From Iceland — Lions And Bears And Puffins, Oh My

Lions And Bears And Puffins, Oh My

Lions And Bears And Puffins, Oh My

Published September 26, 2012

Ah, autumn in Reykjavík when, as Reykjavík International Film Festival Chair Hrönn Marinósdóttir observes, “it starts to rain, the leaves start to fall, it gets dark again, and it’s very traditional to go to the movies.” The ninth annual RIFF runs from September 27 to October 7 this year—quick on the heels of late August and early September’s prestigious festivals in Venice and Toronto, making Reykjavík a natural part of the roll-out for new titles from the international festival circuit: “We thought it would be clever to be the first festival after those big events to get the new films.”
Offering Icelanders a window to world cinema, Hrönn says, was the goal at the time of the festival’s inception. “Like in so many other countries, most of the productions come from just one place in the world: Hollywood. And great films come from Hollywood, but it’s not the world,” Hrönn says. “In the beginning, I didn’t think about anything else… I wanted to help bring this culture to Iceland.”
Since then, the festival has set its sights outward, hiring experienced programmers and seeking out significant filmmakers: honoured guests have ranged from Abbas Kiarostami, in 2005, to Dario Argento, this year. But then, Hrönn adds, “we of course realised that this is so important for the Icelandic film industry to have an international event, because we found out, very soon, that the international film world was curious.” Why shouldn’t Iceland’s film culture be an active player as well as a receptive audience?
Why not indeed. Beyond a new awareness of the Icelandic films playing alongside offerings from the global arthouse, there are tangible ways in which the festival has made Iceland a collaborator in the same community. Hrönn likes to tell the story of the wooly Russian mystic Aleksandr Sokurov, a guest of honour at the 2006 festival, who toured the country with a local production company and then returned to film portions of his Faust, which won the Golden Lion at Venice last year (and played at RIFF the month after that).
There’s also the festival’s unique character, remarked upon by many a foreign guest—RIFF is, as far as anyone knows, the only international film festival with an annual screening in a swimming pool, a tradition continuing this year with ‘Back To The Future’ playing Laugardalslaug—and exemplified by the fest’s major award, the Golden Puffin. (Venice has the Golden Lion, Hrönn reasons, and Berlin the Golden Bear, “so we thought, ok, why not choose the puffin?”).
Only first or second-time feature filmmakers are eligible for the competition, called New Visions: identifying talent early is one function better served by festivals like RIFF than by, say, glamour-crammed Cannes, and indeed the RIFF slate, in and out of competition, is peppered with attention-getting titles from Toronto as well as American indie breakouts from earlier this year.
Also of gratifying interest to the up-to-date viewer is the documentary lineup. RIFF’s evolution has coincided with an explosion in the production of new films—as the means of production have become ever more accessible to an ever wider pool of would-be moviemakers, a proliferation of nonfiction inquiries has been a significant result. This has enlarged the world-cinema pie for festivals such as RIFF, and gives local audiences more points of entry to world culture and politics.
Docs are frequently among RIFF’s most sought-after tickets. Hrönn puts it down to the declining space for investigative or research-based television, and the natural inquisitiveness of Icelanders, citizens of a island nation eager for the opportunity to interface with a much larger world. This is especially true, perhaps, in the case of the A Different Tomorrow programme, with its emphasis on ecological documentaries of great interest to local audiences.
The goal of making Reykjavík a relevant destination in world cinema has perhaps taken on a new urgency since the collapse of the Icelandic banking system. Hrönn allows that the festival’s international profile has risen parallel to that of Iceland itself in the international imagination. In 2010, for instance, the festival and government brought the New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein over to give a talk, tour the country, and report back to his readers; he did so in a blog post rhapsodizing the festival and the country, while also noting that his most-expenses paid trip was “part of a campaign that has also put ‘You Could Be in Iceland’ [or words to that effect] posters all over New York subways,” as part of the national shift towards emphasis in cultural and heritage tourism.
But if Icelandic culture has led the recovery, it’s still living with the consequences of the crash when, Hrönn notes ruefully, “we lost most of our important sponsors.” The festival aspirations to do more year-round programming, like a film club in Tjarnarbíó next door to their offices, have been stalled—“you can’t do everything when a country goes bankrupt.” Still, the foundation and ambitions are there, as is the secure place RIFF has made for itself. Or, rather, places: the place it has made for world cinema in Iceland, and the place it has made for Iceland in world cinema.

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