Reporting from Berlin's International Short Film Festival
What is life like in Kazakhstan? Is it really a nation of old, wrinkled ladies with shawls and skinny dudes hoarding goats? I have no idea, but this is how I imagine it via the few Kazakh films I know. Cinema is every nation’s postcard to the rest of the world; as anyone who’s been on exchange in Montana or Connecticut will tell you, those cheerleaders and quarterbacks really exist. So when one of the biggest short film festivals in the world, Berlin’s International Short Film Festival (Interfilm, for short), decided to focus on Icelandic short-form filmmaking for their 28th edition in November, the question of how Iceland would be perceived through its movies naturally arose.
“We had already decided on an African focus and since we like having strong contrasts, Iceland seemed like a good choice. You are far away, you are a small country and people don’t really know much about Iceland apart from its beautiful countryside and that there is a lot of creative power there. All the films we selected are really well done and not just films that want to be feature films but excellent shorts in their own right,” says Interfilm festival Director Heinz Hermanns on the reason for spotlighting Iceland.
Best of Iceland
So how does Iceland come off then? Pretty close to real life, I think. Heinz and his team have done a good job of programming; the selection was varied and not too concerned with novelty, making for a very nice selection of Icelandic shorts from 2001–2011, essentially a ‘best of’ spanning that decade. These films are not all set among hermits in misty valleys, under snow-covered mountains, or by volcanic beaches (although some are); they also detail life in Reykjavík for the young and old alike.
Take one of the highlights, ‘BSÍ’ (2001) by Þorgeir Guðmundsson. A teenage girl (played by a young Þórunn Antonía with braces!) wanders into the main bus station in Reykjavík at dawn where she encounters a man in his early thirties who has just escaped from the psychiatric ward. They establish a special bond without saying much, only sharing an elongated moment before the long weekend known as ‘verslunarmannahelgin’ kicks off. The film is not too concerned with plot but creates ample space for beautiful moments of subdued interaction to unfold between the two and others who hang around the bus terminal or work there, finally leaving one with the sense that no matter how many wrong turns you’ve taken, there are always new roads to be travelled, new buses to jump.
A bit depressing
‘BSÍ’ is a serious yet humorous film, a trait it shares with many other titles, like Ísold Uggadóttir’s ‘Góðir gestir’ (“Family Reunion,” 2006), ‘Anna’ by Helena Stefánsdóttir (2007) and most memorably ‘Bræðrabylta’ (“Wrestling,” 2007) by Grímur Hákonarson which actually won the Best Short Award at Interfilm when it was in competition a few years ago. The latter is about two gay wrestlers who wrestle with love and one another in a remote Icelandic village. One is married and the other insists he leave his wife. As the Icelandic championship in wrestling approaches and they each endure personal tragedies, the need for closure becomes dire. ‘Bræðrabylta’ is full of beautiful compositions, quirky subplots and it manages to stay truly touching throughout its lengthy twenty-minute runtime without ever abandoning its humorous tone, often brought about by the traditional costume and ceremony of the sport.
Icelandic films remind Heinz a bit of Finnish cinema. “I like the black humour and often bizarre stories that are nevertheless close to reality. They often seem slightly depressive but usually have a good sense of laconic humour and great characters,” he says. “These films are always entertaining and thus great for a general audience.” Heinz’s favourites include ‘Bræðrabylta,’ Christmas-comedy ‘Klás’ (2010) by Ragnar Snorrason, the absolutely hilarious political satire cum zombie-film ‘Naglinn’ (“The Nail,” 2008) by Benedikt Erlingsson and feel good flick ‘Epic Fail’ (2009) by Ragnar Agnarsson. He also mentions ‘Síðasti bærinn’ (“The Last Farm,” 2004) by Rúnar Rúnarsson, “a really tragic and a really great film.”
The next big thing
Rúnar’s 2008 film ‘Smáfuglar’ (“2 Birds”) was also playing, and it felt just as devastating now as always. A timid teenage boy has a crush on a girl and we observe them hanging out with their friends, a much bolder couple. The four of them head for a sketchy party in the neighbourhood and soon end up unconscious after consuming ketamine. In the middle of the night, the boy witnesses a (very graphic) tragedy but is unable to act. Only in the early morning hours can he reverse what has been done. He absolves the victim by taking on the perpetrators’ sins and recasting the deed as an act of love. The film is stunning on all levels and prompted comment from a Canadian filmmaker present who felt that most other work, including his own, seemed somewhat trivial in comparison.
I have heard people entertain the idea that films will be the next big cultural export of Iceland. We’ve had a good run with music and now it’s time for cinema to set ablaze the hearts of people around the globe, the argument goes. Seeing this collection definitely made the prospect sound real and brought about more personal interest in the format.
Unfortunately, shorts are tragically inaccessible in Iceland, only seeing a festival screening or two (where half of the programme is unwatchable at best). Only the luckiest or most cunning filmmakers will secure a slot on national television and the boldest release DVDs that may or may not sell. However, this may be changing as pay-per-view and video-on-demand services become more accessible and new websites with video content pop up every day. Interfilm’s programme was a healthy reminder that although Icelandic cinema may be young it is nevertheless developing fast. Local subjects seem to touch international audiences and there is obviously no shortage of talent up here.