From Iceland — Movies On The Fjord: A Taste of Skjaldborg

Movies On The Fjord: A Taste of Skjaldborg

Published June 11, 2023

Photo by
Art Bicnick

A couple in their seventies strolling towards the cinema, clutching a six-pack of beer. A steadfast group of 10-year-olds always claiming the central seats in the front row. A duo of filmmakers taking turns between movie screenings and babysitting the children. Local women whose plokkfiskur recipe elicits applause on par with a grand movie premiere. A choir singer about to pitch his tent, instead finding a warm place to stay courtesy of a generous local. And a splendid fish feast. This is Skjaldborg.

All roads west

Skjaldborg is an annual documentary film festival in Patreksfjörður, the largest town in the southern Westfjords, located about a five-hour drive from Reykjavík. “This festival is all about quirky traditions,” says Skjaldborg’s project manager, Kristín Andrea Þórðardóttir, as we meet at the festival’s opening party. 

“You can’t explain Skjaldborg to anybody.”

Despite the miserable weather outside — pouring rain and fierce Icelandic winds that could easily damage parked cars — the atmosphere inside FLAK, one of Patreksfjörður’s liveliest bars, is the complete opposite. On one side of the bar, locals eagerly enjoy the eponymous IPA, while on the other, familiar faces from Reykjavík mingle, as if everyone from Kaffibarinn has migrated to FLAK for the night. The lights dim and the audience is treated to some clips from the National Film Archive of Iceland, before bursting into laughter. Can movies really bring people together? 

Karna Sigurðardóttir, who runs the festival together with Kristín Andrea, believes they can. According to Karna, the idea of Skjaldborg dates back to the early 2000s when one of the festival founders came across the town’s beautiful cinema, Skjaldborgarbíó, on a trip to Patreksfjörður. 

Photo by Art Bicnick

“It’s been a filmmakers’ festival. It’s always run by filmmakers,” says Karna. In 2023, the festival’s jury members included producer Anton Máni Svansson, choreographer and visual artist Margrét Bjarnadóttir and documentary filmmaker and anthropologist Jón Bjarki Magnússon. “Some of the founders are still involved. We have a really solid group of people that we can call for opinions,” Karna explains.

Connecting through documentaries

While the number of people who can visit Skjaldborg is limited to the seating capacity of the cinema, the organisers make efforts to attract as many locals as possible. “Inclusivity is really important to us,” says Kristín Andrea. “From the beginning of the festival, all the screenings have been free to encourage people from here to pop in for a screening or two, even though they may not be able to come for the whole weekend.”

“We also get regulars that come every year from Reykjavík and from other places. It’s not only filmmakers, it’s also documentary lovers. This festival has definitely created more appreciation for the documentary form in Patreksfjörður and the surrounding area,” adds Karna, emphasising that Skjaldborg also draws visitors from Ísafjörður, ​​Flateyri and other towns scattered throughout the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes peninsula.

The importance of Skjaldborg for this community is evident from the fact that there are hardly ever any empty seats in the cinema. As we wait for the closing film to begin, I take a peek outside and see crowds of people strolling along Aðalstræti, heading towards Skjaldborgarbíó. It feels as though at least one person from every single house in Patreksfjörður is participating in the festival in one way or another.

A quality revolution 

In terms of film programming, Skjaldborg is unique because it relies on one cinema. “It’s linear programming — a shared experience from start to finish. This is quite a different experience from other festivals,” says Karna.

The Icelandic film industry has developed a lot since the festival began, Karna stresses. “We’ve been seeing huge changes — more films are being made by a more diverse group of people. The quality is also increasing.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

What makes the 2023 programme special is how intimate the stories are, regardless if it’s a short film or a full-length documentary. “Deeply intimate, but very much feel good,” Kristín Andrea adds. The Audience Award, known as the Einar and named after a local carpenter who has been crafting it since the festival’s inception, this year went to Heimaleikurinn (The Home Game) directed by Smári Gunnarsson and Logi Sigursveinsson. The doc is a cheerful story of a football team, destined to fail, but ultimately successful. Once you see the audience’s reaction to the movie at Skjaldborgarbíó, you are once again reminded that Icelanders really like football. The film gets roaring applause, followed by a soundtrack performed on the cinema’s stage by a rap duo. What else could you want?

Soviet Barbara, a film by Gaukur Úlfarsson, received Skjaldborg’s Jury Award. The film follows contemporary artist Ragnar Kjartansson on a trip to Moscow for an ambitious exhibition that faces censorship until the artist makes the decision to cancel the exhibition on the day Russia invades Ukraine. Skuld (For the Love of Cod) received the special mention of the festival. It follows a couple through their journey of starting in the fishing industry.

Photo by Art Bicnick

In addition to showcasing Icelandic documentaries and works-in-progress, Skjaldborg takes great care in selecting guest filmmakers for the festival. After attending several screenings and artist talks with the 2023 guests — Corinne van Egeraat and Petr Lom, one starts to truly appreciate the universality of human beings, regardless of whether the movie was filmed in Iceland or Myanmar.

“The most drastic change to the festival was back in 2017, when we started the Jury Award,” says Kristín Andrea. “From the beginning, the Audience Award has been the only award. What we brought along with it was the prize money.” She emphasises that the prize money gives aspiring filmmakers a long-awaited boost for their projects. In 2023, the two winning films received 500,000 ISK for equipment rental from KUKL and 250,000 ISK for post-production services from Trickshot.  

The heartbeat of Skjaldborg

While one might agree the heart of Skjaldborg is Skjaldborgarbíó, it’s the people who visit the festival who truly make its heart beat. “Skjaldborg is about just being here together and talking,” says Karna. “This is the beauty of Skjaldborg — the conversation that happens.”

“You can’t explain Skjaldborg to anybody, only those who have been here,” adds Kristín Andrea. Skjaldborg has everything: local boys never missing a single screening (how does one even get kids interested in documentaries?!), local women making enough plokkfiskur to feed even the hungriest moviegoers, not one, but two fish parties (forget popcorn, it’s all about cod), a parade that takes over the town with festival flags dancing under the midnight sun, locals opening their doors to greet the festival crowd, a limbo stick carefully boxed in the cinema until next year’s competition, and a conga dance that circles around the town’s community building like an organism of its own. 

Just come and see for yourself. This is Skjaldborg!

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