy to navigate. There is a hiking level for everyone. It was easy to see which ones we could accomplish and which ones we couldn't. 

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If you are playing Icelandic waterfall Bingo, Svartifoss is a coveted box. Up until this waterfall, all the others we had seen were easy to get to. This one requires an elevation hike. The path is well maintained, but I found myself needing to stop a few times on the way up and I was sweating by the time we got there. But it's worth the hike. 

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Each hike took a while, so plan accordingly. They mark the average amount of time it takes to do the trails in the visitor center. We averaged 2 hours for the glacier trail and 3 hours for the waterfall. The view from the top is not to be missed. 

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We finished our hikes and headed back to Vik, where we booked an amazing little hotel for the night, Black Beach Suites. Our suite overlooked a horse farm and the coast. It also put us in the best spot to see the black sand beaches at dawn... before the tourists. #winning. 

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Skip the plane wreckage. It's long hike for a photo everyone has. When we passed the parking area at about 9am it was already full. We decided to hike the cliffs instead. I really loved the big sounds of this area. Ocean force meeting rock. We picked up a picnic lunch in Vik before heading to our next destination. Driving back the weather was different then the day we set out, so this felt like a totally different drive. We headed back to Skogafoss to see the open air museum. If we had more time, I would have liked to hike Þórsmörk. I feel like we missed out on this area due to bad weather. It was too foggy to see anything and there wasn't enough time. We would need another overnight in this spot to do so.  So I'll save that for next time. We stopped at the open air musuem to the right of Skogafoss and enjoyed it. The early settlers must have been really short or didn't see the value of building big buildings. We felt super tall.  

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Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool was the next stop for us. The road to the parking area is bumpy, we had to go slow in our little car. We ended up parking out on the road and walking in to avoid any dammage to the car. From here you find the river and walk up stream. A path will reveal itself to you but if you get lost, use the google map location I linked to above. That awesome wifi hotspot comes in handy in places like this. There is a waterfall in every corner of this spot. The pool is not a hot spring. It is a warm pool. So if you were hoping for a hot soak, you won't get it here. We let our bodies adjust and did not regret taking a dip. I think in the winter this might have felt really warm but the water was as warm as the air when we were there. 

Tip: We did see quite a few people hiking past the pool. When we peeked around the cliff corner we noticed a few people sitting in what looked like a little hot tub on the river bank. Further investigation reveals that there are tubes where hot water comes out scattered along this path. If you make yourself a little dam in the river, you'll have hot soak if you are patient. There seemed to be hot water running down the sides of these cliffs in any direction. We were not brave enough to touch anything that was steaming. This volcano erupted recently. We had been warned to not touch unmarked hot water and I like my fingers so we didn't try it. Those soaking off of a tube looked happy, so perhaps you could just wait till you see someone who isn't boiling or bring a thermometer?  

That path past the pool looked really cool to hike. If we didn't have the long drive back to our basecamp that afternoon, I think we would have explored the areas below Eyjafjallajökull. The energy here is wild. The volcano certainly makes things buzz. This stop will take you at least 2 hours. To hike in, change, swim and hike back out.  

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We got back on the road and pulled into our final stop for the day. We took one last look at our favorite waterfall Seljalandsfoss and parked at the second waterfall in this spot, Gljúfrabúi. Suit up in your full rain gear and boots here. You'll love being able to walk right into the canyon and up to the waterfall. This will let you skip the long line of tourists trying to stay dry by hopping the rocks to the right. That water is literally ice cold but with your gear you'll stay dry. So I dove right in and got right up against the falls. The waterfalls really moved us, we didn't expect to have such spiritual expereinces everywhere we went. We felt like the earth was resetting our moleculur structure. Between the mineral hot soaks, the fresh air, the new earth and the clean pure water we were often moved to tears. So we cried yet again, the kind of happy tears only travel can bring and said goodnight to our last stop of the day. 

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Reykjavík

This town is a lot of fun. There are so many yummy things to discover and little hangouts that I think it is best that you explore them on your own. The guidebooks got this one covered, so pull up your Rick Steves and see what he has to say. We shopped in the thrift stores to find more affordable wool and I found some vintage fur hats. We ate cinnamon rolls, we did the big church and cried at the architecture. Someone who loves Iceland built that church and now that we had seen the landscape, the inside reduced me to tears. It was the perfect end to our trip. The spirituality of the natural elements was all beautifully incorporated down to the last detail of an ice water crystal baptismal. The basalt cliffs, waterfalls, rock colors and natural light all echo the island. I didn't expect to be so moved but again, this trip turned out to be more spiritual then I expected.   

