From Iceland — From Sagas To The Silver Screen: Icelandic Cinema Comes Of Age

From Sagas To The Silver Screen: Icelandic Cinema Comes Of Age

Published December 2, 2022

From Sagas To The Silver Screen: Icelandic Cinema Comes Of Age
Photo by
Art Bicnick, Truenorth

I was walking home through downtown Reykjavík one day in April when I came across a large crowd blocking the road. Asking around, I came to discover the road was closed for filming Netflix’s action-thriller ‘Heart of Stone’ starring Gal Gadot. Lots of cameras, extras, and police—all for one shot of a cyclist going down Klappastigur. I craned my head with curiosity as I waited a few minutes until I was able to continue on my way. Though it may be the norm in London or New York, a film shoot interrupting the daily life of Reykjavík residents is quite odd. 

But this may soon change. In the past few years, Iceland serving as the backdrop for Hollywood films has become a more common occurrence. Just a few days ago, I turned on an episode of HBO’s ‘The Flight Attendant’ to see it was filmed right around the corner from Grapevine’s office. 

But it’s not just international productions shaking things up in Iceland, the local film industry is also thriving. Icelandic movies have been making buzz internationally, with low-budget comedy ‘Leynilögga’ (‘Cop Secret’) even receiving a nomination for a prestigious European Film Award. Every time I visit Reykjavík’s only arthouse cinema, Bíó Paradís, there are several new Icelandic movies on the programme.

What is happening in the Icelandic film industry? Why are so many international productions coming to this tiny island in the North Atlantic? And why are there more and more Icelandic films being released each year?

In an attempt to answer these and many other questions, I embarked on a two-week journey shadowing the people from the industry to learn what the Icelandic film boom is all about. 

Landscape vs. tax incentive 

“I think the industry is doing exceptionally well,” says Leifur B. Dagfinnsson, CEO & Founder of Truenorth, a production and service company. “We are currently working on the biggest show ever done in Iceland—the HBO show ‘True Detective.’ This is a new milestone in the Icelandic filmmaking industry.”

According to Leifur, Iceland is one of the top servicers of large foreign productions. “We are the leaders in Scandinavia, and we are one of the top countries in the world,” he says. 

One of the most lucrative perks that draws international filmmakers to the island is its reimbursement scheme—a film or TV project can receive back up to 25% of costs spent on production. For bigger projects, that figure reaches 35%. 

Behind the scenes: ‘Oblivion’ (provided by Truenorth)

“Iceland is an adventurous location that offers a lot,” says Leifur. “But it takes something extra to bring these bigger shows or projects here.” He recalls that every conversation with an international producer over the past 20 years started with them asking: “Is there a tax incentive in Iceland?” 

The government introduced the reimbursement scheme in the early 2000s, steadily increasing the repayment from 12% to 20%. “When it went up to 20%, in 2012, we did four projects—‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,’ ‘Oblivion,’ ‘Thor: The Dark World,’ and ‘Noah.’ That was the first time four major projects filmed one after another in a tight timeframe over the course of five months,” shares Leifur.  

“For some of these features, Iceland is very specific for aesthetics, an important piece of telling the story,” Lefur continues. “There are a few countries in the world that have such a variety of landscapes in such a small area. Huge, epic nature is less than half an hour’s drive away outside Reykjavík.” 

The local mindset is another key ingredient. “No problem is too big to be solved,” Leifur smiles. “It’s the go-to mentality—we solve things, we fix things, always with a positive attitude. Like one famous filmmaker said, ‘it takes a lot for an Icelander to complain.’” 

The increased demand from production companies has led to a growth in studio space and other stage infrastructure in Iceland. “In the past, most of the foreign projects have only filmed in Iceland for one or two weeks. But now we’re filming a whole TV series [‘True Detective’], using the location, landscape, and stages. We have about 8000 square metres of stage availability, which was non-existent two years ago,” Leifur shares. 

