Judith Ehrlich films an Icelandic politician warming the journalistic climate.

Ehrlich Clicks with Icelandic ‘Mouse’

Michael Fox March 2, 2011

Judith Ehrlich was quick to leap at the idea of a documentary about WikiLeaks honcho Julian Assange. Too quick, it turned out. “I pitched it to HBO in June [2010] and no one had ever heard of him,” recalled the co-director (with Rick Goldsmith) of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, the Academy Award-nominated doc about another famous whistleblower. Then U.S. soldier Bradley Manning was busted and placed in solitary confinement for allegedly supplying classified information to WikiLeaks. “By summer, when I came back, lots of people knew about [Assange],” Ehrlich wryly observed. “In the meantime, lots of people got on the story.”

Leading the pack was Oscar winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), whose Assange doc is bankrolled by that radical underground bastion, Universal Pictures. (Count me among those who think Gibney’s movies, with their conspicuous overuse of pricey classic rock songs, are a little too well-funded.) So Ehrlich shifted her focus to one of Assange’s European allies, Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic Parliament who happens to be a Buddhist, an anarchist and a single mother of three.

Jonsdottir is the sponsor of a proposal, the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), whose aim is to make that country a haven for journalists, publishers and everyone else looking for a safe place to store their information in the Internet age. Based on an idea of Assange’s—Iceland is the only place WikiLeaks has an office, not coincidentally—the IMMI derives from a belief that governments should be more transparent and the privacy of individuals needs to be better protected.
“The idea is there’s got to be a new paradigm of how information is shared, without borders,” Ehrlich explained. “And they’re trying to get ahead on this issue.”

The title that Ehrlich’s kicking around is Iceland: The Mouse That Roared, which has a witty double meaning, especially if accompanied by an image of a computer mouse.

To illustrate the implications of Iceland’s leadership in this area, Ehrlich cited illegal immigrants on the Mexican-U.S. border south of San Diego. “They shoot video on their phone cameras and pot it on their site, and they’re moving their server to Iceland to protect from being shut down.”

Ehrlich trekked to Iceland in September and again in January to interview Jonsdottir. It’s a pleasure shooting in the small Nordic country, the East Bay filmmaker reported, especially Parliament. “It’s a much less bureaucratic place. We come in with a cameraman, five cases of stuff, no one says a word to us. It’s a trusting small-town kind of place.”

So small town, in fact, that Jonsdottir’s high school boyfriend is the current mayor of Reykjavik. When he took office, he reportedly declared no one could be in his administration unless they’d seen all the episodes of “The Wire.”

It’s a small world, too. Ehrlich is friends with a fellow named Aegir Gudmundsson, one of a group of 13 Icelandic students enrolled at the S.F. Art Institute in the 1980s. Gudmundsson got his master’s in film from S.F. State and eventually returned home to become a cameraman. So Ehrlich doesn’t have to catch an international flight every time something interesting happens in Iceland, although she expects to make a couple of trips this year.

Ehrlich is in the early stages, and benefited from a couple of grants from small foundations to get started. She attended IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) last November, where she got some interest from Swedish television

The filmmaker confided she’s still trying to get a handle on the story, although she’s confident she has a compelling character at its center. Jonsdottir is the youngest poet ever published in her country and was an early pioneer of using the Internet for poetry and art.

She was also a Kirby vacuum cleaner saleswoman in New Jersey at one point in her life, although that fascinating detail will likely have no bearing on the doc’s core themes.

“It’s a film about the global struggle for free speech in the Internet age,” Ehrlich declared. “I hope to include Dan [Ellsberg] in the story, because it’s about the transition from the old paradigm to the new—the world of whistle-blowing and how it’s changed.”

Notes from the Underground
Gregg Araki’s Kaboom received the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 13th S.F. IndieFest. Other winners were Free Radicals (documentary), Mars (animated film), Bathing and the Single Girl (narrative short) and Burning Wigs of Sedition (music video). An anonymous donor bequeathed inaugural cash prizes of $1,000 to Shiva and Yoav Potash for Food Stamped and $500 to Christine Elise McCarthy for Bathing and the Single Girl. … Lynn Hershman Leeson’s !Women Art Revolution screens March 3 at MOMA in New York (with an intro by Gloria Steinem) and opens June 3 at IFC Center in New York. … Ray Telles’ The Storm That Swept Mexico (story here) finally has a national PBS airdate: May 15.

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