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A Niche Destination Fest in the Making: Reykjavik Shorts&Docs Festival

A Niche Destination Fest in the Making: Reykjavik Shorts&Docs Festival

The eleventh edition of the Reykjavik Shorts&Docs Festival came to an end last night after eight days spent presenting nearly 90 films in Iceland’s capital. Though one year older than September’s Reykjavik International Film Festival, Shorts&Docs is a decidedly smaller affair, and, until recently, one that catered almost exclusively to local audiences. Things started to change last year, the first edition under Festival Director Heather Millard. Millard, a transplant to Iceland from the UK, is a documentary and factual producer and sales agent who came to Iceland four years ago to produce a project and ended up staying. 

With extensive experience within the larger international film world, regularly attending festivals and markets, Millard saw the possibility of contributing to Iceland’s film culture and helping it make more of an impact internationally. She specifically noted that Icelandic documentary filmmakers seemed to be largely thinking locally, both in their approach to filmmaking and in the reach of their work. Millard felt getting this work exposure to the larger international film industry could be productive to Icelandic filmmakers’ professional development and to the growth of the local film industry as a whole. At the same time, given the lack of venues for documentaries and shorts to screen within Iceland – downtown Reykjavik has just one cinema dedicated to arthouse films, for example – she saw the possibility of exposing Icelandic audiences to a broader range of international work.

Shorts&Docs, which had already been going on for nine years, had seen about as many different directors and directions in that time, constantly shifting dates and not drawing any kind of international guest presence. Stepping into the organizing role, Millard spent time rebranding the event and trying to increase awareness both within Reykjavik and outside of it, and succeeded in drawing some international attendees in 2012, like British director Kim Longinotto, who held a masterclass. Longinotto had such a positive experience that she returned this year with her most recent documentary feature, “Salma,” while also leading another masterclass about her body of work (some insights from her talk are included below).

Millard views the festival, and her stewardship, as a work in progress. Lessons learned from 2012’s event included the awareness that it was perhaps too short, with audiences cottoning to the four-day festival just as it was wrapping up. In addition, its placement during student exams meant that few university students attended. As a result, this year’s event expanded to eight days, and the fest’s dates were shifted to fall after the end of university exams, with the hope that attendance would pick up during its second half. Audience size varied at screenings attended during the first several days of the festival – the opening night film, “Mission to Lars,” had a healthy turnout, while a couple of other selections didn’t fare quite as well. Some 2013 initiatives, like targeted panels and workshops for Icelandic filmmaking professionals, proved very successful this year, while others, like free outdoor screenings during a time of year with twenty hours of daylight, might need to be rethought.

What is notable for 2013 is that Millard’s larger connections within the film industry have allowed her to attract more international guests this year. In addition to a number of participating filmmakers like “Lars”‘ James Moore, “A World Not Ours”‘ Mahdi Fleifel, and “Fuck for Forest”‘s Michal Marczak, the event drew some international press, including Indiewire and Screen International, as well as other industry professionals who participated on panels or otherwise took the opportunity to come to Iceland. Millard doesn’t want the industry presence or the event to grow out of hand, as part of the appeal of a festival like this is its intimacy. In contrast to larger fests, Shorts&Docs’ size allows significantly greater hospitality, and the possibility for a summer camp-like bonding experience. Though by no means mandatory, most industry attendees elected to participate in a number of fest-organized excursions during the day, before screenings and panels – from whale watching expeditions to treks out to the otherworldly hot river springs, geysers, or the famed Blue Lagoon. Organizers also were generally on hand to propose casual group dinner or drink outings, giving participants a chance to get to know one another, and, importantly, to mitigate the sense of isolation that can sometimes result from trips to foreign cities.

Beyond Millard and her team’s enthusiasm, the greatest thing the festival has going for it is Iceland itself. Like other events set in exotic locales, Reykjavik Shorts&Docs has the potential to become a unique destination event for the doc and short film set. At the same time, RIFF, the larger Fall festival, which has traditionally been focused on narrative features, has started to beef up its documentary programming with the assistance of doc guru Peter Wintonick. That presents not only a challenge for the smaller, scrappier event but for doc makers too – the latter may pass on Shorts&Docs in May angling for RIFF in September, but end up without a slot at either, as there will be a whole new crop of films as the next May comes around. Millard notes she’d rather find ways to collaborate rather than compete with RIFF, but it remains to be seen how supportive the Icelandic film industry will be. While Icelandic filmmakers were present throughout the event, especially participating in the standing room only Longinotto masterclass and the similarly well-attended talk by “The Bengali Detective” producer Himesh Kar, other representatives of the local industry were notably absent. It’s unclear if that was a function of Shorts&Docs taking place at the same time as another Nordic film gathering, or a need for Millard and her event to prove themselves, but time will tell.

As noted above, one of the benefits of a smaller event is its intimacy, as well as the opportunities to access filmmakers more easily than at larger events. Acclaimed documentarian Kim Longinotto gave a masterclass to a standing room only audience largely consisting of local Icelandic filmmakers last weekend, offering insight into her working process through clips of her award-winning films. Among the highlights:

A documentarian’s camera can be instrumental in empowering typically weak subjects to speak their minds.

A big focus of Longinotto’s talk was the unexpected way that her presence has validated individuals, giving them the confidence to confront situations that they might otherwise never address. She demonstrated this via clips from two of her films, “Shinjuku Boys,” about Japanese women who adopt male identities and date women, and “The Day I Will Never Forget,” about female genital mutiliation. In the former, a main character’s meek girlfriend becomes unusually confrontational on camera, asking pointed questions that turn the tables on their typical dynamic. In a remarkable scene in the latter film, a young girl essentially directs Longinotto’s camera, revealing the lasting damage of her forced circumcision, and orchestrating a public, recorded promise from her mother to not circumsize her younger sister – something that would likely have been impossible without the filmmaker’s presence. While these scenes are not manufactured, they are enabled by the camera, bringing up some provocative questions around documentary’s role in not just recording but also influencing life.

She never has to convince someone to be in her film.

Longinotto usually has a very clear idea of what she wants to explore, and seeks out people who can facilitate that. With “Shinjuku,” she went to a bar and asked if anyone would be interested in participating, and her subjects came forward, intrigued by the filmmakers interest in the project, and the opportunity to have their stories told.

Leave the translator at home.

When filming subjects who speak a language she doesn’t understand, Longinotto prefers to not have a translator on hand, as that’s an extra person around to make situations feel unnatural and can lead to self-consciousness from her characters. Because they know Longinotto doesn’t understand them, they tend to forget the camera’s presence and become very candid. Translation comes later.

Don’t handle sound on your own.

Longinotto’s a firm believer in the importance of a sound recordist to capture the emotions of a scene and reactions from multiple subjects. She bemoaned the tendency for filmmakers today to try to do it all in one without a proper sound set up, noting that they’re less flexible and lose a lot in the process.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, Senior Programmer for DOC NYC, and a consultant to documentary filmmakers and festivals. Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).

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