A day was sufficient to feel like we had soaked up the culture but we really enjoyed coming back to our air bnb and heading off to a geothermal pool for a soak every night. We met locals at the pools and felt more like we were learning about the culture in a way that was respectful and fun. I couldn't find any programs where you could eat with a local or sit with a family that wasn't associated with a tour so this was the best chance. We also went to the flea markets, which I only recommend if you like digging in thrift stores.

It was at this market that we had the opportunity to try Hákarl without having to buy it. Hákarl is fermented shark. It's a cultural staple. There is a place to sample goods in the back of the market. I tried it, my husband did not. I can tell you it is unlike anything I have ever tasted and never wish to taste again. It's like spicy fermented  malort that has the texture of tree bark and punches you in the face with that flavor a few times before leaving to burn your insides. That really doesn't sell it but I think gives you a good picture of what it was like. 

FEELINGS / Thoughts

This trip was more than I was ready for in all the best ways. I purposely left out a few destinations and a few things we discovered that shall remain secret. That is the beauty of Iceland. Go forth and find your own secret spot. I think no matter what you choose to do, you will find something that moves you.

Personally I never felt as connected to the earth as I did in Iceland. I was awestruck and breathless when seeing the sites. The landscape moves and ages in colors. Each ring, each color telling the tale of time. Like rings on a tree. The beginnings of life on this planet. The earth is an ancient thing, of which we are only a spec. I really felt that in my soul on this trip. I was so grateful for the chance to feel tiny and yet so connected to our little home in the cosmos. Everything here seemed to be in transition from an ancient time to the modern time. Earth, air, fire and water dance here in ways I had never seen.   

I was touched by the grittiness of the culture. The people here fight hard to protect what they have on this island and they seem to move in harmony with the unpredictable nature that surrounds them. Beauty among the chaos. Living in the midwest, I don't get that much. I don't get the chance to waltz up to a volcano and put my hands on the earth and feel it vibrate and hot. I don't get to drink the mineral water that comes from our planet in it's purest form and I don't get to see a breathtaking waterfall at every turn. I don't get to soak or take my shower in geothermal water. 

It really made me question why I still live in the land of corn. I know it's easy to rommantisize living anywhere. Iceland called to me the first time I saw a photo of the waterfalls and I am sure I will answer that call a few times over in my life.

I also found out that I am part Icelandic while I was standing on the shores where many vikings had migrated to the island. I kept telling my husband that I had the strangest feeling that this place was familiar to me. In an ancient sense. Like my soul knew these lands and the island was welcoming my body home. When I saw the results from my DNA test and a percentage popped up as Icelandic, I knew why. My dna did know these lands. So cool. 


So that's it ya'll. I hope you discover your own version of this and please post any findings or new tips here. Would love to collect them for my next trip! 

 

 

 

 

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Female Filmmaker Friday | ELAINE MCMILLION SHELDON

My new female documentary director crush is Elaine McMillion Sheldon. She's an academy award nominated documentary director based in West Virginia. Her work largely focuses on the Heroin(e) epidemic affecting our country. Her first film to make it to Netflix got my attention long before it was nominated for an academy award. It's a stunning piece of work and is still on Netflix. I highly recommend you add it to your list. 

In the face of the opioid epidemic in a West Virginia town, three women are giving their community a fighting chance. Heroin(e), only on Netflix September 12.

As a documentary filmmaker myself, I know how hard it is to craft relationships and stories within a complex backdrop. The topics Elaine explores are presented with compassion for its subjects. Something I feel very strongly about in my own work. I think it is easy to present a shocking story about drug addicts. It's easy for an audience to gawk voyeuristically, say "how horrible," and move on. I think we larlgey have our news outlets and reality television to thank for that. Elaine's work does the opposite. She dives in deep with her subjects and presents them to her audiences with a tender curiosity. 

RECOVERY BOYS

I just finished her new film Recovery Boys and am equally inspired by the work. It's emotional, heartbreaking and compassionate. Her complicated subjects are treated with respect by her lens and it pays off in her ability to dive in with people and get them to reveal their true selves on camera.  

