From Iceland — Tracing The Sources Of Creativity

Tracing The Sources Of Creativity

Published June 24, 2024

Tracing The Sources Of Creativity
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A poetic road trip film around Iceland tries to uncover whether there’s one key ingredient to its thriving culture

The concept of Iceland being a secret utopia that breeds creativity is not new. On the one hand, Icelanders themselves like to fuel headlines such as “The Biggest Number Of Books Published/Read/Gifted For Christmas, Per Capita.” On the other hand, given the country’s small size, Iceland’s creative output is quite remarkable when you really consider the impressive statistics of its annual cultural events, bands and projects — including world-famous exports and niche grassroots artists — as well as its writers, creators and storytellers. 

Is there something about Iceland that nurtures this pervasive creativity, whether on a global or per capita level? Does the stark yet breathtaking nature, dark winters and bright summers correlate with the never-ending stream of films, music and literature produced? French documentary filmmakers Arthur Shelton and Nancy Tixier explore this intriguing phenomenon in Their Icelands (Leurs Islandes).

Decoding Iceland’s creative DNA 

“Nancy and I wanted to question the arts or the cultural practices in Iceland, compared to what we know in France,” says co-director Arthur as he joins me on a call from France. “We were very attracted to the beauty and the mystery of this country. There are so many artists, so many people writing books, so many people interested in music and many other forms of art. We wanted to know why.” 

The duo has been collaborating on short films and music videos for at least 15 years and had an idea to dive deeper into outlining the source of Icelandic creativity since Iceland was the country in focus at a festival in their hometown Caen in Normandy. Fast forward a few years and the project resulted in a 54-minute documentary.

Featuring interviews with artists, scholars and writers, including Ásgeir Trausti, Eliza Reid, Jóhannes Birgir Pálmason, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Örvar Þóreyjarson Smárason, Shoplifter, Torfi H. Tulinius and Unnur María Máney Bergsveinsdóttir, Their Icelands gives a comprehensive outline of different standpoints. That was the idea, Arthur explains. “We were asking people to make us discover their country from their point of view. We wanted to see the country through their eyes or through their practices,” he says. “We met quite many people and every one of them gave us a little bit of their Iceland. This is where the name comes from.”

How to make a movie in 10 days

“There are so many artists, so many people writing books, so many people interested in music and many other forms of art. We wanted to know why.”

The pocket-sized team of Arthur and Nancy knew they would be in charge of the technical aspects of the film, but they were lacking a narrator. “I was handling the camera and Nancy took care of the sounds,” Arthur explains. For this reason, the directors wanted to bring a third person — someone they could follow with a camera and someone who would interact with the interviewees. That task fell on Juliette Jouan. “We were looking for someone like her,” Arthur says. “Someone who is young, who is in the arts, too — she’s a musician and actress — and we wanted her to get involved personally.” He adds that the film provided a platform for Juliette to reflect on her own upbringing and career path, potentially re-evaluating certain experiences through a fresh perspective.

With an extremely tight budget leaving the crew unpaid, Arthur, Nancy and Juliet embarked on an intense 10-day trip to Iceland at the beginning of September 2023. As Arthur recounts, “It was just the three of us in a car, driving from place to place. It was quite thrilling, yet nerve-wracking and intense, too. We had three or four meetings every day and drove a lot, trying to fit in as much filming as we could in 10 days.”

The film was produced in collaboration with Les Boréales film festival and was scheduled to screen less than a month after the crew returned from Iceland. Arthur and Nancy worked tirelessly to prepare the first edit for the festival screening, then spent additional time reworking the edits ahead of the French premiere.

Initially, the filmmakers were apprehensive that the laid-back Icelandic approach might interfere with their tight filming timeline. Arthur admits that when the trio arrived in Iceland, most of the people they reached out for interviews didn’t get back to them. However, everything came together in the end — a true embodiment of the Icelandic “þetta reddast” [it will all work out] mentality.

Le pays des polyglottes

Their Icelands is a film made by a French crew, primarily intended for a French audience. While the narrative being predominantly in French is unsurprising, the amount of Icelandic interviewees fluent in French came as an unexpected delight. Arthur explains this was not intentionally planned. 

“We were very surprised by the amount of people who speak English. Well, everybody speaks English. It’s not the case in France at all,” he says. “But we were also very surprised by the amount of people who could speak other languages and especially French.” From professors to museum curators, Icelanders seemed eager to showcase their French-speaking abilities, and they did so remarkably well. Arthur smiles, revealing that even more interviewees could have spoken French, but opted to be interviewed in English or Icelandic. 

Shifting hypotheses

Ahead of filming in Iceland, the directors only did only basic research. “We were a bit naive at first,” Arthur admits. “We wanted to try out our own hypotheses and ideas. That was the point of the movie — to start with our opinions and then meet people and dig a little bit deeper.”

He stresses that discovering Iceland not only through tourists’ eyes was highly important. “We wanted to see the beautiful landscapes and experience that uniqueness in terms of scenery,” he elaborates. “But what was most interesting for us was to discover the Icelandic ways of thinking, the practices and the bonds between people.” 

“We met quite many people and every one of them gave us a little bit of their Iceland.”

Since it was their first time in Iceland, the collaborators were learning about the country while making the film. “Our first hypothesis was that the country itself and the countryside, the landscapes and colours, were the first thing that would fuel people’s creativity,” he shares. “For us, it was one of the main reasons why Icelandic people would be more inclined to write or to make music or whatever it was because of these scenery and landscapes.”

“When we went there, we discovered it was maybe a part of it, but it was not the only reason,” he concludes. The insularity of the small, close-knit population, education, freedom — these emerged as popular rationales from the interviewees, though perspectives differed, with some suggesting nature played no role at all. “It’s a bunch of things,” Arthur smiles.

Their Icelands is screening now at Bíó Paradís.

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