From Iceland — Icelandic Documentaries

Icelandic Documentaries

Icelandic Documentaries

Published October 2, 2005

Screaming Masterpiece
2005, Dir: Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon.
Nominated for the Nordic Council
Film Prize 2005.
Played at the Edinburgh Film Festival,
Cardiff Screen Festival,
Melbourne International Film Festival,
Palm Springs International Film Festival, Dubrovnik Film Festival,
AFI Film Festival,
Northern Lights Film Festival,
Göteborg Film Festival,
Bergen International Film Festival,
Cannes Film Festival,
Chicago International Film Festival,
Norwegian International Film Festival,
Reykjavík International Film Festival,
and probably countless others.

To those completely unfamiliar with Iceland and modern Icelandic music, Screaming Masterpiece is an adequate introduction: about 80% of the film consists of band interviews and concert footage interspersed with montage sequences of the Icelandic landscape. To those familiar enough, the play on stereotypes about elves, trolls, and nature influencing the music will wear thin quick. But the real flaw in Screaming Masterpiece is its organization.
After being introduced to Múm, Mugison, Sigur Rós and other “cute generation” favourites for the first two thirds of the movie, we’re suddenly sent back 25 years to Reykjavík’s punk rock scene in 1980. The effect is jarring, and the brief history lesson doesn’t make much of a case in establishing a musical lineage from this point to the modern musicians we’ve witnessed earlier. There’s not a lot of time to think about it, though, as we’re only in 1980 for a few minutes before being snapped back to the present – where the film then gives a cursory nod to Icelandic hip-hop. And by Icelandic hip-hop I mean the only two acts in the country, apparently: Quarashi and Blaz Roca. From here, we return to the cuties, although brief attention is given to rock, in the form of Vinyl and Mínus.
On the other hand, the choppy time travel and the disproportional attention given to one facet of modern Icelandic music can almost be forgiven for the stunning performances of musicians like Björk and Eivör Pálsdóttir (who is actually Faroese and sings in her native language in her sole clip), the animation sequence shown during a Múm performance, and the sight of Dorrit Moussaieff, wife of Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, dancing to Trabant. The movie’s best moment, however, is when Björk explains how all national anthems are variations of one song, and we identify these variations as sounding, for example, “very Icelandic,” only because we know that the variation came from that country. Almost seeming like it was trying to prove her point, this statement is followed by a clip of Icelandic ancient rhymes expert Steindór Andersen performing with Sigur Rós, a small orchestra and a choir, sounding so bombastically characterless that it could have come from anywhere.
As far as musical documentaries go, the organization could be a lot cleaner and the coverage a bit more even-handed, not to mention more in-depth, but Screaming Masterpiece does provide a fair introduction to at least one part of modern Icelandic music.
Africa United
2005, Dir: Ólaf “DeFleur” Jóhannesson.
Played at the Hawaii International Film Festival, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival,
and the Yamagata International Film Festival.

The word “documentary” doesn’t usually bring comedy to mind, but Ólaf Jóhannesson manages to make these two worlds combine beautifully in this story of Iceland’s first all-foreigner football team to make it to the third division. Despite being completely unscripted, stock characters still emerge in the movie: there’s Zakaria, the frustrated but determined coach, his unruly players who squabble with each other as much as they do with referees, and a Zen-like trainer – assuredly the only “Einar Xavier” in the world – acting as a voice of reason. Most of the players are from Africa, as the name suggests, but there’s also a Colombian, a Portuguese, a Serb and others on the team. What keeps this film moving along at a brisk pace through pre-season training and their struggles on the field is the one constant dual dynamic running through the whole film: the characters are all likeable, but the team appears to be veering constantly towards the brink of disintegration. This tension keeps us engaged through this well-paced movie. Their objective – to win at least three games in the season to remain in the division – puts a more humourous spin on the sports movie formula as well.
Not that Africa United stays within the bounds of any formula: the film takes us out of the country, to Morocco (to relocate the Zakaria), to Serbia (to attend Zlatko’s wedding) and to the UK (where Zakaria wants to meet Charlton manager Alan Curbishley for advice). The film is also probably one of the most realistic depictions of foreigners living in Iceland ever put on the screen, especially in capturing the ambiguity of their feelings about Iceland – Zlatko, at different times, will declare that Iceland has become his home but also complain that, “When an Icelander hears I’m from Serbia, the first question they ask is about the war.” These elements open the film up, bring us closer to the characters and make us care about them.
Jóhannesson might be self-effacing when it comes to this movie (having jokingly compared it to The Mighty Ducks), but make no mistake: this is a movie that dares combine sports, comedy and the documentary format, and does so innovatively and entertainingly.
Africa United is currently playing in local theatres.

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