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I won't reveal much about the "boys," here. I'd rather you see the film. Social issue documentaries have the power to heal, create change, inspire and influence our society in ways that our media outlets can not. It's why I love it so much. I have spent a large part of my career helping non-profits fundraise through documentary films with my peeps over at fig media. I take great care to let my subjects be the voice as much as possible. That is not easy. Personal bias, the desires or my clients and the audiences who donate money to such causes make navigating the stories I tell difficult. So when I see work that I can relate to in this way, I get excited.  

Elaine brings the human element of her stories into spaces that we only hear about in negative contexts in our news. She takes your hand and guides you through these spaces with her camera. She strays from being an essayist and lets her message evolve through the people she follows. This gives her subjects the chance to be the voice versus her directing being out front.

A quick look at her website, made me giggle. She and I use the same website template, we both shoot photography. I didn't realize that one of my favorite Frontline episodes is hers and damn it - she's six years younger than me.  So, Elaine, I am officially a big fan. If you are ever in Chicago, let's have lunch. I promise not to gush too much.

I got some work to do to catch up. 

*Opens a new tab and 'Googles' Documentary grants.* 

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Gender roles, witches, demons and Hereditary. A film essay and review.

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Gender roles, witches, demons and Hereditary. A film essay and review.

An opinionated and biased essay ahead, perfectly imperfect. This writer is aware of said biasses and welcomes your ideas respectfully. Proceed. Also, my spell check looks terrible on this one - I'll fix that later. *facepalm*

Halfway through his movie, I turned to my husband and said, “I think we might need therapy when this is all over.” I’d like to start with a caveat that we are a household that loves horror movies. In my opinion, horror is an under-appreciated genre. I'm not talking about franchise horror films, of which we are not a fan, with the exception of Insidious. I'm talking, The Shining, Blair Witch Project, Suspiria, Mommy, Let The Right One In, Babbadook. Classic horror tales and the like. Greek tragedies, even Shakespeare. I have a lot to say about this one. So fair warning, this essay is long. 

A QUICK BACKGROUND

I grew up reading Steven King, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Rice and Mark Danielewski. I would argue that even my favorite fantasy and science fiction writers like Tolkien and George R.R. Martin borrow from the horror genre. 

What solidified my interest in horror was actually a class in Chinese and Japanese cinema and art history. I enjoyed studying the nuances of the culture through the stories they told. Most of which were ghost stories. Ancestral worship is part of their culture. When visiting someones home, you might find a shrine to their passed loved ones. Ghosts are a normal, everyday part of their spiritual life. So too are their ghost stories. 

This connection to the dead is apparent in many cultures. The Celtic festival of Samhain, The Buddhist Obon, Dia De Los Muertos, Chuseok in Korea and Gai Jatra in Nepal. All have ceremonies and celebrations that honor ancestral spirits. Essentially, the ghosts of your family. I joke that even the Bible is one long ghost story. Full of death, rebirth, angels, demons, spirits, voices and apocalyptic visions. But where eastern religions and ancient cultures differ is around the premise of fear. Specifically spirits.

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Take, for instance, the Buddhist Obon and Del Dia De Los Muertos. Celebrations designed to honor the people who came before you, invoking the spirits of your ancestors come back to visit the living. One would light lanterns or lay a path of flowers to guide those spirits back to earth for the celebration. You are literally inviting ghosts to come and have dinner with you. These rituals are not fear based spiritual practices. You will find no children running away in horror from the ghosts of great granddad. They are beautiful rituals full of dancing, prayer, and community.  

I grew up going to Church for a large part of my life, so my religious experiences of adolescence are based on my experiences with the Christian church. Here notes my personal bias. I have no such memories of honoring my ancestors in a such a way from the Church. In fact, anything involving something seance-like would have been viewed as the devil. The dead are mourned in quiet reverence but one must be careful in creating any false idols. The only ghost that is ok to invoke, is the holy ghost. It's still very old testament thinking when it comes to this one. 

I have a vivid memory of sitting on a picnic bench at Jesus camp, 13 years old, sobbing uncontrollably. I just listened to a fiery sermon about hell and I was truly conflicted. I was already "saved," having said the prayer and done the ritual at 8 years old. But my father was not. He was an atheist. I didn't want him to go to hell. I was terrified and felt guilty. My counselor at the time kept pressing me to call him. She wanted me to "get him saved," right now. 

