Can We Capture Iceland?

Reverend John, who will not leave his land and becomes the prisoner of his own loneliness and depression, is he Iceland? Old men, reminiscing about an old sports field, are they Iceland? The Reykjavík 9, accused of attacking the powers that be, are they Iceland? Young men, running like madmen, are they Iceland? Missed opportunities, the dreams we never followed through with, are they Iceland? The small town that withers away around us, is that Iceland? The cancer we conquer, is that Iceland?

Can we capture reality? This was the headline of a panel held at the Skjaldborg film festival. That is one of the eternal questions of documentary filmmaking (although one that often ends up as: what is reality?) but Skjaldborg is a festival for Icelandic documentaries, so the question that is perhaps more relevant for this festival is: can we capture Iceland?

It’s certainly a task beyond a single film, but a body of diverse work may be up to the task, even if the real Iceland will probably always be just outside the camera’s reach.

A Short Historical Background

“We do not only have to show our country’s beauty, to attract tourists. We also have to show the outside world that here resides a cultured nation, that has culture both old and new, a nation of as high a standard as other Nordic countries”. Thus wrote a film critic in Morgunblaðið in 1925, in an article about a film by Loftur Guðmundsson, a film the unnamed critic never bothers to mention by name. He goes on and calls for the film to be shorn of the ugly bits before it gets shown to foreigners, and it becomes quite clear he doesn’t mean the scenes that don’t work cinematically, but simply the scenes that he does not find flattering towards the nation—and finally the writer concludes: “… everyone must do their part to give the outside world the prettiest and best picture, when the foreign public first gets to know our nation in their cinemas.”

But this notion, of filmmaking as mere tourism propaganda, is not just an ancient relic: “Film is one of the most pertinent forms of promoting a country and has huge influence on the stream of tourists the world over” This quote does not come from the aforementioned 1925 article, it’s from one entitled “Filmmaking and tourism” that was published in Fréttablaðið in 2010. It’s written by Björn Brynjúlfur Björnsson, film director and then-head of the Icelandic Academy of Film and Television. It seems that the article from 1925 had proved prophetic, and Björn goes on to state how TV show Nonni & Manni increased tourism from German speaking countries and how Children Of Nature increased Japanese tourism to Iceland by 27,8 percent and from this concludes: “According to research, 18% of all travelers come to Iceland directly because of films”.

The article is written around the crux of the ‘Inspired by Iceland’ campaign, but mostly in response to the cuts in film funding by the government. Fighting those cuts, which were more severe than in other art forms, is a worthy cause — but it is strange that nowhere in the article is artistic value mentioned, or the roles that films can have in dissecting a society whose ills the economic collapse had made so painfully visible. Those kinds of film might capture Iceland, but they’ll hardly capture too many tourists, right? And that bond between filmmakers, advertisers and the tourism industry has often felt a bit too tight, not by way of Coca Cola bottles placed in odd places in the frame, rather because of long dramatic shots of landscape that had very little to do with story or character but much more with presenting the image that has been demanded since, at least, 1925.

A9ainst the Clergy

And looking at the list of films for Skjaldborg beforehand I was a bit apprehensive this could be the case all too often. The selection seemed to be rather skewed towards nature and villages, the old clichés of Iceland we use to charm tourists with, but are getting quite bored with ourselves, considering about 60–70% of us live in the capital area. Thankfully, most of those films truly tried their best to be critical, yet compassionate, of their subject matters.

Adequate Beings (Land míns föður) takes place in Dalirnir, an area we passed on the way to the festival in Patreksfjörður, and while it is perhaps short on story, it’s long on mood. And that mood is a common one for Icelandic villages, the mood of a once proud and bustling town that has seen most of its people flee a crumbling economy and lack of jobs. In the case of this town it is the closing of the slaughterhouse that seems to be the last nail in the coffin, for most other run-down places it’s the fact the fishing quota has been taken away from them. And it is telling that the filmmaker, Ólafur Jóhannesson (also known as Olaf de Fleur), is born there, but like most people who dreamt of bigger things, he had to move. Like perhaps most of us who live in the big city: if it wasn’t us, it was our parents or grandparents.

Jon&SeraJonThen there were the two films that really stuck with me after the festival: John And The Reverend John (Jón og séra Jón) and A9ainst (Ge9n). They may seem worlds apart, but they keep bumping into each other in my head. Perhaps it helped that nine of us got locked in a heated debate long into the night, mostly about those films and related matters — but it was interesting that those who most liked the former were critical of the latter’s lack of narrative and central character. And character is John And The Reverend John’s strong point—it really focused on one character, the John of the title, and his descent into madness. The Johns of the title are really one and the same; it’s a Jekyll and Hyde story, although Dr. Jekyll admittedly gets little airtime. But the miracle of the movie is how close filmmaker Steinþór Birgisson gets to this very real person, a stock character in Icelandic mythmaking that is usually seen as eccentric and endearing, while the truth tends to be more towards lonely and sad.

