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Amidst Economic Crisis, The Reykjavik Film Festival Pushes Forward, Breaking Attendance Records Along The Way

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 9, 2012 at 9:24AM

The Reykjavik International Film Festival turned nine years old last week in Iceland's capital city, screening 142 films to record attendance.
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Susanne Bier and Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson
RIFF Susanne Bier and Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

The Reykjavik International Film Festival turned nine years old last week in Iceland's capital city, screening 142 films to record attendance.

"We started with just 18 films," festival director Hrönn Marinósdóttir said of the festival's first edition nine year ago. "We did not have very good attendance in that first year, and many people told us this is just not going to work out. They said it just wasn't possible to make an international film industry event in Iceland where we screened films from all over the world."

One of the founders of the festival, Marinósdóttir and her team moved forward anyway, utilizing the festival's unique position as more of a grassroots organization than an instiution.

"It wasn't founded by the government of Iceland or anything like that," she said. "It's just a group of film enthusiasts who started the whole thing. So we had a lot of freedom."

One of the initatives that came with that freedom was a devotion to new filmmakers.

"That was the character of the festival in the beginning, to screen work from new voices doing innovative work," Marinósdóttir said. "So we spend a lot of time seeking out this work that suits the character of the festival. Which is also the character of the city of Reykjavik itself. I wanted to have an event that would harmonize that and be suitable for a city like Reykjavik, which is clearly very different than Cannes or Toronto or really anywhere else. So it was a lot of work in the beginning to shape it."

Bjork presents an award at the festival's award ceremony.
RIFF Bjork presents an award at the festival's award ceremony.

That works continues to this day, with the festival's main competition program focusing on 12  progressive, challenging films from new filmmakers around the world. This year's program included Sean Baker's "Starlet," Rufus Norris's "Broken," Stephan Schesch's "Moon Man," and Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which ended up winning the festival's top award, the Golden Puffin (at a lively ceremony featuring a surprise appearance by Icelandic icon Bjork).

And the innovative programming extended beyond a focus on new filmmakers. Where else can you watch "Back To The Future" in a giant Icelandic pool? Or Japanese music icon Damo Suzuki's Network perform live opposite a restored screening of "Metropolis"? Or have the President of Iceland invite a good hundred festival guests to his personal home for a feting of Susanne Bier? The Reykjavik International Film Festival.

"We created this event the way we wanted it to be," Marinósdóttir said. "That is the key to the so-called success of the festival."

The success doesn't need to be "so-called." This year, the festival broke attendance records, with many sell-out screenings -- seemingly filled in large part by Icelanders in their twenties -- and over 30,000 tickets sold overall (considering Reykjavik's population of 119,108, that's very impressive).

All of this comes amidst rough times for Iceland. The financial crisis that began in 2008 -- when all three of the country's major commercial banks collapsed -- is still ongoing. And Marinósdóttir said the effects have definitely been felt on the festival.

"When the crisis came, we lost the founding sponsors of the festival," she said. "We had a bank, an airline and an investment company which was actually a major player in the financial crisis. That company just collapsed. So we had to ask ourselves how we were going to keep going. Do we just quit with the festival? If not, how are we going to solve this problem?"

Marinósdóttir and her colleagues managed to find new companies in Iceland to become involved, though she admits they more often donated services instead of money. They also relied heavily on the enthusiasm of volunteers, with over 100 of them coming to the festival from all over the world.

Icelanders watch "Back To The Future" in a Reykjavik pool.
RIFF Icelanders watch "Back To The Future" in a Reykjavik pool.

"In the end we somehow managed to do it," Marinósdóttir said. "Even though I'm pretty sure the budget of this festival is much less than similar sized festivals in other countries. But what is also helping is that there are a lot of young people who really want this event to take place. Because they think it is important. It's still very grassroots, it's not an institution. In the long run, that has helped a lot. We have the freedom, and through that we've motivated a big group of people that felt that they were doing a very important thing by screening films from all over the world that had never been shown in Iceland before."

For a complete list of winners, continue to the next page.

Matthew Hammett Knott (writer of Indiewire's Heroines of Cinema column) accepting the Golden Egg for best short film.
RIFF Matthew Hammett Knott (writer of Indiewire's Heroines of Cinema column) accepting the Golden Egg for best short film.

Complete list of winners at the Reykjavik International Film Festival:

Golden Puffin. Awarded to a film from the section New Visions.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Dir. Benh Zeitlin
USA, 2012

On the jury: Geoffrey Gilmore, Cedomir Kolar and Erna Kettler.

FIPRESCI Critics’ Award.Awarded to a film from the section New Visions.
Starlet
Dir. Sean Baker
USA, 2012

On the jury: Carmen Gray, Christian Monggaard Christensen and Wieslaw Godzic.

The Church of Iceland Award.Awarded to a film from the section New Visions.
God’s Neighbours (Ha-Masgihim)
Dir. Meni Yaesh
Israel/France, 2012

On the jury: Rev. Árni Svanur Daníelsson, Grétar Halldór Gunnarsson and Rev. María Ágústsdóttir.          

Audience Award. Online vote in co-operation with mbl.is.
Queen of Montreuil
Dir. Sólveig Anspach
France, 2012

Environment Award. Awarded to a film in the section A Different Tomorrow
¡Vivan las Antipodas!
Dir. Viktor Kossakovsky
Germany, Argentina, Netherlands, Chile, 2011

On the jury: Árni Finsson, Helena Stefánsdóttir og Tinna Ottesen.

Best Icelandic Short. Awarded to a short in the section Icelandic Panorama.
Sailcloth
Dir. Elfar Aðalsteins
Iceland/UK, 2011.

On the jury: Dögg Mósesdóttir, Ísleifur Þórhallsson and Sæmundur Norðfjörð.

Golden Egg for best short film in RIFF’s Talent Lab.
On this Island
Dir. Matthew Hammett Knott (EDITOR'S CELEBRATORY NOTE: Knott is a contributor to Indiewire).
UK

On the jury: Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir and Örn Marinó Arnarson.

This article is related to: Reykjavik, Festival Strategy, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Starlet