As an adult, I see how flawed that moment was. I did not call my father that night. I couldn't understand how my Christian peers thought less of me for doing so. I thought for sure that God would understand my compassion. My father and I had already discussed his feelings. He always respected my right to choose a religion, and I liked that, so I respected his. Fear of hell was used against me in this instance and it stuck with me for a long time. That is not to say that I didn't experience good things during my time in Church but eventually I grew up, moved away and formed my own relationship with faith and beilief. 

I could give many instances of examples of why I feel that Christianity is a fear based religion, but I am not defending that point for this essay. Let's assume that it is. 

I think it's interesting that our writer for Hereditary uses Goetia as it's religious influence. Goetia, an ancient Greek word that literally means sorcerer, get's its roots from the 16th century. Later, during the Renaissance, it became dubbed "black magic." The backdrop for the ending of the film and it's 17th-century Greek influence, we will explore later. But culturally, I think it's worth looking at this film through an American lens, of which, most of the population is Christian, making the comparisons I make relevant. Hereditary is an American film, written by an American writer. So I don't think he is trying to say anything specific about religion, other than to use it as a horror construct. This writer is obviously aware of his audience and is using that within his film. 

We like horror films about evil, possession and ghosts almost as much as we like superhero movies. That classic good versus evil fight. We love it when the lines are drawn in the sand and the tension is clear. We don't get that kind of clarity in life. In fact, life is made up of many unknowns and gray areas. Those two, a cause of our fear and anxiety. 

Hereditary doesn't put this idea front and center. Which is why I love it. The supernatural takes a back seat up until the second act. It dives head-first into the gray areas to establish our characters and keeps us in the deep-end with our worst fears. 


ABOUT HEREDITARY - NON-SPOILER REVIEW

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Hereditary is brilliantly written and performed. If I were awarding Oscars, I would give one to the writer and one to the lead actress. The writing and specifically Torri's performance is award worthy. It is visually stunning and draws from some of the best ancient storytelling techniques of the ages. Its greek tragedy influence is what makes the whole story so strong. Stand out moments occur in the long takes, the timing of the edit, the absence of music and truly breathless performances. 

But I would argue that the best thing about Hereditary is what it doesn’t explicitly say. Like a Greek Tragedy, it’s about the things that take place in-between the lines that make it so terrifying. It’s a spiritual horror film that speaks to our fears of inheriting the tragedies and traits of our ancestors. It’s about secrets between parents and children. Grief and it’s emotional manifestations. How tragedy can transform a person. If you are looking for a nice bow-tie ending, you won’t get it. You are more likely to walk away going, “huh?”

I loved the ending, but I think it will turn a lot of people off. 

The best thing about the movie, in my opinion, is about women, spirituality, possession, and emotion. Which leads us to the essay below. I won’t be diving into Greek Tragedy or deconstruction of its uses in horror films. That’s for another day. I think it’s been widely documented in reviews thus far. I’d like to take a look at Gender, Christianity, Religion and how this film plays with those larger social constructs. 

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GENDER ROLES IN HORROR FILMS 

Gender roles in horror films are one of my favorite things to pick apart culturally. (If you want to dive in more, this is an excellent place to start. ) Women in horror films have a long history of being gas-lighted by the male characters they interact within the plot. They are scorned with male “logic,” that the things they are experiencing aren’t real. Usually, they are tortured, shallow characters that look pretty and scream on cue. Often viewed as “crazy,” and spend most of the plot running from danger. This isn't always the case, there are a few standouts. But for the most part, I think the above is true. Women are either victims or "witches," in the majority of horror films. I also think it's interesting how we treat women who are having spiritual experiences. In our stories, we are uncomfortable with female emotion. Therefore, if someone is having an extremely emotional experience, we are likely to view them as scary.

We are at our roots a Puritan nation. One whose fear of “the devil,” allowed us to pillage “savage Indians,” in the name of that fear. Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries persecuted thousands of witches. Whole villages of Swiss women were wiped out in the hysteria.

In America, we have the Salem witch trials. 

I recently got to visit Salem Massachusetts. I read this fantastic book before I went called,A Delusion Of Satan, The full story of the Salem Witch Trials, by Frances HillWhich outlines in more context the conditions and beliefs that lead to the "witch hysteria.” Today, those Puritans have received their Karma. Salem is a joke. It’s become a tourist Halloween town. Complete with haunted houses, tarot readers, and hippie spiritualists. The “devil,” they so fought to destroy has won. I laughed thinking about the righteous judges jumping through time to see children running around in witch costumes pretending to put spells on each other in their beloved village.  

