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A Very Brief History of Icelandic Film Making

A Very Brief History of Icelandic Film Making

Published June 9, 2009

The history of film making in Iceland only has an unbroken history going back to 1977, and the somewhat underrated Morðsaga. The subsequent period is often referred to as the “spring of Icelandic film making,” and in the early 80’s a slew of directors such as Ágúst Guðmundsson, Hrafn Gunnlaugsson and Þráinn Bertelsson emerged who were to map out an Icelandic approach to movie making.
In its first decade, Icelandic film making had a very local slant. Films such as Útlaginn (The Outlaw) and Hrafninn flýgur (Korpen flyger) found inspiration in the sagas, whereas as popular comedies such Nýtt líf and Með allt á hreinu had an Icelandic brand of humour indecipherable to most other people. In retrospect, it is surprising how these first films emerged almost fully formed from the brow of the Lady of the Mountain, managing to capture something of the national character, and how little they owed to Hollywood.
Apart from Sweden, whose population has a strange and, it seems, lasting love affair with Hrafninn flýgur, Iceland’s international film breakthrough came in 1991 with Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s Börn náttúrunnar (Children of Nature). That film was nominated for an Oscar, and Friðrik subsequently made the most expensive film in Icelandic history at the time, Djöflaeyjan (Devil’s Island). Its leading actor, Baltasar Kormákur, later went on to international film success with movies such as 101 Reykjavik and Mýrin (Jar City).
While Icelandic films have become ever more international in scope and audience, they have arguably lost some of their “Icelandicness.” In the 90s, some comedies aimed mainly at the domestic market, such as Sódóma Reykjavík and Íslenski draumurinn, were still being made.  Lately, it seems as if most films here have at least one major non-Icelandic character and some shots of nature coupled with scenes from the Reykjavík nightlife to appeal to the tourist market. Many of the bigger recent films were co-sponsored by the banks, so what effect the banking crisis will have on local film making remains to be seen. Some of the younger directors, such as Grímur Hákonarson, with his shorts about haunted Morgunblaðið editors and gay wrestlers, seem to mark a return to the more traditional Icelandic oddball humour.
For those who want to learn more about Icelandic movies, the current exhibition in Þjóðmenningarhús [Culture House] is a good place to start. Although spring came late to Icelandic filmmaking as, indeed, it usually does here, it does have a history going back almost a century. In addition to the exhibit, many of the films can be viewed on screen with aids such as headphones and subtitles. The exhibit is arranged by a couple of Germans, Sabine Schirdewahn and Matthias Wagner K. But do they get Icelandic humour? Grapevine asked Sabine what her take is.
Take 1.
How did you decide which movies to include in the exhibition?

The exhibition includes two levels: on the Film-Islands visitors are able to select from approximately 100 films in full length via touch screen from genres such as feature film, short film, documentaries and adaptations of novels. The other level visualizes the chronology of Icelandic film history through 10 screens, each showing 3–4 selected clippings (between 2–5 minuets) in a loop. The chronology enables – not only – to take a time journey through Icelandic film, but also to discover something about the development of the nation.
Regarding the chronology we decided on an exemplary selection of films, respectively on film clippings, that appeared to us as non-Icelanders as characteristic for the distinctiveness of Icelandic film industry, the historical development of film in Iceland from 1904 until today, and catching the vibes and the content of films that can be viewed in full length – thus causing curiosity.
Take 2.  
In some ways Icelanders have a different opinion of their film heritage than the outsider does. Films such as Með allt á hreinu, Sódóma Reykjavík and Nýtt líf are cherished by Icelanders, but don’t seem to translate too well. Others, such as Hrafninn flýgur and even Börn náttúrunnar, are held in high esteem abroad but haven’t found their way as directly to Icelandic hearts. Do you have any opinion on this? Is Icelandic humour difficult to translate?

Humour that extends the line of slapstick is generally difficult to translate for it is based on collective knowledge and includes oral as well as visual codes oriented in the respective nation. The drama on the other hand has a universal coding/language. Everybody can imagine how horrible it is to loose a child or when the big love fails. The success of films like Börn náttúrunnar and Hrafninn flýgur abroad could maybe be explained in the way that they satisfy an existing image and myth of Iceland abroad and at the same time deduct a transfiguration with Hollywood. One is – and was – fascinated by a “realistic” picture of the history and a likewise “realistic” setting. In the same way, one is impressed by the Icelandic landscapes in the story told in Börn náttúrunnar – with outstanding actors – that has closeness to the myth of a melancholy Icelander. The Icelanders were probably also simply moved by other themes in the years 1980/90 when these films were produced: after years of poverty nobody wanted to look back on old times and perhaps loss the of traditions that came – and comes – along in the progress of new prosperity. The focus was more on the present and participation in an upcoming, modern Iceland.
Take 3. What are your next projects? Any chance of having a fulltime Icelandic Film Museum somewhere?
Matthias Wagner K. was appointed curator for the art and culture programme on the occasion of Iceland being guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011. Among other categories, the Icelandic film and consequently this exhibition will play a big role in that relation. I find it important to expand the exhibition and include a portrait of Icelandic film directors and actors. This exhibition would doubtless be adequate to constitute a separate film museum. But one could also imagine this exhibition as a permanent exhibition – as to say in the National Museum. For now the point of this exhibition is to awaken interest in Icelandic film industry abroad and maybe to contribute to an ideal and financial support among friends and sponsors of Icelandic film in the future – in Iceland and abroad. On the first stops of the exhibition – in Berlin and Copenhagen – the interest was gigantic and visitors were surprised, well, touched, by the depth and quality, by the narrative style of the directors and the splendidness of Icelandic actors. Some visitors regretted the absence of a purchasable DVD – this will hopefully be mended in 2011.



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