Iceland’s last wilderness as the ultimate movie theatre
“Is this a film festival?” Someone opens the door of a cooking tent located on a campsite in Hornvík, a cove in Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, Iceland’s northernmost peninsula and one of the least accessible places in Iceland. Nine people from multiple countries are at the door. They aren’t mistaken; this is, indeed, a film festival.
The remote charm of Hornstrandir
The Hornstrandir Film Festival (HFF), which proudly claims to be the most remote festival in the world, defies convention on multiple levels – instead of dimming the lights, the festival organisers close window blinds or even create makeshift ones using plastic bags to prevent the midnight sun from interfering with the picture. Normally, at a film festival, you run between screenings at different venues, while at the HFF you have to hike, often for many hours at a time, along steep and narrow trails. The views around take your breath away – an endless horizon with profound silence, myriads of colourful flowers and fresh moss that glows neon. Arctic foxes roam freely, while seals bask on rocks, turning them into natural sunbeds.
And yet, Hornstrandir isn’t an idyllic destination all year round – it’s known for its harsh winters, which often make the peninsula accessible by sea only a few months a year. There are no roads or mobile phone reception. Large tourist groups, dogs and biking are all forbidden.
Producer and filmmaker Bjarney Lúðvíksdóttir, who stands behind the festival’s first edition, is no stranger to Hornstrandir. Her roots run deep in the region, as her grandmother hailed from Hlöðuvík, one of the many coves in the area.
“Over the years, I’ve been doing hikes with women,” Bjarney shares. “I love to get to know other women and hike with them and be in nature.” For this group, caring for the environment has always been the primary focus, often leading them to collect plastic trash from the shores during their hikes. “We also talked a lot about health and how being out in nature can do so much for your mental and physical health,” Bjarney says, emphasising that many things combined before the idea to start the festival came to life. Driven by the will to create something sustainable that could be recreated every year and help raise awareness about environment, climate and wildlife, she launched the HFF.
How to run a festival at the end of the world
“The main challenge was how to do this without electricity because we cannot use any electricity. We need a lot of batteries to run this,” Bjarney admits as we sit on the grass outside the screening area, waiting for the show to begin. It’s the HFF’s pioneering year, and according to Bjarney, it’s a tryout in many ways.
“Many people have asked, ‘How are you going to bring the audience?’ The answer is – we’re not bringing any audience; the audience are the people who are hosting the film festival and perhaps the hikers who are in the locations,” Bjarney explains. “The other challenge was to get a group that can face anything that could happen, like a storm, rain, or wind.”
For the festival’s first edition, it was decided that the group would consist only of women, purely because it’s easier logistically. Bjarney reached out to her hiking buddies, and they contacted their friends, turning the planning into “a chain reaction of helping hands.” Four women travelled from the USA to join the festival.
“I couldn’t figure out the film festival piece,” admits Claire Sledge Smith. “I still didn’t get it until the first night when we showed Wild Oman. Then I figured out how the whole thing was going to come together.”
Claire says that the idea of camping for eight days was daunting in the beginning. She was nervous about her fitness and leaving her family without a chance to call them when needed.
“The second I got off the boat, I wasn’t worried about whether I would make it physically, I wasn’t worried about my family, I wasn’t worried about anything. There’s something about being here,” she says. “It’s not just that you don’t have cell service, but there’s something that makes you so present. I was in awe non-stop.”
Stories that move
Even before the festival, the organisers assured me that the HFF is not about the number of attendees but about the power of stories. The lineup of films screened delved into topics such as cold-water surfing in Iceland, melting glaciers, and the power of tourism to destroy both travel destinations and communities around them, to name a few.
Chris Burkard’s film Under an Arctic Sky, presented to HFF by his wife Brea, gave viewers a chance to glimpse into the surfing culture in Iceland and the challenges and dangers it entails. It’s not only a documentary of an incredible surfing trip in one of the most remote and harsh places in the world, but also a human story about friendship and a love for adventure.
Hrund Atladóttir’s short film Come Closer casts a mesmerising spell as it unravels the haunting tale of the vanished Ok glacier in southwest Iceland. Through a captivating dance inspired by the Japanese Butoh, the audience is transported to ancient, primal realms of existence, immersing them in the glacier’s lost legacy.
Meanwhile, the thought-provoking In a State of Change, co-directed by the сreative duo Donal Boyd and Frank Nieuwenhuis, embarks on a riveting journey with Donal himself. Mesmerised by glaciers, Donal sets on a quest to learn how to effectively communicate the issue of the shrinking glacial landscapes.
The last screening of the festival (The Last Tourist by Tyson Sadler), taking place in Hlöðuvík, gathered the most attendees – some learned about the festival through social media, while others simply passed by and stopped to check out what was going on. Seeing a projector and people circling around it with popcorn is not exactly what you expect to see in the wilderness. It was, of course, at that moment that the technology failed, but the viewers remained calm. “We’ve been waiting for the film festival since Friday, we can wait a bit more,” said one of the campers.
An adventure like no other
Somehow, watching films about some of today’s pressing issues in a place as beautiful as Hornstrandir makes a more profound impact. It reminds us about the fragility of nature and the beauty that simply might not be there tomorrow. Directors Hrund, Donal and Frank attended the festival, making it a rather intimate experience to watch their movies together and be able to discuss the stories behind them first-hand.
“It’s a crazy idea,” admits Erla Gerður Sveinsdóttir as we drive back to Reykjavík together, reflecting on this adventure. “And it’s even more crazy that we made it happen. It’s not easy to run a film festival in such circumstances.” She stresses how in our fast-paced society, we often forget to live in balance with nature. “Holding a film festival in Hornstrandir is such a fabulous idea. Just to be able to be a part of it, exploring nature and its power, feeling the silence – it was just wonderful.”
“I thought I was going to a film festival, turns out it was so much more,” sums up Emma Romeijn, and she couldn’t put it in a better way. While the movies certainly gave us some food for thought and you couldn’t have imagined a better backdrop for the festival, in the end, the HFF is about connection – with others, nature and yourself.
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