Snævar Sölvason’s independent film ‘Albatross’ sits squarely within what’s sometimes jokingly referred to as Iceland’s signature cinematic genre: ninety minutes or so in the company of a man running in place.
In ‘Albatross’, that man is Tommi (Ævar Örn Jóhannsson), who follows his girlfriend up to the Westfjords for a summer prior to beginning a university course he’s not passionate about. He soon finds himself dumped and directionless, killing time stone dead with his even less ambitious co-workers, while dodging the question of what, if anything, comes next. The film could be described as ‘Á annan veg’, except on a golf course rather than the side of the road. ‘Paris of the North’, except in Bolungarvík instead of Flateyri.
Indeed, one of the most distinctive aspects of ‘Albatross’ is that it’s an Icelandic film made without the support of the Icelandic Film Centre.
‘Albatross’ was financed independently, with postproduction money coming via the Karolina Fund crowdfunding site. This is a model that has already funded successful and ambitious projects by fairly major names elsewhere in the Icelandic arts community. So, as professional-quality photographic equipment becomes more and more accessible (or, if you prefer, as cinemagoing audiences’ standards of professional quality are diluted further and further by the use of digital technologies not far removed from everyday life…), and especially given the relatively modest scope of the Icelandic early midlife/late quarterlife crisis movie (provincial location shoot, small cast, few if any effects), it’s not unreasonable to predict the emergence of an Icelandic microcinema to recall parallel movements abroad, such as the American “mumblecore” of the aughts.
This can only be helpful in providing opportunities for emerging new talent, and supporting the sorts of stories—modest in scale, intimate in tone—which have been the historic terrain of indie filmmakers the world over. Much recent talk about the Icelandic Film Centre has focused on the lagging gender diversity within the established domestic film industry—recall the recent Guerilla Girls billboard citing the shameful historical statistics, and Baltasar Kormákur’s call for more progressive quotas in the awarding of grants. Because of its funding model, ‘Albatross’ is, paradoxically, a step towards a more diverse Icelandic cinema—and perhaps not even paradoxically, if you keep in mind that stories about straight cis white dudes with more self-awareness than self-confidence are no more or less “personal” than any other stories.
In any case, ‘Albatross’ is an affable variation on that theme. It takes place almost entirely around a golf course, and unfolds with the laid-back, boys-club rhythms of nine holes and a beer in the clubhouse afterwards. Writer-director Snævar makes plenty of space simply for scenes of Tommi bro-ing out with his maintenance crew co-workers, riffing on toilet paper technique and regional slang with sun-hatted “master baiter” Kiddi (Gunnar Kristinsson, an affectingly raw-boned Paddy Considine lookalike) and Finni (Finnbogi Dagur Sigurðsson), a lover of muscle cars and food products from mustard (for biscuits) to vegetable oil (for tanning).
Such dramatic tension as ‘Albatross’ possesses comes from course owner Kjartan’s (Pálmi Gestsson) determination to host a tournament usually held by those assholes in Ísafjörður; rather than achieve closure over his relationship or clarity about his life plan, Tommi throws himself into debates over which fertilizer to use, and whether or not to mow a driving range taken up for nesting by arctic terns who know their 60s Hitchcock.
Such objectively tiny matters, which take on life-or-death importance to their participants, make, in ‘Albatross’, a stealthily moving dramatization of circumscribed small-town life: as the film progresses, it becomes rather clear that its characters have chosen tunnel-visioned eccentricity over huge gaping sadness. If ‘Albatross’ is ultimately a modest addition to the dude-fighting-his-inertia genre, it’s all the more likeable, earnest and grounded for it.
Money well spent.
‘Albatross’ starts showing on September 4 at Bíó Paradís. For more information, see bioparadis.is.