During any given period, there are places in the world that are the en vogue places to visit. Prime Minister Tony Blair promoted “Cool Britannia” after his first election win in the late ’90s and every backpacker, it seemed, flocked to Prague several years earlier following the fall of communism, in order to be among the first Westerners to visit the Czech capital’s beautiful baroque architecture, squares and bridges. Today, one of those must-see places, for many anyway, is Iceland and its cooler than cool capital Reykjavik, site of the second annual Reykjavik International Film Festival, which took place September 29 – October 5 featuring 50 films from around the world.
While the festival is a young one, its organizers including director/founder Hronn Marinosdottir, programming director Heida Johannsdottir and general program advisor Dimitri Eipides (and their amazing staff) wasted no time in establishing the event on the festival map. Quite simply, in my humble opinion as a minor vet on the festival circuit, this event has instantly become one of my favorites. Of course the lure of Iceland and its eccentric beauty helps, but Reykjavik’s residents seem to have embraced the event, filling many of the fest’s screenings.
“[There has been] a lack of international cinema here in Reykjavik and Icelandic audiences have been starved for many years,” commented Marinosdottir in a conversation with indieWIRE about the festival and film distribution in Iceland in general. “The prevalent form of cinema in this country has been more geared toward Hollywood-style mainstream entertainment. [But] Reykjavik is an ideal place for an international film festival because of its accessibility and intimacy.” Marinosdottir, a former Icelandair flight attendant, had written a graduate thesis on “how to start a film festival” while attending university. After graduation, she organized the Reykjavik fest, which screened films over several days its first year. This year’s eleven-day event included input from veteran festival organizer Dimitri Eipides, who counts Toronto and Thessaloniki‘s fests among his programming credits. Eipides selected films for the fest’s New Visions program, which spotlighted “up-and-coming directors.” “The location of [Iceland], between America and Europe is a ‘sort of canal’ between the continents,” said Marinsdottir of the festival’s direction in its programming and philosophy.
Canada represented the North American programming very well this year thanks to the efforts of Cam Haynes who heads Film Circuit, part of the Toronto International Film Festival Group. Haynes traveled to Reykjavik along with filmmakers Velcrow Ripper (“ScaredSacred“), and Francois Prevost (“What Remains of Us“). Additionally, Canadian filmmaker Ellen Flanders attended the event with her film, “Zero Degrees of Separation,” and Stuart Samuels presented “Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream.”
“Iceland – everyone is so curious about the place, who couldn’t resist checking it out? The amount of creativity per square inch in that country is phenomenal. People think Bjork is a little odd, but actually she’s just a normal Icelandic, and the landscape is stunning, stark, volcanic and dramatic,” Ripper told indieWIRE, about his experience there. Ripper’s “ScaredSacred” documents his journey worldwide to the planet’s “Ground Zeroes,” including downtown Manhattan, war-torn Afghanistan, the minefields of Cambodia, the toxic wasteland of Bhopal and the Holy Land. His five-year journey captures the people who live in these hotspots’ determination to overcome fear and hatred. Ripper found a very receptive audience to his film, even selling out DVDs of the feature following one of his screenings. “The screenings were great, and even the master class I taught was packed.” The film is currently in theaters in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, and is slated for a U.S. theatrical roll out in January.
“Garcon Stupide” director Lionel Baier seemed to concur with Ripper’s sentiments. “I wanted to come to Iceland for a long time, so I took the opportunity [to attend the festival.] The people are friendly and the organization is good, and the audiences are very clever.” Baier’s film centers on a young gay Swiss man who fills the emotional voids of his turbulent sex life with dreams of self-betterment. “During the screenings, everybody [seemed] to concentrate on the film, I was very impressed by the questions about [my] filmmaking and even why I used music by Rachmaninov.” Unfortunately, Baier’s Iceland visit was short because he had to return to the continent to begin shooting his latest project in Poland. “It’s a road movie between Lausanne and Warsaw,” he revealed. “The film is the story of a brother and his sister who have Polish roots and travel there to find out the truth about their family.”
My informal poll of visiting filmmakers was positive across the board. “Zero Degrees of Separation” director Elle Flanders also gave a resounding review. “I thought it was a super fest, very well curated, good selection of films with some nice twists that made it not average run-of-the-mill festival fare. The audiences were terrific, and they are so hungry for non-commercial product, thus appreciative.” Flanders’ film documents the current Middle East conflict through the eyes of two mixed Palestinian and Israeli gay couples whose relationships are as complex as the volatile environment that surrounds them. “I do find European audiences so much more sophisticated, more appreciative, and [Icelandic audiences] fall into this category. I find U.S. audiences always want you to make films that ‘they’ are interested in.”
From well beyond the European shores of the Atlantic hailed RFF’s Honorary Guest, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who received a Lifetime Achievement Award from no less than the president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson at his official residence outside of Reykjavik. Two days earlier, RFF hosted an afternoon cocktail party at a gallery inside the funky building outside of the city housing the country’s main energy company (Iceland’s naturally heavy thermal activity provides it with cheap energy, once source of the nation’s very high standard of living). The party was in honor of Kiarostami’s photo project “The Roads,” a series of photographs he took in rural Iran. He also directed a short inspired by his photos, which had its European premiere at the festival. RFF also screened several Kiraostami films including “And Life Goes On…,” “Homework,” “Ten,” “Close Up,” and “Taste of Cherry,” in addition to films from other Iranian directors such as Hamid Rahmanian (“Daybreak“), Niki Karimi (“One Night“), Mohammad Rasoulof (“Iron Island“) and Kambuzia Partovi (“Border Cafe“).
Kiarostami joined fellow filmmakers and other guests on the first Saturday of the festival for a day trip, arranged by fest organizers, through Iceland’s countryside and to the picturesque village of Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsnes peninsula on the island nation’s western shore. Joining the journey was this year’s jury chief, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski whose delightful 2004 feature “My Summer of Love” screened during the festival. Unfortunately, the weather deteriorated and a planned sail to the outer islands had to be scrapped, but it was still a terrific opportunity to witness first-hand Iceland’s majestic terrain.
Sitting right smack in the middle of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, Iceland is literally being torn apart at the average rate of 2.5 centimeters per year as the North American and Eurasian plates separate. Together with the country’s 200 active and non-active volcanoes and nearly 800 hot springs, this earthly “movement” has created a devastatingly unique terrain, which has not been lost on filmmakers worldwide. Christopher Nolan‘s “Batman Begins” took advantage of the country’s geography, and television’s “The Amazing Race” made a stop in Iceland. Even John Huston‘s 1966 film, “The Bible” utilized the country’s unique land for its depictions of the beginning of the world.
Back in Reykjavik, the city’s pulsating nightlife outshines its natural environment. One festival attendee commented, “it’s like Mardi Gras every weekend.” Many filmmakers (and a journalist or two) participated in the city’s late-night debauch, but let’s just say – what happens in Reykjavik, stays in Reykjavik…
But all great things do end, and after 11 days (and nights) the festival announced its prizes. RFF’s Discovery of the Year award went to Romanian director Cristi Puiu‘s Cannes ’05 Un Certain Regard winner, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” The prize is given to directors for their first or second projects. Honorary mention went to Lucrecia Martel‘s “The Holy Girl.” The audience award went to Hayao Miyazaki‘s animation feature “Howl’s Moving Castle,” while the doc prize went to Icelandic director Olafur Johannesson‘s “Africa United.”