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The story of Salem became a cautionary tale of the dangers of religious belief. But the book attempts to take it one step further in outlining the gender roles of women, power dynamics between men and women and femininity, creativity and inspiration. Unlike the modern telling of the story like “The Crucible,” the book deliciously researches connections from historical records. The trials were meticulously documented. Which may be why the story has been passed down to new generations and became taught in schools. But the book makes some connections for me that my 5th-grade classroom reading of The Crucible didn’t. 

Life was hard as a puritan and men made all the rules. Imagination was stifled among children. Art was functional. Creativity was not encouraged, survival was. Sexuality was almost exclusively prohibited as a sin of the flesh with the exception of procreation. Pleasure was not allowed. Expression among women was silenced. These are all feminine values. Women who express extreme emotion are “crazy,” while men who express themselves in extreme ways are “passionate.” Soon “crazy,” became “a witch.” Any outburst of extreme emotion and a woman could be accused of being possessed by the devil. Witch hunting thus became inherently female and while anyone a could be accused of being a witch, most of the persecution was of women. 

As a little girl, I played a lot in an imaginative space. I experimented with all kinds of storytelling and play acting. As a teenager, I was emotional and dramatic. I guarantee if I had been observed by a Puritan priest, they would have convinced the town that I was possessed. I think most artists would have been accused of witchcraft in that era.

These tropes still exist today. We still silence women. We write stories where they are silenced by others. In a large majority of our horror films, women are either the victims or for lack of a better term, "witches." As time moved on, we stopped persecuting witches and started locking women up in asylums for misbehaving.  Thus replacing "witch," with "crazy."

I’m sure at some point, we have all thought our mothers to be “crazy,” through this lens too. Extreme imaginative outbursts or expressions of emotion are squashed in our society. We can barely handle a crying baby on an airplane let alone a woman who cries in public. 

And here marks the line of spoilers people. If you wish to continue, do so at your own risk. I am about to talk about the details of the story. 


GENDER, DEMONS AND WITCHES IN HEREDITARY

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Hereditary begins with our main character, Annie, in the midst of working on her art. She creates model dioramas. It is implied as the story chugs along that these dioramas are her emotional outlet. This is how she processes grief, anger, and fear. The tension between imagination, memory, and reality play nicely here. Why in the world would someone make a miniaturized model of the death of her mother? 

I enjoyed the duality of the models with life. The idea that I could take memories and tragedies out of my head and examine them as real-life objects. To see if I could make sense of them, process them differently. This process appears painstaking in the film. The details are fussed over, our main character possessed with the idea of recreation. A rebirth of her pain. Nicely done. 

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Next, we meet Charlie. Charlie is different. She makes you uncomfortable but we trust her slightly more because we assume it’s a mental disorder. The play on gender here is masterfully done. Our young actress is phenomenal but I question the casting choice. We love to put our humanly different in horror films and this borders exploitation for me. It's akin to pointing at her and calling her "freak." I get that we are establishing a long line of mental health issues for our characters, so I'll leave this one be. But do better next time. 

Next, the shocking tragedy that propels our characters into some of the best moments of the film. Personally, I did not see that one coming. The car accident begins our true emotional terror. 

Annie experiences real grief for the first time in the loss of her daughter. She was relieved when her own mother died, having been released from the burden of that relationship only to be thrust forward into the guilt of playing a part in her own daughter's death. Grief is not handled lightly here. Our main character moves through hysteric fits. She retreats. She creates twisted dioramas of the accident. All the while her husband grows more and more suspicious of her behavior. Her husband literally acts as men have throughout history. Questioning the intensity of her emotions and wondering if he should send her away. If we are sticking with our horror metaphors, Annie is possessed by grief. 

My favorite scene to illustrate this concept is at the dinner table. Tensions mount in the household to an emotional breaking point. Our male characters confront our female lead and claim that she isn’t being truthful about her feelings. They invite her to express herself. 

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She does. This eruption is the best scene in the film. Rarely do we get to experience female emotional flow on the screen. The sight of a woman in full emotional and visual expression makes our male characters physically retreat from the scene. The very thing they invited her to express is the very thing they can not handle and rather than applaud her completion of this expression, they squash it. The men refuse to join her and instead they persecute her almost as if saying, "burn the witch.’ The refreshing length of the shot and the stellar performance by the actress is noteworthy. They do not shy away from the complexities of extreme emotions. 

