“Good evening and welcome to the big stage,” an announcer declares boisterously over the growing roar of a crowd. “We are making history and what a story it is.” Onscreen, a lone worker pushes a striper along the brown grass of the Laugardalsvöllur football pitch. The sky clouds over. “Their crowd is bigger than ours, but the blue ocean will not give in,” his voice booms out as the shot changes to one of the stark stadium. The seats are empty; the background full of fog. Dutifully, the striper continues his work.
The screen turns to black abruptly, and a title card appears. In the background, the Icelandic national anthem utters its first words. And so begins director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson’s latest effort, ‘Last Call: A Hymn To The Curse And The Blessing Of A Nation For A Thousand Years’.
In sharp contrast to the dramatic opening of his film, director Hafsteinn is calm. Sitting in a café drinking sparkling water, he seems the archetypical cinematic intellectual—someone you’d expect to catch at a late night screening or lecture. Put in a lineup, you probably wouldn’t pick him out as the director of a documentary centred on Icelandic football. It seems odd, but perhaps its that incongruity which makes the work so unique and powerful.
“I mean, I like football,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “I watch it. But I’m not a crazy enthusiast. I don’t spend all my weekends watching the English league.” So when producer Sigurjón Sighvatsson pitched the idea of the piece to him, Hafsteinn thought he might have a novel take on the subject. “There was a lot of stuff being produced about football, but it was all straightforward sports stuff,” he says. “I thought it was a good opportunity to approach it from a different angle. The idea was to focus more on Icelandic society and identity rather than focusing entirely on the team.”
Camus’ fear of the penalty
He joined up with Guðmundur Björn Þorbjörnsson, the man behind the podcast, ‘Albert Camus’ Goalkeeper Gloves’ to create the film. “[Guðmundur] approached sports from a philosophical point of view,” Hafsteinn says. “We met, hit if off, and started right then. It usually takes many years to get a project like this done but we started in January and just finished two weeks ago.”
The film premiered the day before Iceland’s first ever match at a FIFA World Cup. It was imperative, Hafsteinn reiterates, for the project to be done at this moment. “It’s a big moment in Icelandic history,” he says. “So it’s a good time to look in the mirror, to look at who we are and where we want to go.”
Hafsteinn entered the world of filmmaking as a teenager in the 1990s. “I was very enthusiastic about skateboarding,” he says, smiling. “Part of that culture was making these homemade skate videos, so that was how I started with film.” He pauses, perhaps with nostalgia. Then he smirks. “This was before the digital revolution, so we’d make these primitive ways of editing like bringing a VCR to my friends house.” He laughs and shakes his head, still impressed by the ingenuity of it all.
At 18, his interest in skateboarding faded as his fascination with film grew, and at 22 he made his first real short film. “It was a mockumentary about these very serious Icelandic karaoke singers who are trying to break into the scene in Copenhagen,” he says, fondly. “It was very character driven.”
From there, Hafsteinn’s career skyrocketed. In 2011, he released the critically acclaimed ‘Either Way’, which was remade into ‘Prince Avalanche.’ In 2014, he impressed with the stylish black comedy ‘Paris Of The North.’
But it was his 2017 film, ‘Under The Tree,’ that cemented Hafsteinn as one of Iceland’s most fascinating directors. The morose farce details a fight between suburban neighbours over the location of a tree. It’s an intense journey that is deep-seated, deftly making you both laugh and cringe concurrently. Guy Lodge raved about the film in his ‘Variety’ review, writing, “[The] savage black comedy passes almost imperceptibly into stunned, visceral tragedy—like a laugh turning in the throat and coming out as a choke.”
‘Last Call’ though, marks Hafsteinn’s entry into full-length documentaries. The shift in medium was a welcome change for the artist. “Making a documentary is like when you go hunting or fishing,” he says. “You never know what you’re going to catch, or even if you’re going to catch something, while in fiction film you plan ahead and go for something really specific.” He pauses, trying to find the right words. “It’s a loose format compared to a stiff one.”
His most unexpected catch surrounds the Icelandic national anthem, ‘Iceland’s Thousand Years.’ “I had never thought much about it, but it ended up becoming our starting point,” he says. For background, the Icelandic national anthem is an interpretation of Psalm 90 from the Book of Psalms, which is a part of the Old Testament. In the section, Moses discusses man’s mortality and prays for compassion from the Lord. It’s a relatively meek passage—not something you’d expect to boost patriotism.
Humility and modesty
The film focuses heavily on this sentiment, discussing how the Icelandic national anthem preaches humility and modesty rather than blatant nationalism. This is radically different from—as the film refers to them—the bloody Danes who sing about the beauty and fertility of their nation. The Icelandic song takes a subservient position, rather than an aggressive one.
“I find the lyrics very humble. They have a great message,” Hafsteinn says. For him, Icelandic nationalism, or rather the way it is expressed, all goes back to Iceland’s status as a small remote island. “We have a minority complex,” he states simply. “We are small and we are few.” He references Milan Kundera’s philosophy about how small nations are always worried about their right to exist. The World Cup is a moment where Iceland has the stage to do so, which has spurred a craze of patriotic pride.
Breaking the bubble
But for Hafsteinn, the documentary’s discoveries weren’t all so sobering. One of best parts of the filming process, he emphasises, was getting to know the footballers. “They are such humble, honest, grounded, and solid guys. It was a nice discovery because I didn’t know them or their culture very well before,” he says. “You know, I’m in my own little bubble, which is very far away from sports.”
Talking about the team gives him a burst of uncharacteristic energy. “You know they work from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon if they don’t have games,” he says, almost baffled. “So they have so much time, like Jón Daði [Böðvarsson] started playing the guitar and learning Spanish.” He bursts out laughing. It’s clear he admires the team greatly, and that they, as well as the project itself, has irrevocably changed him and perhaps even inspired more patriotism.
Hey—the meek might be blessed, but it’s the proud that win the World Cup.
Info: You can watch ‘Last Call’ here.
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