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by Ari Gunnar Thorsteinsson
February 13, 2014 12:46 PM
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Why You Need to Start Paying Attention to Icelandic Cinema

The scene in Iceland. Basil Tsiokos

The Gothenburg Film Festival – the largest of its kind in Scandinavia – has always had a special emphasis on the cinema created in the Nordic countries, with its main competition being exclusive to films from the region. This year the festival placed a further emphasis on the Nordic country with the smallest population: Iceland. Not only were there two films in competition, but the festival presented a repertory slate of Icelandic films from the past two decades, a concert featuring the band Hjaltalín, a seminar about the country’s filmmaking and a special Icelandic themed party. Furthermore, the festival has created a new honorary award to celebrate an important filmmaking voice from the North — and its first recipient was Baltasar Kormákur, director of such Icelandic language films such as  "101 Reykjavik," "The Deep" and "Jar City" — along with the Hollywood action films "Contraband" and "2 Guns."

The fact that Icelandic cinema exists at all is remarkable, given that the country only has around 320,000 inhabitants. The fact that it exists on a relatively large scale and on a level of quality that makes it worthy of celebration at such a large festival is a staggering achievement. This triumph was crystallized throughout the festival, but another key aspect became increasingly clear as well: that Iceland’s cinema has arrived at a major crossroads where its future has become increasingly difficult to predict.

Like the other Nordic countries, Iceland's film industry has relied on government support and has done so since the start of the country's film fund in 1979. But ever since the 2008 market crash left Iceland's economy in ruins, the industry has seen further and further reductions to the amount given out to the film industry.

During a seminar at the festival, veteran director Friðrik Þór Friðriksson (who directed the Oscar nominated 1991 feature "Children of Nature," among others) pointed out that for the 30 years that Icelandic cinema has existed, things have gotten worse and worse for filmmakers in the region — with the premium ticket price placed on Icelandic films becoming lower and lower and the distributors getting a bigger and bigger part of the cut, not to mention the fact that for the second time in four years the film fund has been cut by 40%.

Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson in "Of Horses and Men."

Benedikt Erlingsson, whose film "Of Horses and Men" won both the festival’s audience and the FIPRECI award, and was produced by noted filmmaker Friðrik Þór, made a similar observation in even blunter terms during the same panel. “The bottom line is that Icelandic filmmaking is a disaster," he said. "We are in a cultural civil war and value fight and perhaps that’s what we’ll always be in.”

Erlingsson said that fund-raising is the biggest challenge for a lot of young Icelandic director. "It’s a Catch-22 for first-time filmmakers, because no one wants to give you anything because you haven’t done anything," he explained. "It’s a trap you have to get yourself through. It's extremely difficult to get financing when every bank in the country is bankrupt. And if you tried to get wealthy people to invest in a risky proposition like filmmaking, you ran into the fact that at the time every wealthy person in Iceland was a criminal."

These sort of government austerity measures might make sense at first, given the fact that even if not every Icelandic film released ends up being a financial success. But government funding has historically been a secure investment, resulting in both job creation and development of talent — which, along with the tax breaks offered by the government to foreign filmmakers, has created a landscape where films such as "Prometheus,” “Oblivion," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," HBO’s "Game of Thrones” as well as the upcoming “Noah" and “Interstellar” have shot significant parts of their films in the country, along with smaller productions such as the recent Sundance hit "Land Ho!"

The decreased funding offered by the government bas been estimated to cause the loss of around 200 jobs – a significant amount in such a small industry — which has most likely encouraged professionals in the industry to flee the island, making the infrastructure for Hollywood productions considerably less appealing.

Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur.

When Indiewire spoke to Baltasar Kormákur – taking the weekend off from shooting his next feature, "Everest" starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin – he reflected on how his career has changed since he became more successful. "I wouldn’t have been able to make my first films in Iceland without support, and without those films I wouldn’t have been able to work outside of Iceland," he said. "Now I'm in a position where I can bring revenue into the country, like when I'll shoot my Viking film in Iceland." He added that he intended to shoot "Everest" in the country as well but ran into several hurdles. "The government isn’t up to speed in these matters," he said. "I’d be bringing billions of krónur – and I’m just one artist."

But it's hard to focus exclusively on the negative aspects of the situation when a festival like GIFF decides to honor the films created in this environment. Both of the Icelandic competition titles, the previously mentioned "Of Horses and Men" and Ragnar Bragason’s metal scored family drama "Metalhead" betray their low budget roots through their unique narratives, strong performances and often visually stunning photography – sometimes, but not exclusively — thanks to the landscape the country offers.

"What we essentially need from the government is some sort of vision for the future," Kormákur said. "We can’t keep working in a climate where every time a new government gets elected they cut the funding, then add some funding only to get it cut again." The director pointed out that his own productions have been relatively frugal. "The amount of money they’ve spent on my films is so small compared to the potential they represent," he explained. "Just look at what Peter Jackson has done for New Zealand. This isn’t some utopian vision I have – the possibility is right at our door."

But if Iceland doesn’t end up as a major player in the filmmaking landscape, one thing is for sure: The batting average of the films made there is incredibly high. Almost every film made — whether it's a short, documentary or feature — ends up playing at an international film festival.

But even if the films receive attention and awards outside of the country, Erlingsson argued that it's important not to make the films exclusively for foreign audiences. "Culture is in essence something we do for each other — entertaining and educating each other," he said. "It's not made to show somebody else. It's for us. The image we get from the media is that nothing has any value unless it's been honored somewhere abroad."

Recent Icelandic films that have received a high volume of international attention, such as “Of Horses and Men,” "The Deep" and “Either Way” (recently  remade as "Prince Avalanche") either tell extremely idiosyncratic or uniquely Icelandic stories, which indicates that increased specificity actually ends up paying off. Working in such an unstable environment, where filmmakers can’t plan ahead with any amount of certainty, is clearly not a tenable option — neither for the creation of art or the growth of a business — but the upside is the fact that the tenacity of these filmmakers seems to be paying off.

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