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I think all of us are afraid that if we let go on some level, what comes forth would be bad. Tapping into our emotional flow is scary. So scary that as a society we can’t handle people doing it in front of us. We tell each other, “don’t cry,” when comforting one another. We tell our men, “crying isn’t manly.” And when we see our lead actress express herself on screen, we too as an audience are scared. We question her sanity, if only for a moment. Can we pause for a moment to admire the cinematography choice here? It's like an 18th century painting. 

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I mean, look at that still shot above. Gorgeous terrifying women in full power feeling herself fully. Just hand her the Oscar, please. This scene is fucking amazing. I applauded Annie's capacity to let go and laughed when the men wouldn't join her. Granted, it has taken me a long time to be ok with my own extremities of emotions but now that I am, I was praising this goddess on screen. I honestly can't think of another on screen performance that accomplishes this as well as Hereditary does. 

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Emotions escalate as the film begins introducing the supernatural to the plot. Annie, meets with a new friend in her grief group, this friend conducts a seance to bring back the spirit of her grandchild. It seems to work and despite her reservations, she tries it. This triggers the climax of our film and leads to its ultimate resolution after discovering that her mother had a secret spiritual life. Spirituality “literally," kept in a box and hidden away until the very end of the film. I think spirituality is what our writer wants you to infer as the "hereditary trait." It’s the thing that our lead character doesn’t want to inherit from her mother. Her secret life. Her mental illness. Her spirituality. One might even say, she demonizes her mother.😉 

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CHARLIE

The gender play with Charlie is also worth noting. At the conclusion of the film, we learn that Charlie is a male demon reincarnated into a female body. His name is Paimon. His reincarnation into Charlie was a mistake, as we learn at the conclusion of the film. The whole film is a plot to correct this mistake. Charlie referenced as she presents more like a tomboy with an androgynous name. While women are often “Witches,” in our scary stories, men are painted as “Demons.” 

I always wondered why this trope existed in our storytelling. Sometimes I think it's about dominance and submission, Witches serve Demons. Women subserviant to men. Demons are usually powerful creatures in our stories. Females are usually the victims of demon possession, either used for literal possession or for impregnation. But it wasn’t always that way. In the pre-Christian era, demons were both male and female. Much like the ancient polytheistic religions that had many gods and goddesses, so too was the gender spectrum of demons. It’s Christianity that spun the gender roles and made them sexless. Technically, Christian demons are fallen angels, as referenced in the Bible. They are sexless beings whose purpose is to test human beings on their faith in God and lead them to sin. 

 

"For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” —2 Corinthians 11:13–15
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I always wondered, why then do we paint demons as masculine throughout history? See that winged creature demon up there - - - what sex do you infer when observing it? For context, the above painting is Dante and Virgil in Hell - William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850. It’s a scene from Dante’s inferno, in which there are several biblical references used to describe the journey into hell. This painting is terrifying in person btw. It’s the size of a billboard and you can see the demons eyes staring at you from all angles. Notice the color palet and the lighting on the main figures in the foregroud. Remind you of any shot from before? 

Back to Hereditary … 

Why does Paimon need a male body? Why is he unhappy in a female body? Paimon is supposed to be a Prince not a Princess. If you don’t know who Paimon is … you aren’t alone. I had to look it up too. He’s one of the kings of hell with Goetic orgins, also referenced in Persian and Iranian stories. The “King," denotes man right? 

Paimon is referenced in a demonology spell book called Lesser Key Of Solomon. Therein lists 72 demons of which, one is Paimon. Each demon has a symbol, which was a clue in the film. Annie wears one around her neck. Guess she should have googled the symbol before wearing it. 

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So essentially our demon "man-king," is pissed because he was born a woman and his followers work to correct the issue. Wow. Talk about some gender issues right? The wiki page for Paimon also gives us a hint at a sequel btw… go read it if you like.

Also, loved the irony of the husband going up in flames. Guess he should have belived her huh? 

Also, loved the irony of the husband going up in flames. Guess he should have belived her huh? 

SO have you made it this far? 

If you have, cheers to you. Welcome to my geekery. I spent a lot of money on my education in art history, English and film critique. Literally wrote a paper a day for 4 years. I’m still paying off the bill. Blogs are more refreshing though, I don’t have to worry about being perfect or getting graded. I can just share my passion for picking apart social and cultural references in storytelling. 