The Fast and Furious (provided by Truenorth)

“I can quite honestly say that 2022 has been the biggest year production wise for Truenorth,” Leifur admits. “I think that’s great news also for the entire industry.” He believes that with every new project coming to Iceland, more jobs are created and the infrastructure grows. “In the near future these types of productions can be entirely crewed by Icelanders,” he says optimistically.

The DIY nation

“The Icelandic film industry has been growing steadily larger, for at least the last fifteen years or so,” says Ásgrímur Sverrisson, filmmaker and industry expert. “Back 25 years ago, we used to make maybe four to five films a year.”

When the whole world shut down because of the pandemic, Iceland found a way to work with restrictions to ensure as few close interactions on set as possible. “In the first COVID year, we actually did 10 movies and 10 TV series. That’s not counting any foreign production,” Ásgrímur shares. “This is huge for us.”

“We grew up with no television on Thursdays and no television in July.”

“When I started out in 1978, we had to create everything. Everybody who wanted to go into filmmaking had to join hands to create this industry. I think that gives you a strong sense of purpose,” Ásgrímur recounts. “My father was one of the people who founded the public television network RÚV in 1966. Back then, RÚV was the only filming body in Iceland. There was no cinema.”

“We grew up with no television on Thursdays and no television in July. It was a holiday for the staff,” says Ásgrímur. “A lot of people who worked there [at RÚV] in the 1970s, went on to start Icelandic cinema around 1980. It was the breeding ground for the Icelandic film industry.” 

“It’s interesting to see how this film world has come closer to us,” Ásgrímur continues. “Because, believe me, it felt quite distant when I was a kid. It was like a mythical fairy tale on the screen. That was Hollywood. But now it’s here.”

Film evolution

Steve Gravestock has been a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for 23 years. A large part of his job centres on selecting Nordic films for the festival. He has recently published the book, A History of Icelandic Film,” that documents the development of the industry, stretching back to the silent period.

Steve believes it was the launch of a government-led fund that gave an impetus to the industry: “One of the big things was the establishment of the Icelandic film fund in the late 1970s, which obviously led to the Icelandic spring and a lot of the key filmmakers in the 1980s.” 

“Increasingly in the last 10 years, there’s a lot of attention paid to Icelandic films at film festivals, which I think has allowed them to access markets,” says Steve. “In the last two years ‘Lamb’ and ‘Godland’ were big successes. ‘Godland’ was one of the most talked about films in Cannes and certainly one of the most talked about films in Toronto this year.” 

After making lots of buzz internationally, ‘Godland’ is finally coming to Icelandic cinemas next year

Ásgrímur agrees that one of the key changes in the last decade is that Icelandic filmmakers started to participate in bigger festivals. “The attention towards Icelandic cinema has increased a lot,” he says. “We were always sort of knocking on the door [asking,] ‘Can we participate in the big festivals?’ and very rarely they said ‘yes.’ But now, it’s quite usual to have one or two films playing at big festivals every year.”

“The scene is just bigger, there’re more people making films and also the TV industry has exploded,” adds film director Elsa María Jakobsdóttir. “There’s so many people who are making television now. All of a sudden there’s a lot of people with relevant experience who are willing and able. That has also to do with the endless platforms and the endless demand for content.” 

“It’s a very Icelandic thing to be self-sufficient,” Steve adds. “There’s a lot of artists who do a wide variety of things. They’re not just shooting films, they’re musicians, they’re writers, etc. It’s a very self-sufficient country in that way—I’m always impressed that people can do that.” 

Beyond the frame

My quest to better understand the Icelandic film industry was complicated by the sheer number of different people it takes to make a film. Of course to the outside eye, the actors on screen are the most visible element of the final production.

“Being an actress, I have the least insight into the industry,” admits Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, best known for her role in ‘Kona fer í stríð’ (‘Woman at War’), as we sit down for a chat. However, she agrees that the Icelandic film scene has evolved significantly in the last few years. “The world is changing for us in the sense that we have possibilities to get much more work in TV or film. Back when I graduated 25 years ago, it was an accident if you got a job in a film or a television programme,” Halldóra shares.

