Journey to Utopia

Yikes!

Ok. Well. My takeaway from that was probably not the one the director intended. Journey to Utopia is about a Norwegian family moving to live in a self-sustaining climate-neutral community in Denmark. I however felt like the story of the film was about a domineering and emotionally manipulative person who buys into what is clearly a scam, and moves her family to live in a cult-like environment. For me this film was just red flags, red flags, red flags.

It starts on the director’s family farm in Norway. The trees are green, the soft rolling hills, the carved wooden homes with grass growing on the roof. And then he announces they are moving to a utopian community. And I’m like, “Wait, so this isn’t it?” What more could you ask for than living on your family farm, nature’s splendour all around you?

Apparently not. This isn’t good enough for his wife, Ingeborg, who has unilaterally decided that their carbon footprint is too large, and has invested in a start-up, self-sustaining community. Red flags everywhere. The community is called Permatopia. A siren. And so far all that exists of it is an artist’s impression on the pamphlet. A klaxon, a def-con 1 sign, and in the background, cannons.

There are ways to be concerned about the climate crisis, and there are ways. If you listen to people actually affected by climate change, in movies like The Ants and the Grasshopper, or The Last Forest, there is an urgency yes, but not the frantic panic-stirring in the way Ingeborg talks. She sounds like someone in the Cold War convinced the nukes are going to drop any moment and is desperate to build a fallout shelter. These people, in my experience, tend to have recently been in touch with fallout shelter salesmen.

When the director, Erland, expresses doubts about moving to a community lifestyle radically different from their current one, one which is not yet built, and taking 3 children in tow, Ingeborg shuts him down by saying he’s too indecisive so she’s had to make the decision on her own. Which is a really good way of making yourself out to be the victim for totally domineering crucial choices about the family’s future. Red flags, Erland.

He is a director and she is an opera singer. They’re well-to-do middle-class. Ingeborg insists that, because they both travel by plane for work, they owe it to the planet to reduce their carbon footprint. But not in some general way, only in this specific way that she’s decided for all of them.

They pack up their life and move to Denmark, and don’t you know it? You’ll never guess! The self-sustaining community isn’t built yet. Shocker, I know. Bet you never saw that coming. Not from the first moment you heard the name Permatopia.

Now, here’s the good thing about growing up broke working class. There are almost no upsides, but one did occur to me watching this. When there is no money, you have to prioritise. And in this situation, what is your priority as a parent? Keeping a roof over your kids’ heads. So you would immediately move back to your old place, if you could, and demand your money back off the Permatopia folk, preferably through a lawyer if you can afford one, or through a big fella if you can’t.

They are in temporary accommodation in Denmark for TWO YEARS. I was amazed when I realised they still hadn’t sold the farm in Norway, that they could have gone home that whole time and saved 2 years of rent. That’s insane.

No, Ingeborg insists that Permatopia will be finished any day now. Despite a total lack of even beginning. And berates her husband for making out like this is only her dream, when he wants to live sustainability too. Which again, acts like the person making all the decisions is the victim, and that any suggestion of a solution which doesn’t buy into total devotion to the vision of this new cult lifestyle is cowardice and selfishness. Guilt and shame is Ingeborg consistent tool of silence. Every time they meet with another delay, or Erland dares to point out the emperor has no clothes, she reminds him of how comfortable they are, how many people have it much worse, and how they don’t deserve to feel miserable. Run mate, run.

So skip forward 2 years and it’s moving day. They pack up their life once again and drive up to their new home and … it’s a building site. There’s folk still drilling and banging away in the upstairs. Outside is diggers and overturned muck. They’re not in the door 5 minutes before they and their neighbours notice absolutely nothing’s been done right. The filler’s not set, there’s no ventilation in the roofs, there’s no power, no hot water, no light fillings, the floor’s uneven and drifting, the list goes on and on.

And so the second part of the nightmare begins. Erland, a bit of a introvert, finds the new community with its mandatory participation sessions, collective meals, and the panopticon design of the houses suffocating. He’s moved away from the home where his father lived and died, where his mother still is. He’s doing this all in a second language, Danish, which is progressing painfully slowly. And when he expresses his struggles to his wife, she immediately brings up refugees out of nowhere. LEAVE THIS WOMAN.

Watching Erland internalise everything his partner is saying is just painful to watch. He starts hiding behind his sofa for some privacy and talking to the camera about how anti-social he is, how it’s a selfish trait, how lazy he is for not wanting to spend more time on communal work than what is mandatorily required. He is indecisive because he doesn’t think this has been a good decision to move here, but he doesn’t want the earth to become uninhabitable for the next generation, and those are two perfectly equatable things, and the only two options.

The only hero in this is his sullen teenage daughter Aslaug. She manages to keep enough detachment from her parents’ toing and froing to actually make her own decisions about what she thinks of Permatopia. That must take some force of personality, given how her mother is determined to bend the family to her will over the course of several years. Aslaug thinks the whole thing has obviously been a disastrous scam, but has nonetheless turned out for the best, as their neighbours have really banded together to make the place fulfil their dreams. It hasn’t worked because it was the right decision. It’s worked because people co-operated together to make it work. And although she is an introvert like her father, she finds her own way to be in this new place, standing in the fields with her earpods in, singing to herself. Heavy identify pal.

So in conclusion, this film is barely about climate change, not really. It’s about social panic and projection of idealised self-image. It’s about middle-class project making. It’s about how old ideas and well-worn scams are taking hold in the new green economy. And it’s about a man who really needs to leave his wife, because she reads like an emotional abuser’s checklist.