The Weight of Mountains film festival in Skagaströnd
Spákonufell mountain sits a small fishing village called Skagaströnd. On the edge of town, the tiny Bjarmanes Café rests perched above the sea. The café, which is open only one night each month during the winter, is warm with plush sofas and armchairs. The room is abuzz with clinking wine glasses, clattering beer bottles and so much excitement that the wind groaning against the windows is completely drowned out. All the noise dies down to a murmur, however, as the lights dim and a projector flashes to life. The Weight of Mountains film festival has begun.
The Weight of Mountains (TWOM) film development and festival programme is a new opportunity in the world of filmmaking. Organised through the Nes Artist Residency, Skagaströnd’s claim to artistic fame, 10 international artists spent three months in North Iceland working on films that examine the relationship between Skagaströnd’s harsh environment and the people who live there. As TWOM curators Melody Woodnut and Tim Marshall explain in their adorable Australian accents, projects within the filmmaking sphere tend to be large complex productions involving the coordination of many artists due to the immense amount of work that goes into making a polished film. TWOM, however, provides filmmakers with the chance to work on a completely solo film, which allows the programme’s artists to explore the bounds of their own imagination without the creative limitations of working with a group.
The first night of screenings in Café Bjarmanes are ten short films by Emily McAllan, another Nes-artist Australian who participated in TWOM. The short films are video letters, two to four minute pieces dedicated to sponsors who donated money so that she could attend the programme. The letters give a glimpse into the filmmakers’ lives during their stay in Skagaströnd, the many quirky trials, fleeting disappointments and daily triumphs they experienced. The short films depict everything from arriving in town on the bus which, in keeping with true Icelandic style, is actually just a station wagon with an S sticker on the dashboard, to playing with the local children around New Year’s bonfires.
Emily’s letters are a heartfelt and sincere access point into understanding the TWOM community, and as far as artsy Icelandic communities get, Skagaströnd is as vibrant as they come. After a few rounds of beer, cheating with Skagaströnd’s mayor during the night’s pub quiz (don’t worry, we lost anyways), and having several of the town’s many inside jokes explained to me (“Who the fuck is Laura?!?” Answer: Skagaströnd’s very own John Galt), I’m so wired up for the screenings to start the next day that I don’t even feel the walls of wind trying to knock me over as I leave the café.
Film For All
I arrive to an empty Nes studio the following morning, as the filmmakers are sleeping in after several frenzied late night hours of adding the final touches to their films. The studio is a large building overlooking the wind-whipped ocean, crammed with second hand furniture, design books, and funky art contraptions like a coffin-looking box lined with fuzz which I’m told should properly be referred to as a “Nest-box.”
As the afternoon begins to pick up, I make my way over to the Fellsborg building, a community space with a small performance hall and adjacent reception area. TWOM festival is warming up with a children’s film screening, and it seems little bundles of heavy coats and scarves are rushing in from all over town to enjoy it. “The kids are kind of the heart of this place,” Melody tells me, “we had to put something on for them.” And with the nearest cinema located two and a half hour’s drive away in Akureyri, the screening isn’t an opportunity anyone is going to miss.
After the children’s screening, the rest of the town begins arriving for the premiere of the Nes films. Compared to the funky art installations and interpretive dance pieces Nes is renowned for, Melody tells me that TWOM has gotten a lot more publicity within the Icelandic community, as she thinks film is a bit more widely accessible. Guests gather in the lobby pass for a few minutes and get a chance to buy some popcorn and a soda before Melody welcomes the crowd with a short speech and the lights turn down for the first full film to begin. Although the films are all works in progress, something it seemed everyone at Nes couldn’t stress enough, I would never have known it just from watching them.
The films range in variety, from the serious and heartfelt to the comedic and outrageous. For instance, one film depicts life within Skagaströnd’s tiny teenager community, which involves fishtailing cars on long stretches of ice. Another expresses the reality of everyday life among the wonders of the awe-inducing Icelandic environment, which is beautifully described as a life where you dream more than you sleep.
The last film finishes with a rush of hooting and applause. Melody takes to the podium again thanking the town and calling the filmmakers up to the stage where they’re each given a true artists’ reward for their hard work, a bottle of wine and a standing ovation. The night is far from over though, as we pack into a side room to mingle and prepare for the night of celebration and debauchery that follows.
The Future Of Desert Typewriters
The following day, while waiting for the “bus” that would take me back to Reykjavík, I sit nursing a vicious hangover in the local gas station/restaurant, which thankfully remains open on Sundays. I think back to the weekend in Skagaströnd, climbing up the snowy embankments on the seaside cliffs for Morgan’s QR code scavenger hunt, gorging myself on cake and popcorn after the film screening, and inspecting the wind buffeted Icelandic horses just out the window while I sipped warm tea indoors.
Although my time with TWOM has finished, for Tim and Melody there’s a lot more to come. Melody tells me that TWOM programme will continue in 2015 in an equally isolated village in the Moroccan desert. She explained to me that it’s going to be difficult to pull off the programme logistically since the town doesn’t have access to electricity. Laughing, Melody goes on saying that she was toying with the thought of hauling out a bunch of typewriters into the desert and having the next group of filmmakers focus on screenwriting. After a weekend of witnessing first-hand how funky, determined and inventive the people at Nes are, I wouldn’t put it past them for a second.