The vastly underrated Icelandic film scene is flourishing. But will it be destroyed by its own government?
From Björk to FM Belfast, via the likes of múm and Sigur Rós, Iceland has produced more artists that have sparked the interest of UK audiences than its population of 320,000 should allow. Björk and Sigur Rós have transcended cultures to gain a huge international audience. Their success can be credited, in part, to the creativity that permeates the Icelandic psyche – the nation, for example, is long established as one of the world’s highest book publisher per capita. Although a less immediate than music, the novels of Halldór Laxness and Arnaldur Indridason are widely accessible internationally.
All of which poses the question; why has Icelandic film never made a similar breakthrough?
Just four features are readily available in the UK on DVD, all of which earned critical acclaim. Most recently was Baltasar Kormákur’s adaptation of Indridason’s novel Jar City. Although this grisly, cerebral murder mystery was never going to replicate its overwhelming homeland success where it was seen by over a third of the population, it performed credibly at the box office. Kormákur’s debut, 101 Reykjavik, contributed to the country’s then emerging status as a hip tourist destination – a situation assisted by the famous Reykjavik nightlife depicted in the film, which centred on Kaffibarinn, a bar supposedly co-owned by Kormákur and Icelandophile Damon Albarn.
Of the others, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Cold Fever, the follow-up to his Oscar nominated Children Of Nature, touched upon various tourist clichés (the geothermal spa The Blue Lagoon, the surprisingly palatable spirit Brennivín) while remaining, to outsiders at least, enchanting. By contrast, Dagur Kári’s study of troubled teenager Nói Albínói was an engrossing tale that focused on Iceland’s darker side.
Journalist Ásgrímur Sverrisson founded English language film industry website www.icelandcinemanow.com last year, with the dual aims of promoting Icelandic cinema abroad and to service an increasing international demand for information. He believes that there’s a misconception that anything interesting can happen in such a small country. But, he says, there’s scope for progression: “The general British mentality is not that far from the Nordic one, and the Icelandic one in particular. We both appreciate black humour with a dash of melancholia and pessimism thrown in.”
Director Einar Thor’s latest film, Small Mountain, differs from the common trait of placing leftfield characters in unusual circumstances and as a result is one of Iceland’s most accessible films. Formerly a long-term UK resident, he agrees that the two nationalities share a sense of humour. He points to a lack of infrastructure between the two nation’s industries, but shares the view that Icelandic cinema can win a wider audience: “If we manage to learn from past political mistakes, the new generation will generate a fresh and imaginative voice. I feel that sort of stuff is always appreciated by international audiences.”
Recent years have seen the quiet ascension of Icelandic film. Ragnar Bragason’s sitcom Nightshift (Næturvaktin, think somewhere between Peep Show and The Office) snowballed into a further two hit television series as well as the movie Mr. Bjarnfredarson, which knocked Avatar from the top of the local box office.
“I think the main reason for its success is the characters and how strongly people relate to them,” says Bragason. “If you combined the three flawed main characters, you would have one typical Icelandic male.”
A remake, courtesy of the company behind the American adaptation of The Office, is already in the works (Bragason won’t be involved: “I did my ‘Shifts’ in Iceland”). It’s not alone. An interpretation of Jar City will be set in Louisiana, while Kormákur is set to direct Mark Wahlberg in a remake of Reykjavik-Rotterdam.
“I think for the original it is a win-win situation. It gives the original more attention and might help it to reach more people,” explains Kormákur, who also has his second English-language film Inhale, starring Diane Kruger, due out soon. “It also helps the company that produced the original and allows them to make more films in their native country.” As evidence, he points to the success of Scorsese’s The Departed and even the less acclaimed Vanilla Sky remake.
Also key to the resurgence is the upcoming UK release of Iceland’s first horror, Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre, that stars Gunnar Hansen, Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s original Leatherface. Primarily in English, director Julius Kemp had always hoped to sell it abroad as it’s near impossible for films to recoup domestically.
“We finished shooting a week before the Icelandic banking system collapsed, which was pure luck. If the currency devalues, then the grants and investments we receive from abroad will be more valuable to us. And sales abroad are worth more too.”
Further evidence comes with Valdis Oskarsdottir’s upcoming film King’s Road (Kongavegur). While it’s common to filmmakers to use Iceland as a location, it’s rare for international talent to appear in the nation’s features. Oskarsdottir, who won a BAFTA for her work on Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, describes the film as being, “about fucked up people in a fucked up place.” Its cast includes Daniel Brühl, best known for roles in Inglourious Basterds and The Bourne Ultimatum.
A factor that could also prove vital in the long term is the use of the Internet. Olaf de Fleur offers his genre-bending semi-documentaries available to stream or buy direct through www.poppoli.com. Although crediting his existing co-distributors, he’s looking towards the future.
“The distribution system is changing so quickly. A part of the power has left the old structure and disappeared into the Internet, which is still extremely vague. I believe that working with a distributor is essential, but they can’t have all the power they used to have.” The success of his web TV series www.circledrawers.com, featuring The Sopranos’ Steve Schirripa, indicates the Internet’s growing importance for local talent.
It seems bizarre that a cinematic resurgence could coincide with Iceland’s recent economic woes. As Dagur Kári, who recently launched his new movie The Good Heart with internationally recognisable talent including Paul Dano and Brian Cox, explains, “It takes a while for an economic crisis to really kick in and many of these films were started when Iceland was still rich.”
The New Challenge
“The year we reached the goal of being a small industry it all came crashing down,” states Bragason of the Icelandic government’s proposal to cut 23% of film funding from the 2010 budget. “The small and fragile industry was slaughtered.”
Of course, arts funding is inevitable in such a situation as Iceland’s, yet the filmmakers share a frustration that their industry is hit so hard when other arts funds are to be cut by an average of four percent.
“To me the stupidity of this act is beyond belief and makes no sense whatsoever. Not even in economical terms, because for every cent that is put into Icelandic film, at least three cents will enter the country in terms of foreign currency,” argues Kári. “In times of crisis it is of extreme importance that people can mirror themselves in art, and to butcher the film industry, while other and arguably less effective art forms are left more or less untouched, is obviously very hard to believe.”
Sverrisson poses more questions: “How will the funds be managed? What kind of projects will be made? Will there be an emphasis on films that mainly appeal to the local audience, or are we gonna continue to make films which will have international exposure?”
“The film community needs to investigate what their unions have been doing and what kind of strategy was followed in promoting their craft within the government,” says Thor, the only contributor to this article to offer such a viewpoint. “The cut was anticipated. It was clear by the end of 2008 it would happen although it unclear how big the cut would be, it was obvious a tough lobbyism was essential. But the industry wasn’t ready for it. I’m not too enthusiastic about participating in blaming the government for everything.”
A residue of optimism remains. “We are few and very dynamic so in bad times we are quick to adjust, react and turn the situation to our advantage,” offers Kemp. Kári concurs: “Nothing can kill creative power and usually hard times work only as an incentive to creativity. Hopefully what will be lost in quantity will be compensated for in quality.”
Words by Ben Hopkins
Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre will be released in the UK in the summer. Full Q&As from each contributor will run throughout February at icelandonscreen.wordpress.com.