That said, if Hereditary made me spawn a long essay like this, imagine what it might do for you. I will warn you, my husband is still having nightmares from the visuals. Which I didn’t even get a chance to geek out about here. That said, I do think that our tales of horror are the most interesting things to look at in society. Our relationship to fear or lack thereof is still taboo. Last year marked the first time a horror film was nominated for an Oscar, and I think to Get Out was nominated more for its cultural relevance and discussion of race in our time. I’d love to see more from this writer. I was seriously impressed. It’s well researched and smart with an excellent understanding of pace and emotional landscapes. 

So just like our movie, here ends my essay. I’m not going to neatly tie this up.

What did you think of the film? 

 

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Copies of a copy.

Your voice sent a shrill up my spine.
You sound just like him.
Him, you, familiar.
Reached through time and pulled me impossibly back with it.
Memory is like that.
All we are is tied to copies of a copy of a person.  

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In the works ...

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In the works ...

My calendar is a beautiful color coded hot mess of appointments, meetings, deadlines, and productions. I repeat to myself that I am fueled and nourished by my clients, subjects, and films that I get to create. This helps me push through the next round of work. 

I keep going back to a visualization I had while having my aura read about ten years ago. I was told that my energy was grounded and I am delightfully and magically making the world move about me as I move through it. As a director, I loved that image. Right now, I am in it. The world is swirling around me and I am slowly stepping through it. 

From the inside, it is a thrilling and scary place to be. I am questioning my work, what I have to say and what I have created thus far. I am feeling pulled toward my new age. I feel a new transformation bubbling underneath all this activity and I am not sure where it is leading me quite yet. 

I've come here to update. But really, I think I just needed a minute to put some thoughts on paper. I am feeling ready for my next artistic iteration, my reinvention or emergence. I know it is happening underneath the surface, but I have yet to give this new found "thing" a voice.

That's all I have for the moment. I have lots of cool new work to share. Which is the source of all this activity. I've been keeping my instagram updated, come join me there: @melissafoxmedia

 

 

  

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Writing Session 27 of 30

Ode to Coffee

Bright flavor brings
Aliveness, however brief. 
Nutty, chocolate, hot spicy brew
Swirling alertness into my veins. 

This morning I got nothing. 
As I sit to write with you here. 
Dreams were void and black last night. 
Black coffee. Caffeinated steam,
hoping this java will jump start something,
I’d love to write transcendent soul leaping words

...

Nope. *sip*
Mmmmm, coffee, that’s all I got today. 

 

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On Location: Hannibal MO

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On Location: Hannibal MO

I have always said that I am a unique blend of city and country. I grew up as an inner city kid but I spent most of my summers on farms in Missouri. Every summer I would pack my bags and head to Missouri to visit with family. I have driven through Hannibal so many times, I have lost count. Getting to Hannibal was a landmark of sorts. It meant that I was one hour from seeing my grandma, Mamo, whom I love dearly. We usually didn't stop. On the five hour drive from Chicago, my dad would get restless and wanted to push forward. We would cross the bridge over the Mississippi and cheer at the state line. Getting to Missouri meant we were all on vacation. I would stare out the window at the almost movie like set that is Hannibal and wonder what it would be like to visit it. We would visit on occasion, making the one hour trip back from Grandma's house to see the Mark Twain Caves or visit the old cemetery on the hill but I never got a chance to explore the town on my own terms until recently. 

Hannibal is the kind of mom and pop midwestern town that would be easily dismissed if it weren't for it's history. You know it's name because it is the birthplace of Mark Twain. This is where Mark Twain grew up, played on the river, got ideas for his stories in the caves and infused his life into his writing. The people who live here have taken pride in both preserving that memory and making it into spectacle. It seems like playing Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are rights of passage for young kids. During peak season, you will see them walking about town. The businesses are all run by locals, who like the speed of the river, seem to march slower in time than life in the city. The oddities and curiosities of the historic parts of town are charming and cartoonish. Perfect for those with imagination, a playful spirit and a love of Mark Twain. 

 
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Below you will find a collection of my favorite things to see and do in Hannibal. 

MARK TWAIN RIVERBOAT

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Start with a one hour riverboat tour on the Mississippi. The trip starts with a tune played on the large organ that can be heard about town. This signals a mini parade of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn characters that make their way down to the river and greet you as you enter. The views from the boat will give you a great view of Hannibal, a quick history and a few locations from Huckleberry Finn. Sit on the deck and imagine being Samuel Clement, who was a steamboat pilot on the river. 

