From Iceland — Skjaldborg Calling

Skjaldborg Calling

Published May 17, 2024

Skjaldborg Calling
Photo by
Joana Fontinha

The cinematic celebration returns to Patreksfjörður May 17 to 20

As I meet Kristín Andrea Þórðardóttir and Sigríður Regína Sigurþórsdóttir, members of the Skjaldborg production team, I’m eager to learn what’s in store for this year’s event. Sigga Regína is quick to share her excitement: “It’s going to be great.”

I don’t need much convincing. Having attended the documentary film festival in the remote fishing town of Patreksfjörður last year, I know her words are true.

Premieres only

Skjaldborg is an amorphous, filmmaker-driven festival that throws open its doors each year (quite literally, as the screenings are free) for a diversely curated documentary film experience. So many things about this festival are odd and unconventional, but once you’ve attended for the first time, you’re bound to return. 

One of the festival’s major draws is its focus on premieres. Premiering a film at Skjaldborg has become a quality trademark for Icelandic documentarians. In 2024, the festival is premiering six feature films and seven shorts. 

“We received a record number of submissions,” Kristín Andrea explains. “And a record number of feature length [films] — really long feature length ones. A lot of them were over 90 minutes or just about.” 

Still from Purrkur Pillnikk

Though not intentional, Skjaldborg’s selections often follow a theme. “This year, we have quite a lot of music focus in both the features and the shorts,” she adds. The music-related films this year include Kjartan Trauner’s documentary Turn of the Century, featuring music from the album Dream is Murder by Sin Fang, Sóley and Örvar Smárason; Árni Sveinsson’s Cowboy of the North: The Story of Johnny King, telling the story of an old Icelandic country singer; a film that follows a punk band until their last concert Purrkur Pillnikk: Sofandi vakandi lifandi dauður by Kolbeinn Hringur and Bambus Einarsson; and Halldorophone?, the story of an odd instrument by Nikulás Tumi Hlynsson.

But there’s more to Skjaldborg’s lineup than music. The festival will share stories about changing careers at 83, crafting handmade paper, the story of the last machinist in Þingeyri, the tunnel that celebrated graffiti in Reykjavík, an animated film about growing cherry tomatoes and more.

One of the films Kristín and Sigga highlight in the programme is Fjallið það öskrar (When the Mountain Roars) by Daníel Bjarnason. The film documents the devastating Sudavík avalanche in 1995, which claimed the lives of 14 people and injured 12 others. It features interviews with three survivors and includes archival VHS tapes found amidst the rubble. “It is a very touching, heartbreaking film,” says Kristín Andrea. “It’s gonna strike a chord with the locals in Patreksfjörður because they’ve also experienced avalanches.” 

“These sorts of things [avalanches and mudslides] are a big part of life for a lot of small towns around the country,” says Sigga Regína. “Even living in Reykjavík, I remember learning what to do if you get caught in an avalanche.”

To bring the reality into a sharp focus, after the screening, the festival visitors will be invited to take a guided walk with a municipality representative on and around the protective walls of Patreksfjörður, helping them better understand how important these structures are for the town’s safety. 

Recognising short films

The films screening at Skjaldborg are competing for monetary and in-service prizes. In addition to Skjaldborg’s Jury Award and The Audience Award, known as the Einar (named after a local carpenter who’s been crafting it since the very start of the festival), this year’s edition of Skjaldborg is trying something new. 

“Skjaldborg has always been about nurturing the grassroots.”

“We’re starting a new award,” says Kristín Andrea. “We’ve sensed that there’s a need to introduce a Special Jury Award for the shorts.” She explains that over the years, the Jury Award would usually go to an outstanding feature, but the team saw the need to recognise documentary shorts. This was similarly observed by others in the film industry this year, with the Edda Awards by the Icelandic Film and Television Academy also introducing a special award for short films.

“Skjaldborg has always been about nurturing the grassroots. An essential part of the programming has been about including shorts,” says Kristín Andrea, adding that for young filmmakers, documentary shorts are a helpful way to experiment with form and try things out. “This is going to be a really good addition in terms of nurturing up and coming documentarians.” 

Swapping Cannes for Patró

Coincidentally, for two years in a row, Skjaldborg will welcome a creative duo as their guests of honour, with award-winning film editors Maya Daisy Hawke and Joe Bini in the spotlight this year. The married couple and regular collaborators are bringing a selection of their work to Patreksfjörður — Maya edited Oscar and Sundance-winning Navalny (directed by Daniel Roher) about the late Russian opposition leader, and both Maya and Joe collaborated on Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, which follows Timothy Treadwell, who devoted his life to living with grizzly bears in Alaska.

