It’s interesting to note that despite most of them studying abroad, Icelandic film directors almost universally come home to start their careers. This was true of the men of the “Icelandic Film Spring” in the 1980s, so titled as it was a belated beginning to homegrown cinema in the country. Many of the directors of that time had studied in Sweden and some in London, and yet decided to come home to take part in a movie industry that hardly existed.
Even if Icelandic filmmaking has grown, it is still miniscule compared to neighbouring countries. A director such as Dagur Kári graduated from the Danish Film Academy in 1999 with his short film ‘Lost Weekend,’ which went on to win 11 prizes on the festival circuit. Yet he came home to direct his first feature ‘Nói Albínói,’ before returning to Denmark to make the Danish language ‘Voksne Mennesker’ (‘Dark Horse’).
Director Hlynur Pálmason has had a similar start, but decided to stay put in Iceland. For now. Born in Hornafjörður in the southeast of Iceland in 1984, he graduated from the Danish Film Academy (where Dagur Kári was by then teaching) at the age of 29. His graduation work, ‘En Maler’ (‘A Painter’) starred Dane Elliot Crosset Hove but also featured Icelandic legend Ingvar E. Sigurðsson. His first feature, ‘Vintrebrödre’ (‘Winter Brothers’) is a primarily Danish affair, featuring Hove again as a dead-end miner in a dead-end town. And it has started to win a bunch of awards.
Mining films may be a small niche, although we did get ‘The 33’ a couple of years ago, about Chilean miners stuck in a shaft for two months. That one may have been a real life story, but this one feels far more claustrophobic.
In fact, it is the mining scenes that impress the most. The cinematography is astounding. But when we get back to the surface, things aren’t quite so exciting. Hove is suitably hopeless-looking as the mining lifer and moonshine salesman, constantly in the shadow of his older brother who even has a girlfriend. And Lars Mikkelsen, older brother of Mads, chews through the one scene accorded him like the pro that he is. But the plot, much like the life of the protagonists, doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. A gun is produced. Chekov would not be impressed. There is the constant threat of violence, but then…
Most young Icelandic filmmakers are set on writing and directing. It would do them no harm to get some help on occasion with the latter. Nevertheless, it is a relief to see a debut film set in a hopeless Danish town rather than an Icelandic one. And Hlynur from Hornafjörður does make a darkly realistic depiction of these people. We might not have many miners here, but we certainly have moonshiners. This is an interesting debut, beautifully shot. Expect greater things to come, be they in Danish or Icelandic.
‘Winter Brothers’ made its Icelandic debut at the RIFF Film Festival and is currently showing in Bíó Paradís with Icelandic subtitles.