Forty-five minutes north of Reykjavík is the quiet town of Hvalfjörður (“Whale Valley”). It is here that Icelandic filmmaker Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson went to create what he describes as “a moment” of rough, brotherly love. When they finished shooting the scene, Guðmundur realised that they had something special, and what began as a small experiment spiralled into a fifteen-minute short fiction. On May 25, the resulting film titled “Whale Valley” makes its debut as one of nine short films, selected from a batch of over 3,500 entries, to compete at Cannes Film Festival in France. It’s the third time an Icelandic short film has been chosen to compete in the festival’s sixty-six year history.
So you’ve made a couple of experimental films, some animations, but this is your first short fiction. Tell me, what led to its creation?
It started with a moment that I wanted to create. It’s a moment in the beginning of the film where an older brother is holding down his younger brother and trying to calm him down. I was trying to capture some kind of ‘rough love’ in that scene. And then we went out to shoot it. It was supposed to be a practice shoot, but it worked really well, so I sat down and decided ‘okay I’m going to make a whole story based on these brothers.’
So this whole endeavour spiralled out of the creation of one moment. And now you have a professional, high quality film competing at Cannes. Did you have professional aspirations when you shot that first scene?
I think before, because of my fine arts background, I was just keen on experimenting. We did this film called “Jeffery and Beth” and it was all done in improvisation, in one room, and it was for us to just kind of practice, to try working with actors. But this time it was more serious. This was like, ‘okay, now we have to see how good we are, how well we can control the medium.’
How did making Whale Valley compare to making your other films?
I spent three months intensively writing a seven-page script and that was driving me crazy. But it actually turned out like we planned. The most surprising thing, maybe, was that it just all seemed to kind of fit.
With the other films we were always collaborating and compromising, and seeing how that always fails, or at least I think it always fails. So this time it was more ‘I’m going to do it exactly like I want to no matter what, and if people don’t like it, so be it.’ I think that if you are true to your vision, and do what you want to do, something nice is going to come out of it. Maybe not everybody is going to like it, but it is more important that you like it yourself. That was the way we approached this. We wanted to like it.
What stands out to you in Whale Valley? Why do you think the judges saw this film as the one that should be put in the competition?
I think it has a lot of strong elements that we were aware of. You know, it’s a simple film, and it fits really well in the ‘short film’ medium. Something I really don’t like when I see short films is when there is just one final ‘dot’ in the end. We wanted to make a big story, but still a story that fit the medium. And I think the nature and the small boy really helped too.
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Of the nine films in competition, yours is the only Nordic one. Does Iceland have a particularly strong film community?
I think it’s growing, a lot. Now we’ve gotten this new support from the doubling of the Icelandic Film Fund [a government fund set aside to support Icelandic films]. I mean, it is a small milieu, but that’s a nice thing, because it’s easy to get into.
For film, Iceland is a springboard. Iceland is too small a market for feature films. So you have to think outside of Iceland. You’re aware that you want to make films that Icelanders enjoy because that’s the ground that you stand on, but it’s also really important to get your films out. And I think that’s for all artists because it’s hard to make a living on just the Icelandic market.
I’ve heard actually that after the crash that a lot of money was directed toward arts, which is something you never hear about in other countries. Arts are typically the first to be cut and the last to be picked back up.
Yeah, I hope that our new government isn’t going to cut back on that. I don’t think they will though, because I think that there is an awareness of how big art has grown in outside of the country and how tourism has grown because of the art scene.
Well, congratulations on making it to Cannes. Any expectations once you get overseas?
I think it’s really about making contacts for our next project. Something that’s more fun than just going to a friend and saying ‘hey help me out.’ Otherwise, I was hoping this would be time to relax. I was really looking forward to just sitting on the beach, but now there are all these meetings being scheduled—I’m going to try and skip some of these meetings. It’s like ten days. Ten days of meetings and parties.
You could become the first Icelandic short film to win, so best of luck to you!
Yeah, thanks. I think the doors have now opened for us, but if we win, they are just wider open.
Congratulations, Guðmundur! Whale Valley received the ‘Short Film Special Distinction Ex-aequo’ at Cannes on May 26.