One might be forgiven for thinking that some sort of elven curse was placed upon this year’s Skjaldborg Film Festival. For the past 13 years, the festival has showcased new Icelandic documentaries at the local cinema of Patreksfjörður. Usually held in May, this year it was initially moved to the first weekend of August due to COVID-19. As it happened, there was then a COVID surge in August, so the festival was once-again moved to mid-September and relocated to Reykjavík’s newly reopened Bíó Paradís.
As volunteers worked hard to get the renovations done in time for the festival, another COVID surge began and it seemed the festival might have to be postponed again. However, things went forward and Skjaldborg’s first edition in the big city can be deemed a success.
As usual, Skjaldborg’s programme introduced us to hidden worlds found in our midst. In this iteration, we got ageing communists, the clientele at a second-hand shop and even a circus. While the opening film, ‘Aftur heim?’ was about giving birth at home, if there was an overarching theme this year, it was of saying goodbye. Perhaps this focus was a hidden sign of an ageing society or just very 2020.
A double bill on Saturday afternoon started with ‘MÍR: Byltingin lengi lifi,’ about the MÍR Cultural Centre. The Centre has been showing Russian films in Iceland since 1950—outliving the Soviet Union by almost 30 years now—and is still run by the ageing idealists that founded it. The film was followed by ‘Ökukveðja 010006621,’ a heart-rending story about a woman learning to let go of driving as her body deteriorates. The day closed with ‘Er ást,’ which is about the widow of beloved artist Þorvaldur Þorsteinsson and their last days together in Antwerpen in 2013.
A history of humanity
The festival closed on Sunday with the much anticipated ‘Last and First Men’ by renowned film score composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who died suddenly two years ago and would have turned 51 during this year’s festival. A future history based on a 1930 novel by Olaf Stapledon, it tells the history of humanity and its successor species for the next two billion years, largely from its base on Neptune.
While one might think the film would be prohibitively expensive to make, instead it’s composed of actress Tilda Swinton reading from an abridged final chapter of the book as the screen is filled with images of World War II monuments from the former Yugoslavia, themselves part of a communist world that no longer exists and that stand in rather well for large scale science fiction sets. What at first seems like yet another dystopia is actually surprisingly optimistic and is lent extra pathos coming, as it is, from beyond the grave. It is our world still; it’s not too late to save it.
But the jewel in the crown of this year’s festival was ‘Hálfur álfur,’ which won the Grand Jury Prize. Here, filmmaker Jón Bjarki Magnússon documents the final days of his grandfather, leading from his 100-year birthday to his death. The film is touching but never overly sentimental—even very funny in parts. Saying farewell is a part of life and we should all hope for a send-off like this. The title is a reference to the fact that the grandfather believed himself to be a half-elf.
It seems the elves came through for Skjaldborg after all.
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