Next, head into town and stroll the main strip. Get lost in Lydia's Cabinet of Curiosities. Make sure you take a look at the Dinosaur Fossils, ask the host about them. Missouri sits on a rich bed of limestone. The cave systems here are abundant. That also means that excavating fossils is a local hobby. Ask about them, they have quite the story to tell you. 

Next wander into Mrs. Clemens Antique Mall and oogle at all the deliciously creepy treasures. Those who are easily creeped out by dolls, need not apply.  

EAT 

If you are from a rural area, take this next recommendation with a grain of salt. While Hannibal certainly has restaurants that are themed to suit the history of the place, a good cup of coffee and a healthy lunch isn't on the menu for most of them. You'll find a smattering of calories and grease at the diners, pizza places and ice cream parlors. By all means, if that is your thing dive in and enjoy! I do however highly recommend a cafe not far from all the curiosity shops, Java Jive. 

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If you are looking for that garden to table salad for lunch, this is the place. Not only are the people who run this place wonderful to chat with but they know their coffee and fresh food. All items are locally sourced from farmers. This place is a breath of fresh air on the strip. Bring your copy of your favorite Mark Twain book and cozy up on the couch with a cup for a few hours. The pastries and salads were amazing. Certainly a departure among the greasy midwestern comfort food.  

Before you leave Java Jive, stop at the front and take a moment to see all the brochures for things to do in town. There is much to see and you'll need to make some decisions about what your priorities are. From here, I am taking you to the caves. But that means you would skip the museums, boyhood home, trolley tours and hilariously bad, kind of need to see, haunted house and wax museum. If you are doing a day two, by all means check those out. They are fun for people who want to know more about the places and people that influenced Mark Twains writing. I however have a love of the underground and found the caves be more interesting. 

If you love camping like me, you'll want to camp here for your stay to get the full experience. These are the caves and the grounds that inspired Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. You'll want to explore, set up a big fire and enjoy the landscape. I have a hotel recommendation further down for those that want a bed. 

Explore Cameron Cave during the day and book a lantern and flashlight tour of the Mark Twain caves at night. You'll see hiding places of Jesse James, spots that historians claim are directly related to Huck Finn and learn about the Missouri Cave systems. These tours are easily walkable. Bring a light jacket, the caves are always between 55-60 degrees. Which on a hot summer day is the perfect way to cool off. 

STAY

If camping isn't your thing, I highly recommend a stay at Rockcliffe Mansion. The mansion was recently restored and opened to the public as a bed and breakfast. It is a rare opportunity to sleep in a restored house from the 1800's. The views of the river are worth the trip up the hill. If staying overnight isn't on the menu come take a tour during the day. I will be booking a night for myself next time I come through. I was so excited to learn you should sleep in these rooms and have a mansion to roam around in at night. Mark Twain gave many speeches and lectures from the stairs in the main parlor. They can be all yours for a night. 

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Take in the views from the porch before you leave, from here you can look down over the whole town. As a kid, I always longed for travel. My family was bound to the midwest growing up. I used to roll my eyes at places like this, thinking how silly they were when I longed for travel to exotic and more far away places. As I've grown I have come to understand the nostalgic charm of climbing back in time, however cheesy it seems, and enjoying a different perspective. I don't think you'll need more than two days here but it would make a great stop on your road trip onward south to the beautiful state parks in southern illinois or missouri. 

TIPS AND FUN FACTS

By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a08820.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.العربية | čeština | Deutsch | English | español | فارسی | suomi | français | magyar | italiano | македонски | മലയാളം | Nederlands | polski | português | русский | slovenčina | slovenščina | Türkçe | українська | 中文 | 中文(简体)‎ | 中文(繁體)‎ | +/−, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3488440

Twain was born shortly after an appearance of Halley's Comet, and he predicted that he would "go out with it" as well; he died the day after the comet returned. He was lauded as the "greatest American humorist of his age",[5] and William Faulkner called him "the father of American literature".[6]

Each time of year offers a different beauty to this town. The height of the seasons are Memorial Day - Labor Day. There is a festival in the fall and around Christmas time. After that, most of the museums are closed. Be sure to check the websites to see what time of year is best for what you want to see. 

Hannibal is also home to the Unsinkable Molly Brown. One of the more famous survivors of the Titanic. There is a muesum dedicated to her story. 

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