‘Kona fer í stríð’ (‘Woman at War’) poster

“We are all getting better at it. Both the industry and the artists,” she continues. “We still may be teenagers in some way, compared to European film, but we have some childish happiness that makes us make films that people actually want to see, because we are not stuck in the system.” 

According to Halldóra, streaming platforms like Netflix are also driving the industry: “They’re making series and films where people don’t necessarily need to speak perfect English. We [actors with accents] have opportunities to go between countries and continents. The world is getting smaller.”

Ingredients for a good movie

“I think Iceland is really respected for originality,” says Margrét Einarsdóttir, a costume designer who received an Edda Award for her work on ‘Dýrið’ (‘Lamb’). “We are pretty mature about the stories we want to tell. There are not many other countries in the world that would have produced, for example, ‘Rams’ or ‘Lamb’.”

‘Dýrið’ (‘Lamb’) poster

Margrét also acknowledges the recent change in the film landscape. “It is more of a respected art form than it was before,” she says. “Also with the foreign films that we are servicing, we learn a lot with every project that comes.”

“I think that we as a nation are a creative bunch of people. We have an urge to tell stories,” shares Margrét. “That’s a main part of our heritage. We publish and read a lot of books, it’s in our culture. We preserve our language and our stories more than we preserve buildings. [Film] is a different form of the Sagas—a more modern way of telling our story.”

“I do think it’s important that we understand how important it is to have a voice and that this tiny, micro nation has this strong voice, is pretty spectacular and noticeable,” she adds.“I think we should carry on doing well and help this industry flourish and become better.”

Equality in film 

Stereotypically, cinematography has always been perceived as a male-driven industry. Iceland often leads charts as the best place to live and work as a woman, so, naturally I’m interested to learn what my interviewees think about gender distribution and equality in the industry. 

“I didn’t realise it was a male world until I got older,” says Halldóra. “It wasn’t until I was almost 50 I realised the reason I never played a leading part was not because I was a bad actress. It was because there was never a part for me. Because it was never written.”

“We have to make sure that our daughters get the same opportunities as our sons.”

Things are changing today, Halldóra is confident, but we need to keep an eye open and stay cautious. “We have to make sure that our daughters get the same opportunities as our sons,” she says.

“I feel like there’s a more positive outlook on female heads of departments,” says Margrét. “Iceland does have a broader vision of having empowered women. I think it’s becoming more common now. We also start to tell different stories from women’s perspectives,” she adds.

Elsa agrees that more women are making their steps in the industry. “There are more and more women directing now than when I decided to go into this a few years ago,” she says. “There’s a lot of new female talent about to make their first features.”

Scandinavian pain 

When imagining an Icelandic movie, chances are one imagines a typical Nordic noir story with bleak landscapes and dry humour. “The Scandinavian pain is very popular,” says Ásgrímur. “We like to make movies about dark aspects of life. Personally, I think we do a little bit too much of it. Some of those films are very good but we could use a little more entertaining films,” he says, adding: “But that’s also a European thing. They [European films] tend to be a little bit on the misery porn side.”

But there are signs that this familiar style is set to change. “My film has nothing to do with that,” says Elsa María Jakobsdóttir, who’s about to release her first feature film Villibráð’ (‘Wild Game’). “There’s no woollen sweater in my film. There are no sheep, there are no mountains, there’s no lifrakæfa [a popular liver spread], or the radio station, Rás 1. There’s no conventional things or themes that you see in Icelandic films.”

‘Wild Game’ is a comedy based on the concept taken from the Italian film ‘Perfect Strangers.’ The film takes place in contemporary Reykjavík, in a house in Vesturbær. “The film I’m making is not meant for festivals,” shares Elsa. “It’s absolutely been made for the local audience. And that is not a very common goal for an Icelandic film. It’s a little bit different when you sit down to write a film like that, and you know that you don’t have to be understood, accepted, or liked outside of this culture.” 

