As Hollywood’s current in vogue shooting locale, the Icelandic countryside is increasingly becoming a presence on multiplex screens across the globe. Aided by generous tax breaks, films such as ‘Interstellar’ and big-budget series like ‘Game of Thrones’ have done a lot to put rural Iceland on the cognitive world map for moviegoers everywhere.
However, while Iceland’s landscape is becoming a familiar sight on-screen, the country itself is not all that well-known for its cinema culture, especially outside of Reykjavík. It’s only in the last few years that a film movement has really developed. Thanks to a new artist-run film festival, that’s just about to grow a little bigger.
Although it’s only in its first year, Turtle Filmfest Hólmavík has been making artistic waves for several months in the form of an arts centre initiative in Hólmavík (pop. 375). “We arranged it with Hólmavík so that we could get access to all the old school buildings that aren’t used in the summertime,” says Arne Rawe, head organiser of the festival. An artist and photographer himself, Arne’s deep engagement with the themes and ethos of the festival reflects its low-key, artist-led nature. “We invited a lot of artists to come and work there, as we liked the idea of a sort of artists’ and residents’ programme. But we are artists too, so actually, we are part of that in a way.” In this way, the festival is not just about showcasing art and film—it is an ongoing artistic project.
The festival will feature a wide range of unique, inventive documentaries and narrative films as it aims to explore the threshold between reality and fiction. “We wanted something that is more experimental, where people are crossing the boundaries of how to tell stories,” Arne says. “In between how you document things and how you tell a story with them, you know—you can’t just simply document reality. So you have to put something more in it, something more artistic to tell the story and get closer to the people. And this is just what we are looking for. This is at the very heart of it—this new approach to cinema.”
Arne and his fellow organisers have just finished touring some selected films from the festival’s lineup around Iceland in order to promote the real thing. I managed to catch one of these pop-up screenings last Friday in Kaffistofa, and it didn’t disappoint. The standout film on show was Ali Silverstein’s ‘Afterglow’ (2011), which followed the director’s journey to scatter her boyfriend’s ashes in his favourite places in the world. It’s not hard to imagine such a plotline guiding a Zooey Deschanel-led indie film, but the film’s road-movie/documentary style ensured it was heart-wrenching, dreamlike, and not at all contrived—giving us a perfect glimpse of what is to come during the festival itself.
Taking art away and bringing it back
Northwest Iceland has increasingly become an artist’s mecca in recent years, with small-scale galleries, studios, and workshops popping up everywhere, from old herring factories to abandoned dairies. Unfortunately, the work of these artists is often informally off-limits or uninteresting to locals, with the vast majority of visitors being people from the city or abroad. So it’s refreshing to hear that one of the ideas inspiring the festival is to give back to the community of Hólmavík and the surrounding Westfjords.
“I went there as an artist around five or seven years ago, documenting the work of my friend, and I just got hooked there somehow,” Arne recounts. “I came in the following years on field trips with my students—three years in a row. Rather than just going there, everyone photographing the buildings and landscape, and then taking it away for an exhibition in Germany or whatever, I just had this feeling that you have to give something back to the people.”
This is reflected in the festival’s admission policy—or rather, the lack thereof. While recent Icelandic cinema has received much international acclaim, with the notable exception of Reykjavík’s excellent Bíó Paradís, there are few opportunities for Icelanders to see arthouse and indie films from beyond Hollywood. Outside of the city, cinemas are even rarer beasts. “In Hólmavík, there is no cinema,” Arne explains. “So we have got this portable projection rig we can bring anywhere. We are looking for special places all around the town where we would like to show movies—in a slaughterhouse, a fish factory, a church, an old trawler in the harbour, and even people’s homes. The basic idea of cinema is bringing people together, and that’s something we want to get back to.”
With a whole slate of Icelandic films, as well as many international indie films, locals and visitors alike will be given the chance to see things they might otherwise never get the chance to. In this way, the festival should hopefully go a long way in promoting cinema among Icelanders, but especially the community of Hólmavík. It may be its first year, but it looks like it certainly won’t be its last.
The Turtle Film Festival runs from August 10 – 16 in Hólmavík. Read the full listing here.