However, there is an underlying theme that some other filmmaker might do well to explore further: the inhumane society of the Icelandic clergy. When it becomes clear that John is losing his mind, the church does not move in to help its servant get the best possible treatment, medical or otherwise. No, it simply uses every trick in the book to get him off their land. This is a society within a society, where the battle for jobs and lands is fierce. Since I’ve been back from Skjaldborg, the news has again been full of stories of scandals within the church. One can’t help but come to the conclusion that another A9ainst is needed, this time about the clergy.

A9ainst itself revolves around the Reykjavík 9, the group of people tried for attacking Iceland’s parliament. The relevance of the subject matter is clear when we consider the January Revolution of 2009, and the fact that if they are guilty, then they are not alone; there were thousands of us that could also be accused of attacking parliament, a parliament that many felt had done itself more harm than a few protesters ever could. The film doesn’t narrate the trial, but rather shows those nine people (and in fact a tenth protestor, who in a way stands for all those of us who were not brought to court, even if we were just as guilty/innocent). We get to hear their views and their stories, but even so I didn’t really feel it was about them so much as some underlying horror. It’s actually a new version of the classic monster under the bed story, albeit with a very real monster that is some freakish hybrid of capitalism, government, nationalism and old power structures. This is a monster that twists some truths and sweeps other uncomfortable ones under the carpet, so the question remains unanswered: will they be able to keep A9ainst out of the public consciousness? The film is slated to show in Reykjavík this September, but we’ve yet to see if that will be enough.

Yet another feature of A9ainst was to capture an Iceland we hadn’t seen before—and that sometimes took a bit of staging. It showed us parts of the city that, yes, we’ve seen—just usually not in movies or photographs. It’s the less romantic parts, the supermarkets and the trash heaps. By putting people in unusual contexts in these surroundings, talking about revolutions and corruption—and in one scene simply screaming—the film makes us see them all over again.

Running Amid Broken Dreams

Surprisingly, the less romantic parts of Reykjavík also got their due in Freerunning, one of two sports films premiered at the festival. Freerunning is a sport that is all about running and jumping, on and off rooftops—it’s simply about getting from A to B in a direct line—which means you enter through parts of town you would otherwise never see. It really is a film about teenage boys (and some in their twenties) who have found a way to channel all their frantic energy into something that is very much their own, their private domain—and even if most of us would never dare to try it, we sort of understood.

The other sport film at the festival, Blikk (part one of two apparently), was all about the public domain. In fact it was about a sports field, Melavöllurinn, that until Laugardalsvöllur was built was the headquarters for most Icelandic sports. There is a fascinating story to be told about this field, but somehow the film failed to tell it. The scenes from the old field were often very interesting, but the director failed to use them to build a coherent narrative. Worse, the film proved oddly male-dominated, because while those old pictures showed plenty of women and young girls, the film was constantly interrupted by old men reminiscing about past glories, and not until the very end was a woman interviewed. It must be said that women were underrepresented in most films at the festival, in other cases it could usually be excused because of the story being told but hardly in this case. However, the movie also followed the traces of Icelandic nationalism to our earliest sport heroes, a nationalism that has become bent and corrupt in the more modern films like A9ainst.

Finally I should mention Paradox, a film that in its own way captures Icelandic filmmaking history in a story of two generations. The first was a generation mostly without filmmakers, when Icelandic filmmaking was in its infancy—which was as late as the 1960s. Two Icelandic filmmakers arrive from Sweden to shoot a wordless film with newly graduated actors. But while they finish the shooting, they never get around to editing it and the film seems doomed to lay unfinished in its box forever. However, one of the main actors, Sigurður Skúlason, asks younger filmmakers for help in finishing the film. They agree to edit the old material—but the news stirs the old filmmakers from their slumber. They somehow, for reasons we never quite learn, never managed to make the film they dreamt about—and now some young Turks are stealing their thunder and making a film different to the one they had in mind. In a way you feel sorry for the old filmmakers that never got the same opportunities as their young counterparts, but at the same time you realize they already shot the movie, most of the work was done, yet they let it lay there all these years—which feels like a very typical Icelandic kind of neglect.

The Eternal Battle

To answer the original question: did those films capture Iceland? Well, they captured important parts of it, sometimes parts we haven’t seen much of before. And the films were for the most part well done and honest in their intentions. But, rather typically, they mostly happened at the usual polar opposites of Icelandic society: the capital area and the countryside. The Will To Live (Lífsviljinn), a short film about a young man who beats cancer, was the one exception I saw, since it took place in Egilsstaðir, but the towns of Iceland are hardly seen.

And in the end, they didn’t show my Iceland, an Iceland I share with tens (if not hundreds) of thousands. Those of us who grew up outside of Reykjavík but emigrated there, either for school or work—or both. We’re usually caught in the firing line, because the debate in Icelandic society tends to be Reykjavík vs. the countryside. Just like the films, which usually focus on just one of those places, rarely both. And nobody bothers to ask us those two simple questions: “Why did you leave?” and “Why didn’t you come back?” But I do hope there is an able filmmaker out there asking those questions right now, because this is an Iceland we haven’t been able to capture yet. I don’t know if it would bring in the tourists, but it would help us locals revisit ourselves. Because while those two nations, rural and urban, keep telling their own stories, their common one is yet untold.

Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on July 22nd 2011.

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