Country Focus: Iceland
Iceland - International Film Guide Survey
No one’s lazy in Lazy Town, goes the Europop-y refrain of the vigorously surreal and immensely successful children’s television show of that name, produced entirely in Iceland. And that’s as apt a metaphor as any for 2008’s production slate from Reykjavik.
The year began with writer-director Baltasar Kormàkur’s much-anticipated follow-up to the global hit Jar City, White Night Wedding. And emotionally vigorous adaptation of Chekhov’s first play “Ivanov”, it tells of a brooding professor who must overcome the suicide of his first wife to marry a headstrong student. The film showcases the breathtaking scenery of the southwestern island of Flatey, as well as Kormákur’s nimble approach to storytelling. With five features as director and many more as actor and/or producer, is strengths place him in the same league as Fatih Akin or Alexander Payne as an astute judge of narrative impact.
First-time writer-director Valdis Óskarsdóttir’s mid-year release, Country Wedding, follows the comic misadventures of a bridal party that strikes out from Reykjavik in a pair of coaches for a rustic tying of the knot. ‘This is going to be a lot of fun’, says one of their number. Local audiences agreed.
Country Wedding was shot in a breakneck seven days with multiple cameras supervised by Slumdog Millionaire cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. An award-winning editor, Óskarsdóttir’s resume includes the lauded Dogme production The Celebration (Festen). Country Wedding is cut from the same cloth, though it’s funnier and far more resonant.
The third feature from lauded television director Óskar Jónasson, Reykjavik-Rotterdam is a sturdy, morally complex, blue-collar thriller starring Kormákur as an ex-con, average Joe who must leave his young family to run one final smuggling scam onboard a mammoth container ship. Co-scripted by Jónasson and prominent Icelandic crime novelist Arnaldur Indridason (on whose immensely popular novel ‘Jar City’ was based), the film opened strongly on seven screens in early October and is primed for high-profile festival exposure.
Alongside White Night Wedding’s seven end-of-year Edda Awards, including Best Film and Best Cinematography, Reykjavik-Rotterdam won in five categories, including Best Director and Best Screenplay. Tellingly, both films were produced by Kormákur Blueeyes Productions.
Hulda Rós Guonadóttir and Helga Rakel Rafnsdóttir’s end-of-an-era retail meditation Corner-shop won the feature documentary award, with Rúnar Rúnarsson’s emotionally brave coming of age drama 2 Birds taking short honours. Beyond those, Ari Alexander Ergis Magnusson and Bergstein Björgúlfsson’s At the Edge of the World is an unflinching look at the brutal practices at a mid-twentieth-century boys’ reformatory, while Grìmur Hákonarson’s short film Wrestling, about middle-aged athletes grappling with their mutual affection, has travelled to 19 international festivals, after winning the best-short Edda in 2007.
Combining documentary elements and sexual identity, The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela was the year’s most unclassifiable film. Executive produced by Kormákur and described as a ‘visiomentaire’ by director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson, this improvised scripted documentary profiles a Filipino transsexual ‘ladyboy’ who realizes her dream of visiting Paris via a working stint at an Icelandic fish factory (‘it’s freezing and Björk is from there’ represents the sum of her geographic knowledge). Dazzling assured, the film won the Best Feature Teddy at the Berlin Film Festival.
Rounding out the year’s feature roster: Sólveig Anspach’s whimsical, critically praised stoner comedy Black Soon, winner of a Variety award in Locarno and the Sevilla Film Festival’s main prize; the rural community comedy-drama Small Mountain, which plays like Kevin Smith’s Clerks; and Johannesson’s Queen Raquela follow-up, the more dramatically straightforward criminal-underworld comedy, The Higher Force. Though the global economic crisis has hit Iceland particularly hard, the local film business immediately found the cloud’s silver lining. ‘Shooting in Iceland is today an outstanding option’, film commissioner Einar Tomasson told trade paper Variety, ‘since our currency is so weak that producers are getting much more value for their money’.
And it’s true. Recent visitors from Hollywood included Brendan Fraser with Journey to the Center of the Earth, Clint Eastwood for Flags of Our Fathers and the big budget fantasy Stardust.
The future looks equally bright. Kormákur is finishing Inhale, which was shot in New Mexico an features playwright-iconoclast Sam Shepard. Also in English is The Good Heart, from Noi Albinoi director Dagur Kári, co-starring Cox and Paul Dano. And on the genre front, Júlíus Kemp’s Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre leaves little doubt as to its intentions.
With a nod to Iceland’s recent film history, the traditional honorary Edda Award went to Fridrik Thór Fridriksson, whose 1991 drama Children of Nature put Iceland on the movie world’s map. That Fridriksson is the executive producer of Reykjavik-Rotterdam and is finishing a documentary The Sunshine Boy, on the global reaction to autism, suggest that, less than twenty years later, in Reykjavik, laziness is the last thing that can be said about the Icelandic cinema.
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