One of the many, many things Icelanders like to brag about to foreigners are the merits of our handball teams. Rather than eliciting the expected warm glow of admiration, these boasts are usually met with a puzzled: “Yes… but what is handball?”
In brief: handball is like football (“soccer” to you Yanks), but played with your hands. Icelanders who become very good at using their hands to play football are usually elevated to national hero status. Chief among these is Ólafur Stefánsson—Óli Stef—one of the celebrated “Silver Boys” (yes, we came in second at the 2008 Olympics) and former professional player in Dubai.
It was about time someone made a documentary about him.
The person who took it upon himself to make that documentary—it’s called ‘Óli Prik’—is one Árni Sveinsson, whose legal troubles following his first documentary more or less destroyed his career for a decade. More on that in a bit—for now, we want to learn about the inevitable philosophical underpinnings of a movie about a living handball legend. Also present for the conversation was the film’s producer and owner of Netop Films Grímar Jónsson, who interjects with comments as he sees fit.
LEARNING THE ABCs
“What do sports stars do when they become too old to play?” Árni says, discussing his film. “Everyone expects them to stick with the sport and become trainers, but they also want to do something else. Óli gets caught between the two. He dreams of creating an educational computer programme for children, but the philosophy behind both is the same. You have to consider your options very quickly, and then chose the best one.”
After playing professional handball abroad for many years, he comes back home to coach his old team Valur. This brings to mind the plot of celebrated Icelandic biopic ‘Tears Of Stone’ (1995) about composer/conductor Jón Leifs who—after working at Berlin’s best concert halls—returns home to direct a school orchestra.
Árni: “Óli has advanced ideas about the game, but he doesn’t know the basics about coaching. He has to learn the ABCs before he picks up the whistle. He is dealing with very young guys, and is trying to get through everything in one winter.”
Grímar: “Óli is coming from a very professional environment to one where everyone is doing volunteer work.”
The film is also about his attempts to readjust to Iceland?
Árni: “Ólafur has lived most of his adult life abroad, and in a very sheltered environment where he only needs to worry about the team. Everything is very simple and routine. When he comes back to Iceland, dealing with day-to-day hassles and the nearness of everything gets problematic. He also has to get through the Icelandic winter.”
Grímar: “He goes through a lot in over a short period, buying a house and doing things he never had to worry about before. In a way, it’s a coming-of-age story.”
“DID I JUST RUIN THE MOVIE?”
What’s the process like of making a docu-drama like ‘Óli Prik’?
Grímar: “We started financing the film in 2012, and the script work was almost like writing a movie. We try to find certain themes to go with. Some of these pan out and others don’t.”
Árni: “We also try to find characters we think are interesting, such as his wife Kristín, his daughter Stebba and the former trainer Boris. The match Óli is training for provided suspense, but we were never dependent upon how it would turn out. Things happen and we just go with it. Last summer, we shot three endings for the movie.”
Óli’s defining characteristic seems to be his will to win…
Árni: “When the team he was coaching didn’t do so well, he asked me: ‘Árni, did I just ruin the movie? Who wants to watch a film about a team that loses.’ Sadly, my camera was turned off then.”
And what does he learn?
Árni: “It’s an open ending, but Óli follows his heart and makes the Brutus decision to leave handball. In sports everything is clear, you either win or you lose, and he has a harder time outside those parameters. But not everything is like that. Rocky loses the match at the end of the first movie, but he gets Adrian.”
Speaking of Rocky, you had to fight your own battles to get stuff made. Eight years passed between your first feature length doc, ‘In The Shoes Of the Dragon’ (2002), and your second, ‘Backyard’ (2010)…
Árni: “Yes, the beauty pageant that was the subject of ‘Dragon’ demanded an injunction on the film. That was a brutal example of censorship that is still used as an example in law studies at the University of Iceland today. We had to pay a lot of legal bills, the premiere was delayed for six months and some of the contestants were blurred, like in an episode of ‘Cops’. We got to show it, and it was all a very educational and messed-up process. In the end I had to do like the Vikings and sail off—I went to the US where I worked editing films. A documentary called ‘Disarm’, about antipersonnel mines in various countries, was what eventually saved me from ‘In The Shoes Of The Dragon’.”
And then you finally returned to make ‘Backyard’, which follows in the footsteps of ‘Rock In Reykjavík’ (1982), capturing a music scene….
Árni: “Yes, it was a portrait of a group which was there in 2010, a generation that is dominant in Icelandic music today. We had about two months of planning and didn’t get any grants, but it won at the Skjaldborg doc festival. This led to the Icelandic Film Centre adopting it and it was subsequently shown at very many festivals worldwide.”
SPRINGTIME FOR ICELANDIC CINEMA?
These days, Árni and Grímar are busy placing English subtitles on ‘Óli Prik’, in preparation for doing the festival rounds. That version will also be screened in Bíó Paradís, so be on the lookout for that. Grímar’s next project for Netop will be ‘Hrútar’ (“Rams”), by his almost namesake Grímur Hákonarson. A short preview of the film got rave reviews from international critics at the recent Stockfish Film Festival.
“I feel very fortunate to have been able to get both Árni’s project and ‘Rams’ and to have been able to secure funding for both. There are many interesting films currently in development and I feel we could be at the cusp of a new spring for Icelandic cinema. Things are going well, even if it is always a struggle, and I can’t believe anyone would want to cut down funding now,” Grímar says.
Árni: “Support for cinema was increased after the economic collapse and we are seeing the benefits now. If they start to cut funding like they have been talking about, the effects of that will only become apparent three or four years from now.”
“One has to be optimistic, but in this business, you can’t camp for just one night,” Grímar concludes.
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