Still from Grizzly Man

Followed by two screenings, the couple will host an inspirational talk for the local audience, looking back at their career-forming films.

“They’re coming here, even though they’re really supposed to be in Cannes,” laughs Kristín Andrea. “For the guests of honour we’ve had, this is just a very unusual festival. I guess, when you’ve been to all these big festivals several times, it’s fun to go to a very remote place.”

“It’s the magic of Patreksfjörður,” smiles Sigga Regína.

Palestine in focus

Reflecting on the more than 200 days since Israel’s latest war on Gaza, the festival’s organisers emphasise the need to provide a platform. Therefore, they’ll be hosting a special screening of three Palestinian shorts. “For us, it was important to highlight the beauty of the Palestinian people, their spirit of resistance and their culture,” Kristín Andrea says. 

Sigga Regína adds, “The films we are screening are not new; they’re older, but they celebrate the Palestinian culture and are also quite related to what is going on — they have elements of peaceful resistance and the use of tradition in resistance to oppression.”

The curated films for the slot include Flying Papers by Nitin Sawhney and Roger Hill, Made In Palestine by Mariam Dwedar and The Silent Protest: Jerusalem 1929 by Mahasen Nasser-Eldin. The team has invited Icelandic-Palestinian filmmaker Fahad Falur Jabali to do an introduction and contextualise the films.

Still from Flying Papers

“One [of the films] is about children who broke a world record by flying over 7,000 kites on the Gaza strip,” Kristín Andrea says of Flying Papers, emphasising how a kite serves as a symbol of freedom. “The method that people are using now to distract children from the horrors of what’s going on is kite making,” says Sigga Regína.

From the archives

For the past few years, The National Film Archive of Iceland has curated a screening at Skjaldborg and this year is no exception. “The work they do at the archive is amazing,” the organisers agree, highlighting their impressive efforts to collect old films, clean them up, scan them in 4K, restore and curate them.

The collaboration between the Archive and the Skjaldborg team aims to spotlight important works from the history of Icelandic cinema. This year’s selection from the Archive brings two shorts by Reynir Oddsson, a pioneering filmmaker who introduced the French New Wave to Iceland.

“They’re coming to Patreksfjörður even though they’re really supposed to be in Cannes.”

Speaking about the deeper significance of the programming, Kristín Andrea says, “I was looking at everything that’s happening in Palestine. There are attempts to completely erase the race, universities, archives, mosques, homes — anything that could contain any traces of culture is being bulldozed over.” She draws a parallel to the 1995 Sudavík avalanche depicted in the premiering film. “I was thinking about all the care put into finding any items to preserve and give back to the survivors here. It’s amazing to see the complete difference — the care and the respect for people who suffered in Sudavík versus what’s happening in Gaza,” reflects Kristín Andrea. “The importance of an archive is huge. It’s not until you lose it that you realise how important it is.” 

Ester Bíbí Ásgeirsdóttir from the National Film Archive will introduce the screening, focusing on the importance of controlling one’s narrative through archival preservation.

More than just movies

While most of the festival happens inside Skjaldborgarbíó, Skjaldborg’s packed programme extends far beyond film screenings. It’s about nurturing a new generation of documentary enthusiasts, connecting with industry fellows and potentially cultivating future filmmakers: the team offers a documentary filmmaking course for children, develops pitch workshops for filmmakers and provides opportunities to showcase unfinished works-in-progress. The stages and topics of these films vary greatly.

“It depends on the filmmaker at what point in their process they would like to let other people know about their project,” says Sigga Regína, highlighting the importance of feedback. “Having an open conversation, discussing what you’re doing, your methods and next steps can be really precious.”

The festivities don’t end as the cinema closes. After hours, the festival leaves the theatre for a home-cooked fish feast and spills out on the streets with a lively parade.

“All the fun, quirky traditions are still there,” says Kristín Andrea, inviting attendees to a closing party with a DJ set by FM Belfast.

“The swimming pool is open. And it’s included in the festival passes, which is very important for people like me,” Sigga Regína smiles. “It’s going to be great!”

Skjaldborg runs from May 17 to 20 in Patreksfjörður. For full programme and info visit: skjaldborg.is

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