Iceland, as you may have gathered, is a small island nation in the middle of the North Atlantic, a fact which as much as any other has determined the course of cinema here for most of its history. The trafficking of film prints is quite the logistical project, so new films from Hollywood, with its globe-spanning might, have been the primary attraction on Icelandic screens since around World War II. Films for a more niche audience, that can only be expected to screen a few times at most, only make it here through heroic individual initiative. Festivals like RIFF and its predecessors have long imported new art films, but vast tracts of film history—classics, let alone more obscure titles—have been rare objects, the provenance of private hobbyists. (The pop star Páll Óskar, for instance, is said to have perhaps the largest collection of 35mm film prints in Iceland. If you’re very lucky, he may invite you over to watch one.)
According to Björn Norðfjörð, a film studies professor at the University of Iceland and a specialist in Icelandic cinema, repertory screenings here have recently been in short supply. He says that filmmaker Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, a key figure in the rise of a domestic film industry in the late 1970s, “was instrumental in the legendary cinema club Fjalakötturinn, which was never really replaced, and the screenings of classics has been very limited ever since.” That is, limited to the Icelandic Film Museum, which has its own archive of foreign films but has recently been focused on screening its Icelandic holdings, and now Bíó Paradís downtown.
Creating a more diverse film culture has been the goal of Bíó Paradís ever since it opened in 2010. At the time, programme director Ásgrímur Sverrisson told Grapevine that the theatre’s ambitions, beyond first-run bookings of foreign arthouse and American independent fare, were to foster an interest in film history in Icelandic culture at large, by presenting an ambitious slate of classical, cult and new festival films. Asked if he thought there would be an audience for such films, Ásgrímur replied, “This is what we are excited about finding out—will anybody come?”
Since then, Ásgrímur says the audience response has been “variable,” but the work continues. It’s important, he continues, “because it has an effect on how film is perceived in the culture.” Icelanders can, unsurprisingly, claim a high rate of cinema attendance per capita—especially among student-age moviegoers—but the options are relatively narrow. Broadening a sense of what’s out there was, and continues to be, the goal; building an audience for regular repertory and special programming was, and continues to be, the challenge.
This fall saw, as usual for the theatre, a significant chunk of screentime given over to festivals. But, perhaps more significantly, there’s been a steady presence of in-house programming. The BÍÓ:DOX programme started in November as a grab-bag of recent documentary hits, and led to an open run for the music documentary ‘Searching for Sugar Man.’ It was an “experiment,” Ásgrímur says, in keeping up with more non-fiction film, put together with the help of Brynja Dögg Friðriksdóttir, of Reykjavík Shorts and Docs.
Bíó Paradís is also at work developing a regular monthly LGBT slot, which they hope to debut early this year, in conjunction with local organisations that will be active in the programming and, presumably, in bringing their own audience. In this model, the theatre functions as an umbrella for regular themed programming, identified with different voices of society. Expanding the offerings and broadening the potential audience go hand-in-hand.
To see how this sort of thing might work, you can look to the successful ‘Svartir sunnudagar’ (“Black Sundays”) series which began just after Halloween. It features weekly cult classics and curios, with a pre-show programme of far-out trailers. ‘Black Sundays’ is now working on locking down heady genre movies like Clint Eastwood’s elemental Western ‘High Plains Drifter,’ Henri-Georges Clouzot’s existential truck-driving thriller ‘The Wages of Fear,’ and Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for January.
The series is curated by the aforementioned Páll Óskar, TV performer and producer and former HAM guitarist Sigurjón Kjartansson, author Sjón, and artist Hugleikur Dagsson. Ásgrímur explains that these artistic luminaries had been griping on Facebook about the unadventurous film programming at Bíó Paradís so the theatre decided to offer them the chance to show the movies they’d like to see.
This consistent, colourful curatorial voice has proven effective in establishing a regular presence in the cultural life of Reykjavík. The original posters Bíó Paradís displays for each Black Sunday title, designed by local artists “who do it for the fun,” draw eyes, and establish the series as the ongoing endeavour of enthusiastic people with creative taste. Ásgrímur hopes to arrange an exhibition of all the Black Sundays posters in spring.
Film is dead; long live cinema
American studios are phasing out celluloid entirely, preferring digital exhibition for both new releases and, increasingly, their archival titles. This has distressing implications for repertory cinema in the United States—it bodes ill for the continued preservation, circulation and exhibition of much of film history—but it’s also one of many technological advances bringing the rest of the world to Iceland’s doorstep. Ásgrímur is hopeful that the theatre will soon be installing projection equipment for the new DCP (Digital Cinema Package) format. As of right now, he says, “most of the time we have to come up with the disc ourselves.”
Other concerns about securing a cultural presence for classic film remain: the theatre is currently experimenting with ‘Þrjúbió’ (“three o’clock”) screenings—having put on a couple of Charlie Chaplin afternoons—hearkening back to adolescent matinees. When programming for a younger audience, there’s still a kind of national isolation as movies must be dubbed or subtitled in Icelandic; and for young moviegoers as well as old, figuring out what will draw crowds is still a matter of trial and error. “So basically,” Ásgrímur concludes, “the entire cinema is a trial period.”
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