From Iceland — Skjaldborg: A Very Short Introduction

Skjaldborg: A Very Short Introduction

Published June 24, 2011

Time travelling at a documentary film festival in the Westfjords

Skjaldborg: A Very Short Introduction
Photo by
Courtesy of Skjaldborg

Time travelling at a documentary film festival in the Westfjords

Grapevine pays a visit to the infamous Skjaldborg documentary film festival in Patreksfjörður. Fun times ensue!

Skjaldborg_1“Listen, none of us are famous like Buddy Holly yet, so if we drive off a cliff now it would be very sad and nobody will remember us in sixty years”. This is a morbid (and historically inaccurate, and somewhat tasteless) joke overheard in a car on the road between Patreksfjörður and Reykjavík last week. And it was a nervous joke, uttered just after the possibility of flying off a cliff had seemed very real indeed.

But our reasons for visiting Patreksfjörður were not morbid at all; we just wanted to see movies at a documentary film festival called Skjaldborg. None of us were famous like Buddy Holly, but it didn’t matter because the local world ceased to matter. Because ‘Skjaldborg’ literally means “a wall of shields”, our defence against the rest of the world—our little shelter or even sanctuary. And when we arrived, we were told that the clock had been moved forward by an hour, to Skjaldborg time, but only for the weekend and only in this small town in Iceland that had suddenly become foreign.

This confused many of us, and some were even angry. But then we became kind of confused and forgot that we brought a laptop and a cell phone. Yes, we pretty much forgot those wonders of modern technology for four whole days. Because we came here to see movies, Icelandic documentaries to be exact, but ended up doing a lot of talking, eating fish and visiting hot springs along the way. And drinking the occasional beer in between. And that was enough, the internet was not missed.

Skjaldborg_2What happened at Skjaldborg? We saw a lot of movies. Some of them are detailed in the accompanying sidebar—but we also saw the aforementioned Ómar Ragnarsson being interviewed in the cinema for two hours, in between clips of his old documentaries. Every Icelander under sixty grew up with Ómar Ragnarsson, he has simply put, been everywhere during the last fifty years. On the television, doing shows on the road, recording his own songs, flying his own airplane dangerously close to volcanic eruptions and even in politics for a short while. Ómar evokes mixed feelings with Icelanders, and my friends and I aren’t too fond of his musical career. But deep down, we cherish him and we remember that when we see him at his best, which he was at times during the sometimes flawed but often fascinating Q&A session. He had been invited because he won the honorary award, which he has amply earned. It must be added that awarding him was a somewhat brilliant discovery by the Skjaldborg organisers—Icelanders often think of him as simply ‘an entertainer’, but many fail to realise that he’s also one of our most prolific documentarians.

His documentaries usually capture Iceland’s harshest secrets. Deserted and dangerous places in the middle of nowhere, yes, but also people that time forgot. Hermits to you and me, but people to Ómar. Sometimes funny and wise, but more often just lonely people living outside of time, in rural, forgotten about places.

Skjaldborg_3Towards those people Ómar was a humble filmmaker. And he also proved to be humble and generous towards his fellow filmmakers. Because, a funny thing happened: the opening film also won the audience award at the end of the festival. It’s called ‘Jón og séra Jón (“John and Reverend John”) and might well have been made by Ómar himself.

The film revolves around an abandoned priest who lives alone. His life is falling apart, and some who voted for it felt director Steinþór Birgisson managed to get closer to this rather tragic person then Ómar ever did with his subjects. A less gracious man might get defensive, but at the time of writing Ómar has posted two blog posts about the festival and he never mentions his own honorary award, instead opting to praise Steinþór (who turns out to be an old colleague of his) to the heavens and has very kind words for the festival itself and its organisers: “It seemed easy enough to have a festival of this calibre once, but to do so for five years in a row is quite an achievement”. I agree with him and truly hope that this little miracle of a festival will continue for years to come, so I can write many more articles about it.

Skjaldborg_4I didn’t see every film at Skjaldborg but I saw three that would have been worthy winners. The winning film itself, ‘John and Reverend John’, but also ‘Paradox’ and ‘A9ainst’ (‘Ge9n’ in Icelandic). ‘Paradox’ was a paradox indeed, a film about the re-imagining of an Icelandic short film from the sixties, a short film that was shot but never finished and had been laying in a box for decades. But it was also about directors from different generations and their differences and contained possibly the funniest scene of the entire festival.

‘A9ainst’ is a documentary about the Reykjavík 9 ( The film divided the festival audience, breeding heated discussions—and if it gets proper distribution it could end up being a ticking time bomb. It’s not a perfect film, but a very interesting one and a true original. If enough people see it, it just might change the ways of the society it seeks to criticise.

A fourth film that many felt a deserved winner was ‘Baldur of Bakki’ (Icelandic: ‘Bakka-Baldur’) by respected filmmaker Þorfinnur Guðnason. I can’t say for myself, because I accidentally missed the film, but based on the good things I heard about the movie I will not make the same mistake the next time I have a chance to view it.

A total of twenty-one films were shown at the festival, as well as four works-in-progress. I won’t mention them all here (and I didn’t view them all) but ‘My Father’s Land’ (‘Land míns föður’), ‘The Will To Live’ (‘Lífsviljinn’) and ‘Morbid Summer of Laziness’ are all worth a look, for very different reasons. Then there was the festival’s most surprising treat, ‘Freerun Iceland’, a film about an extreme sport (jumping and running over buildings and other obstacles) that even some sport-hating friends of mine were endlessly fascinated by.

The annual Skjaldborg bash keeps getting more and more popular. Everyone loves it. That’s cool. Have you been? Would you go?

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