Films from Eastern Europe as well as the former Yugoslavia, including a spotlight on Serbian director Goran Paskaljevic ("The Optimists"), are some of the themes of this year's Reykjavik International Film Festival, currently underway in Iceland. The festival opened with Stephen Frears' critically acclaimed "The Queen," which screened in the Icelandic capital one night before its North American debut at the 44th New York Film Festival back in Manhattan, but American conflicts - both past and present - are also drawing the attention of audiences here.
Tribeca audience-winning doc "The Cats of Mirikitani" is the story of an elderly Japanese-American homeless man who lives in and around filmmaker Linda Hattendorf's Manhattan neighborhood of SoHo. The man, Jimmy Mirikitani, fashions himself a "grand master" artist, and paints colorful depictions of cats in addition to images from his painful past. Hattendorf captures scenes of Mirikitani's life on the streets as well as his painting, and later decides to invite him to stay with her following the 9/11 attacks. Slowly, Hattendorf learns of Mirikitani's painful incarceration in a prison camp following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which resulted in thousands of people of Japanese ancestry to lose their homes and livelihoods across the West Coast of the U.S. "I first thought of just doing [a more limited] piece because I had bought a cat painting from him," said Hattendorf following the screening. "Then 9/11 happened and I was concerned for him, and about his social security benefits (which Sacramento, CA-born Mirikitani did not receive) because those are things at risk in the U.S." The film, though specifically about one individual, gives context to post 9/11 America and the ever-present paranoia.
Though unfortunately not a theatrical success when released in the United States, Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' Berlinale '06 debut "The Road to Guantanamo" has received a very fair amount of traction in Reykjavik. The film is the story of the so-called "Tipton Three," which indieWIRE first reported on during the Berlin International Film Festival (and the movie is having its DVD release in the U.S. soon). It is about three British-born Muslims who traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan during the onset of the U.S. invasion to topple the Taliban. During the war in southern Afghanistan, the three were subsequently scooped up by American forces and imprisoned for two years at Guantanamo Bay.
Two of the three, Rhuhel Ahmed and Asif Iqbal are in Reykjavik in support of the film and, during a festival dinner with filmmakers and journalists prior to a fest Q & A, were forthcoming about how their experience has been while traveling the festival circuit (mostly in Europe because they are still not allowed to travel to the U.S.) over the past months. "Most people ask us the same questions," said the two between courses at an Italian restaurant in Reykjavik. "They ask, 'do you hate Americans?' 'What were you doing in Pakistan?' 'And what do you think about 9/11?'"
Minutes later, after walking over to the screening for the Q&A, indeed the first question from the packed house was, "Do you hate Americans?" And the response: "No we don't hate Americans. What happened to us was Bush and his administration, not the American people."
The stunned audience did seem to be in awe of the pair, and if this screening in particular was at all indicative of their experiences traveling to festivals, America is definitely on a very precarious path in trying to win the "hearts and minds" of not only people in the Middle East, but also within the U.S.'s traditional allies.
"Was the film accurate?" asked another audience member who seemed rather stunned at the portrayal of their imprisonment, which included scenes of mental and physical torture. "The film is 100% accurate to the reality," responded the two in their thick Birmingham, England accents. "The film shows the physical torture, [but] can't show what goes on inside your head." Both said their time in prison increased their faith in Islam, which sustained them mentally. "We weren't devout [prior to our capture]" the two admitted during the Q&A.
Despite the almost surreal accounts of their experience in Guantanamo, the pair casually spoke with indieWIRE about their travels with the film since its debut in Berlin. "We got to have dinner with Bono and Nick Nolte at the Sarajevo Film Festival," said a somewhiat star-struck Iqbal, while walking back to the festival dinner to catch dessert. "I couldn't believe it and when I returned to Birmingham and told friends, they [didn't believe me]."
Both Ahmed and Asif, along with over about two dozen RIFF filmmakers and other guests, including actor Brendan Fraser who is working on a new film in the country, were among the invitees Tuesday night at Bessastadir -- Iceland's White House -- for a reception honoring Candian filmmaker Atom Egoyan with the festival's Creative Excellency Award, presented by Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson. Before giving the award, Grimsson gave a stirring ten-minute speech (without notes) about the importance of the arts and culture to Iceland, as well as the country's openness, and recounted a recent visit by former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
"I pointed out to Giuliani that despite all the fears in the world that we assume people come here as friends unless proven otherwise," said Grimsson, who used the example of the presidential compound which does not have fences or any apparent security to speak of. "Unfortunately, some societies have changed to think that those who come are enemies unless proven otherwise." For his part, Egoyan, whose films "The Adjuster" (1991), "Exotica" (1994) and "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997) are screening at the festival as part of a retrospective, praised the president. "This is humbling because I've never heard a head of state make such a [fine] declaration for culture."
The Reykjavik International Film Festival continues through Sunday.
[indieWIRE will publish a second dispatch, including the festival winners from the Reykjavik International Film Festival, early next week.]