From Iceland — Be There Or Be Square

Be There Or Be Square

Published April 18, 2012

Be There Or Be Square

When I learned that a young artist that I had never heard of was putting on a show exclusively for the residents of a tiny hamlet I didn’t remember ever hearing of, I just had to go witness it. The event’s producer, Kári Viðarsson—a Hellissandur native, actor and film student—was attempting to get every living soul in the village of Rif to attend a rock concert. That’s all 165 of them, including newborn children, the elderly and everyone between.
Kári told me he’d personally make sure that people would attend. And he wasn’t lying. A few weeks prior to the show he’d been on a couple of Rif crusades, visiting each household to deliver a personal invitation, and on the day of the event he was on the phone calling up people and reminding them. Only he wouldn’t tell them who was performing, and then he would make a documentary capturing the crowd and the performances.
Googling Rif revealed that the village is located on Snæfellsnes, smack dab between Ólafsvík and Sandgerði. I called my driver and photographer; we looked at the map and decided that if we drove around the Snæfellsnes peninsula that we would reach Stykkishólmur and from there we would turn left toward Ólafsvík, and then it would be somewhere between Hellisandur and Ólafsvík. “We’ll figure it out” was the general consensus and we set off on a three hour drive from Reykjavík.
It was Sunday, March 11 and the weather gods were not being particularly nice. With no steep mountains, Rif is largely unprotected from the elements and its streets, homes and their dwellers are like sitting ducks. Thus it was cold, fucking cold. Were it not for the ocean, Rif would be a hellhole weather-wise. But it’s not. It’s just very cold, grey, barren and windy at this time of year and I loved it.
It felt like a ghost town. There was no one around. The venue was an old freezing plant called Frystiklefinn. It looked and smelled like it. The ghouls of fallen shrimps and triumphed fish must be around, but I chose not to think about such abhorrence. We found Kári there, eager and ready for the evening. Kári showed me a list of all of the residents and started reading out their names. Everyone has a nickname. After doing the door to door and calling and emailing everyone, he felt certain that they would show up, provided they were in town.
It was an event in and of itself when both young and old explained that they could not attend. The reasons varied. Some were out of town, others were registered to claim benefits in Rif, but live somewhere else. Many were at sea. The rest were ill or at home nursing newborns. I got a taste of the local humour as Kári talked about what kind of characters the missing persons were, and everyone was laughing.

Ylja kicked off the evening ever so pleasantly, immediately captivating the audience. It was as if they did not want a single note of music nor a single heartfelt slide-guitar lead go to waste and the angelic twin-vocal melodies had Rif’s population in a lock. The set went over so well that Ylja resorted to playing the same song twice when they ran out of tunes. Svavar Knúts was up next. “It’s fantastic getting these young artists for a visit. It pulls the community closer together,” Guðrún Gísladóttir (55) tells me as Svavar sets up. His performance goes down with a storm. Half of his set was spent spilling his guts to the crowd and they loved every second of it. This was the perfect environment for him.
Then Kári got on stage to inform the attendees of the final tally. “There are 133 people currently in the hamlet, and 92 are at this concert,” he told us. He calculated that this was about 70%. Being an optimistic man, he reminded us that this was the equivalent of 92.000 people turning out for a gig in Reykjavík. We all chuckled. He continued: “It says something about your community that so many of you came without knowing who would play.” And indeed it does. Ragna Magnússdóttir (24) told me she wasn’t surprised by the sizable turnout. “People are just happy to not have to go to Hellissandur and Ólafssvík for cultural entertainment,” she said. “I find countryside folks are by and large more eager than city folks to engage in social events.”


Kári admitted that he had hoped for a larger turnout. “I tried my darnedest but not everyone was informed,” he told me. I asked him whether the stereotype about small town gossip—everyone knowing and participating simply ‘cause it’s something to do, didn’t apply today. He wasn’t sure. “A lot of foreigners live here and during roll call I realised a lot of them were not here. There is a division between them and the Iceland natives. I assume some have moved since the list was published. Others simply didn’t want to be here. I sent my cameraman out during the show to encourage more people to come, and he had a door or two slammed in his face,” he said laughing.
It was not for lack of trying on Kári’s part for he had invitation cards translated so every non-native would feel welcome. “Some of them came. That’s great. It’s better than nothing. I’ve been involved in theatre productions in this very venue and the Polish never came. So this is encouraging. I’m proud so many people came for this first Rif-residents-only concert.”
Being a firm believer in Kári’s sincerity and passion to entertain and engage his people, I couldn’t help but to play devil’s advocate. Was this event self-serving to facilitate him with material for his film? “It’s a good question,” he said. “I don’t think the goals are mutually exclusive. The initial idea was born while studying documentary filmmaking. The setting and context is inspired by this venue because it’s been on my mind since I did my monodrama graduation piece there. Achieving the 100% was not the sole purpose. I’m more concerned with giving back to this community because it has been good to me and supported my artistic endeavours from day one.”
The Frystiklefinn art space is here to stay and Kári and his friends will continue to explore its potential year round. If Rif’s reaction and acceptance is anything to go by, it will cement itself as a hub for arts and culture for years to come.

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