Elsa agrees that she’s taken a peculiar approach to making this film but it’s a rather rewarding process. “That’s a part of the freeing attitude that we had—we don’t need to sell this abroad. We are only trying to entertain our people.”

Industry hurdles

The film industry in Iceland is still relatively small, and many within it agree that underfinancing is one of the key challenges Icelandic filmmakers face.

“There’s a lot of pressure. But there has always been a lot of pressure to try to find money and get a movie made,” says Ásgrímur. “What happens is when we get more money, the pressure also increases. It’s always hard to get the project going.”

According to Steve, steady support of the film fund is vital to keep the industry thriving. “When you’re a smaller, less densely populated country, government support is crucial.” 

Margrét believes that a lot of challenges are connected to the dramatic increase in visiting productions. “Having these huge machines coming in takes up a lot of the manpower. We need to educate more people. It’s hard in these big productions to learn as you go. I think we need to be able to teach our crews ethical ways of working, being able to be patient, and not putting too much responsibility on people.” 

Ásgrímur is afraid that big Hollywood productions coming to Iceland might result in the local industry disintegrating a bit. He doesn’t want it to happen here: “Foreign productions coming to Iceland, that’s the sideshow. The only thing that really matters is the films we make, the art we create.” 

“If we only want to tell popular stories, we’re in bad shape.”

“We need more money,” Margrét adds. “We need more money to tell our stories in even more spectacular ways. We have hardly done period movies because it’s too expensive. We cannot afford to tell old stories because we just don’t have the money.”

“Of course, it’s a pity that people don’t go and see those arthouse movies,” Margrét agrees. “But I think it’s even more important that we make them. It cannot all be about numbers and how many viewers we have. If we only want to tell popular stories, we’re in bad shape.”

“I think the challenge is to convince the government to open up,” says Halldóra. “To show them that films are actually creating jobs and films can create peace. You can make films, not war, you can really build bridges between human beings with storytelling.”

“I think there are blooming times ahead,” she continues. “But we need the money. It has to begin with the government deciding they want us to create films in Icelandic or create films that tell Icelandic stories.” 

Embracing homegrown success

To top off the exciting recent expansions in the Icelandic film, the 2022 European Film Awards will be hosted in Reykjavík in December. Excitingly, some Icelandic films have already been recognized by the European Film Academy this year, making me wonder if Icelandic filmmakers are inspired to aim higher. Could an Icelandic film compete for an Oscar one day? 

“We are such a small nation, it’s not a given that we create interesting cinema that other people anticipate.”

“Focusing on Oscars is always too little for me,” says Steve. “It narrows things down. If the industry only consisted of Oscar nominees, it would be very small.” 

“I think that the film talent and stories are definitely here. But it needs to be a mission, like a national sport,” Elsa believes. “To go after an Oscar takes so much more than a fantastic film.”

For Ásgrímur, the fact that Icelandic film has gone from homegrown effort to being recognised abroad is already a success. “I think it’s a real achievement for the Icelandic film industry to go from relative obscurity to something that is known in the film industry. Because we are such a small nation, it’s not a given that we create interesting cinema that other people anticipate and ask themselves ‘What’s coming from Iceland this year?’ It’s not a given at all,” he says. 

“Basically my default position is like this—‘An Icelandic movie is coming up? That’s fantastic. I’m really looking forward to see it.’ Most of the time, I’m a little bit disappointed. But I’m always hopeful. Probably because this was very ingrained in me from an early age, when every Icelandic film was precious,” he says.

Iceland has a population of only about 360,000—and yet produces more films per capita than any other country in the world. Ásgrímur laughs: “It’s very easy for us to win that competition. We make 1 film and it’s like 1000 films in America.” He adds: “but sometimes it can be useful, not to boast, but more to tell ourselves, ‘We can do this.’ There used to be a tendency when we looked upon ourselves: we are far away from everybody, we’re very few, we used to be quite poor. This all has changed. We saw the world, the world didn’t see us. The world has changed. Now the world sees us more and more.”

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