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FESTIVAL DISPATCH: Intimate and a “Best Kept Secret” — Reykjavik Honors “Grbavica” and “Overcome”

FESTIVAL DISPATCH: Intimate and a "Best Kept Secret" -- Reykjavik Honors "Grbavica" and "Overcome"

Last year, I traveled to the Reykjavik International Film Festival and felt lucky to have discovered an intimate festival whose organizers took great care in both curating an eclectic mix of mostly European and some North American-oriented fare, while they also pay close attention to facilitating a cozy camaraderie among the invited filmmakers and guests. This year, I again had the privilege to travel to the world’s northernmost capital for the latest addition of the festival, which took place September 28th – October 8th, and again was not disappointed.

RIFF has a few inherently positive things in its favor. While Iceland’s population of about 300,000 swells by about that much every year with visitors, still many people have not had the opportunity to visit the country. Along with its very positive early track record, perhaps that is one reason the festival has been able to attract notable filmmakers, such as Canada’s Atom Egoyan (who received the festival’s “Creative Excellency Award” at an informal event hosted by Iceland’s president no less), Russia’s Aleksandr Sokurov (Lifetime Achievement Award), and Serbia’s Goran Paskaljevic, who was this year’s “Spotlight” subject at RIFF. This in addition to Iceland’s own filmmakers Dagur Kari (“Noi Albinoi“) and Baltasar Kormakur (“101 Reykjavik“), who were just as likely to attend an official festival dinner as they were to share a beer with filmmakers at one of Reykjavik’s many late-night — and sometimes wonderfully rowdy — bars.

[iPOP photos from this year’s festival are available here at indieWIRE.com and additional images will be published in the coming days.]

“People come here to see films that are not in many festivals since the profile is on ‘new and progressive cinema,’ this is a forward thinking [event],” commented RIFF’s festival director Hronn Marinosdottir in comments to indieWIRE following the fest’s conclusion. “Reykjavik is between the two continents and that is a big plus, and, of course, Reykjavik is a small city, so we have [the opportunity] to [create] a friendly and warm atmosphere where the emphasis is people meeting and exchanging ideas. There are no ‘bodyguards’ or limits here.” Marinosdottir’s comments hint at the other big plus for filmmakers attending RIFF… its audience.

While Iceland has one of the most progressive and well-educated populaces in the world (it boasts among other things, the highest proportion of published authors in the world) its relative size means that for most of the year, the country is fed a mostly Hollywood blockbuster-oriented diet of film. “Given the irresistible attraction of Iceland with its unique character and striking beauty, I envision the Reykjavik Film Festival as the upcoming ‘cult’ European film event,” RIFF’s programming director Dimitri Eipides, told iW. In essence, Iceland is starved for different voices in cinema, and turns out with enthusiasm during the event.

After landing in Reykjavik from New York (without sleep) early in the morning, I was treated to perhaps another aspect of how the festival may extend its ‘cult’ following among filmmakers — a dramatic day-trip into Iceland’s own natural dramatic splendor, its countryside. Situated right smack between two continental plates that are slowly separating right in the middle of the Atlantic (and I mean physically, not politically), Iceland’s surface is rife with evidence of this geographical rift with geothermal activity and volcanoes galore (not to mention glaciers and waterfalls). RIFF hosted the day trip, which included horseback riding, for its mostly foreign guests — and not a bad backdrop in which to bond with filmmaking colleagues.

Iceland itself is also a star of the Reykjavik International Film Festival. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

RIFF hosted a regal opening with Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” and the fest screened fourteen titles in its New Visions competition section (the entire fest had about 80 titles), ranging from John Cameron Mitchell‘s “Shortbus” to Romanian Corneliu Porumboiu‘s “12:08 East of Bucharest,” as well as So Young Kim‘s “In Between Days” (U.S. Canada/South Korea), Laurie Collyer‘s “Sherrybaby” (U.S.), Gyorgy Palfi‘s “Taxidermia” (Hungary), Jesper Gastlandt‘s “Falkenberg Farewell” (Sweden), as well as Hans Steinbichler‘s “Winter Journey” (Germany). But, Jasmila Zbanic‘s “Grbavica” (Bosnia-Herzegovina) won the fest’s Discovery of the Year prize in the section. The coming-of-age story is set after the war in Sarajevo about a girl, who has been lead to believe her father fell a hero’s death during the war in the Balkans, but later must face a painful truth about the past.

Also taking a nod was Danish director Niels Arden Oplev‘s “Drommen” (We Shall Overcome), which took the audience award. Set in 1969, the film centers on a thirteen year-old Frits who takes on his tyrannical headmaster who takes inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr. in offering resistance. “Red Road” by Andrea Arnold took the festival’s FIPRESCI award. The Cannes ’06 award-winner is about a woman working for a surveillance firm in Glasgow who happens to see an ex-con via CCTV and decides to seduce him sexually “with a certain aim in mind.” Finally, German director Chris Kraus won RIFF’s ‘Church of Iceland Award’ (Lutheran) which recognizes a film that deals with “existential questions.” The film, which had its European premiere at RIFF, is about a young woman in prison for manslaughter, who meets an elderly piano teacher who recognizes her talents. Their relationship grows, and suppressed memories from the past then begin to surface.

While RIFF, in its third year, remains intimate, its net was cast a bit wider this year — unlike last year, I was not the only American attending, and the number of guests generally increased. While the festival has not yet attracted much in the way of an industry frenzy, it continues to be a casual filmmaker and audience-friendly event perhaps in the vein of a Telluride or Maui — or a more northerly in between.

[Brian Brooks’ previous dispatch from the Reykjavik International Film Festival was published last week in indieWIRE.]

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