From Iceland — The Political Becomes Personal

The Political Becomes Personal

Published June 21, 2012

Grapevine attends Patreksfjörður’s Skjaldborg Documentary Film Festival

The Political Becomes Personal

Grapevine attends Patreksfjörður’s Skjaldborg Documentary Film Festival

An unspoken rule of the Skjaldborg Documentary Film Festival in Patreksfjörður is: What happens at Skjaldborg stays at Skjaldborg. So I won’t mention the drunken sailor who ripped three 5000 krónur bills apart before proceeding to burn the fourth; I won’t mention people changing identities and flight tickets in the middle of the night; I won’t mention the limbo competition, the champagne premieres, the movie deals done at five in the morning, the flower boys selling hot dogs, the sandwich with a skull burned on top of it or the guy who fell into a ditch.

But the films on display will eventually leave Skjaldborg, so I will mention them. Some of them were actually well travelled already, with four foreign films on offer. Those included the best two films of the festival, both of which were an unusual blend of stop-motion animation and regular animation. And they were both very introverted, yet in different ways.

‘Max By Chance’ was a family portrait made by Skjaldborg’s honorary guest Max Kestner, tracing all the different family stories back to how they made Max the man he is. It’s a classic theme, how your grandfather met your grandmother, how different molecules came together and how universes and planets are formed—all ending up in one unique individual. Afterwards, Max admitted he hadn’t really researched the stories, they were simply family stories he knew by heart—and if any of them were false it didn’t really matter. “Films are always about reality. They are never reality,” he said, summing up his thesis of how documentary films are staged and directed, and even scripted, just like the regular ones.

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Much more introverted

But the very best film of the festival was Romanian film ‘Crulic.’ It featured a deceased leading character, Claudio Crulic, who died while on hunger strike in a Polish prison. And while that sounds depressing enough, the first half of the film is actually a celebration of life, using old family photos to tell a stop-motion story of a life in a seemingly boring small town in Romania, but told with such wit and heart that it put a grin on everyone’s face. The second half, however, focuses on a miscarriage of justice and its effect on the victim. It is therefore certainly sad and depressing, yet offers a clear-sighted view of an inhumane prison system and an unjust justice system. While there is certainly some social commentary involved in ‘Crulic,’ the film still illustrates the trend of the festival, moving from last year’s political and socially conscious films to introverted human-interest films.

Introverted is not always a great idea, however. It can bring you films like ‘Two Years At Sea,’ which somehow beat ‘Crulic’ to the main prize at CPH:DOX, Skjaldborg’s Danish sister festival. While this tale of a Scottish hermit is absolutely stunning to look at, it is also one of the slowest films in the known universe. Yet it did feature a few highlights, particularly when the sight of a cat made a child in the audience cry out “köttur!” which was mostly amazing when you realised that a six-year-old kid had the patience to sit (mostly) silently through a film like that. And maybe he loved it; for him it probably felt a bit like spying on his grandfather for two hours.

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Cats, champagne and priests

And a cat stole another film at the festival, a film called ‘Filma,’ which was about a photographer travelling to Iceland taking pictures of lighthouses. But while the photographer and the lighthouses had their charm, the cat travelling with him in the car all the time had such screen charisma that it totally stole the scene of this lovely film. After the screening, the directors opened up a bottle of champagne outside the cinema, creating a tradition that will hopefully catch on.

Another tradition that seems to be catching on regards the winning film. Because for the second year in a row the opening—and winning—film featured a rural priest doing a lot of soul searching. This year’s rural priest was Kristinn Ágúst Friðfinnsson and the film was Grímur Hákonarson’s ‘Clean Heart,’ a worthy winner that did bear great resemblance to last year’s ‘John And Reverend John,’ although the dark night of the soul Kristinn endured was not nearly as dark as Jón’s. The church is certainly trying to cast both men aside, but while Jón was also an outcast from society itself, Kristinn has a lovely wife and a congregation that seems to cherish him. But both show very different men of God dealing with very human struggles and very human enemies.

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Flutes, indie bands and the mountain woman

Tourists travelling Iceland will have noticed that much of the country is really a desert. It may come as a surprise to those tourists that a thousand years ago the land was actually covered in forests, of which only a few are left standing. This is the subject matter for ‘Cry For Mercy,’ a documentary about actress Herdís Þorvaldsdóttir’s battle for the land. And while on the surface it’s very much a film about social issues, it really is a fascinating portrait of this 88-year-old actress, who in her old age continues this struggle for a cause that most seem to agree on but few others seem very passionate about. The title is ‘Fjallkonan hrópar á vægð’ (literally: “The Mountain Woman Cries For Mercy”), but this Mountain Woman is a similar personification of the nation as, say, Mother Russia is for Russians. And in a way Herdís takes this role quite literally herself, following an old tradition where a young actress makes a speech as the Mountain Woman on Iceland’s Independence Day (June 17).

However, the most joyous film at the festival was certainly the music film ‘A Poetic Documentary.’ The title scared a few people away, but while the film varies wildly in style and rhythm it’s an absolutely infectious account of the life of an indie rock band, Sudden Weather Change. It’s focused less on the music, and more about how those four boys can carry their boyhood into adulthood by staying friends while working on their music. It features vignettes of Reykjavík with a poetically rambling voiceover intercut with scenes of the band goofing around, and then the second half gives us some hilarious happenings on a couple of road tours, first around Iceland and then outside of it. 

A subculture of muscles

The closing film was the funniest. It’s called ‘Steve Gym’ in English, after the gym it’s based on, and ‘Hrikalegir’ in Icelandic—and I will be disappointed if that will not become the major slang word of summer 2012. It means something like “horrific” and is what the bodybuilders yell at each other after a good lift. And they yell a lot. These are not the average muscle-tanned types you’d find at a yuppie bar; these men are serious about getting really, really HUGE. And they are not necessarily young; one of the main characters is approaching sixty, still setting world records. Those are the long-forgotten heroes of bodybuilding, a sub-culture so deep beneath the surface that when I met Gísli Einarsson, owner of Nexus (a major comic book and gaming store in Reykjavík) he was over the moon about having found a sub-culture that made his own look positively mainstream.

But while the film was lots of fun, I wished director Haukur Valdimar Pálsson had dug deeper, particularly when you heard some of the stories afterwards that were not in the film. There is a much darker and seedier story to this body building world that is waiting to be told, if there will ever be a director who dares to step on the toes of some of the strongest men in the world.

Despite the move to more personal films, socially conscious films were not wholly absent with ‘Life and Funds,’ and ‘Volatile Sea.’ And next year the pendulum seems likely to swing again. There was a special sidebar on the festival where directors showed clips from works in progress and talked to the audience about them—and out of the four shown this year two shared an obvious kinship, both tackling the role of immigrants in Iceland. The first tracks the fortunes of a Thai family in Iceland while the second follows the fate of the inhabitants of Keflavík’s infamous Fit Hostel, where refugees are parked while the Icelandic authorities decide their fate. And if enough progress will be made I might be writing about them next year.

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