Icelandic Shorts: A Very Short Introduction

The big winner at this year’s Edda Awards (the Icelandic equivalent to the Oscars) was Rúnar Rúnarsson’s film, ‘Volcano.’ But the big story was perhaps the respect short films are now getting. The short film category included four pictures, all of which also got nominations in other categories. And it wasn’t a weak year for Icelandic movies; with some nine feature films involved there was, for once, real competition. And while the night belonged to ‘Volcano,’ its director earned his fame in shorts and they were the reason it was one of the year’s most anticipated films.

This is hardly a coincidence. A decade ago or so there was an awakening in the Icelandic film industry; people finally agreed that we wouldn’t get very many good directors by throwing them in at the deep end. So both the Icelandic film fund and the production companies put more money into developing scripts and short films, whereas previously more effort had been put into developing features that often didn´t receive any funding until everything was already in place (screenplay, actors etc.). Those developing funds are only a fraction of the money that big features cost, but they have certainly helped the very young Icelandic film industry grow up. And while the recession has made its mark (it will really hit home this year, many of last year’s films were financed during the boom years and there are very few films on the horizon for this year), filmmakers still have the equipment bought during the boom years and the experience gained—the films look anything but low budget.

The nominees

Börkur Sigþórsson’s ‘Come to Harm’ was a worthy winner as best short film. It’s a cold film, showing a world full of steely colours with hardly an earth tone to be found. Björn Thors is convincing as a man descending into madness while his very own, cold, impersonal nightmare unfolds amid steel, concrete and electronic machines. There is a very human pain behind it all, which I will not reveal, but you still somehow feel it’s just as much about the aesthetics he’s trapped in, the aesthetics of the boom years that you can see slowly crumbling. And it’s telling that when he finally uses the rifle he’s armed himself with, it’s not to shoot other humans, but to terminate his microwave oven. It all feels a bit like Icelandic Psycho, even if the lead character ultimately turns out to be a lot more human.

‘Revolution Reykjavík’ deals with the crash even more head-on. It´s about a woman fired from a bank during the first days of the crash—but she’s too proud to tell her daughter or collect something as degrading as unemployment benefits. It makes good use of mundane things, finding meaning in a cupboard full of unread letters of eviction notices and other bad financial news. The acting is very solid, but the story itself feels a bit too familiar, a bit too predictable. It’s a common theme in director Ísold Uggadóttir’s films. She’s a talented veteran of the short film scene here, but I often feel there’s a problem in marrying mood and plot. This one is definitely worth a look, but you should prioritize seeing her debut lesbian comedy, ‘Family Reunion,’ and ‘Clean,’ which is probably her strongest film to date.

The third film comes from famed theatre company Vesturport. It’s called ‘Korríró,’ which is untranslatable, given that it’s a nonsense word used in nursery rhymes. This is a modern version of Goldilocks and stars Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir as a drunk with Parkinson’s disease. The performance could have used a bit more restraint in the beginning, although it’s hard to say for sure, given that drunks with Parkinson’s might not be the most restrained people in the world. But when she, sort of accidentally, finds herself in a wealthy family’s home, she walks into another life and it’s done in a slow, organic fashion that almost feels like the homeless fantasy—this one night of living like a queen. It’s another good film, but as with ‘Revolution Reykjavík,’ it’s still missing that extra something.

The fourth and final nominee baffles me however. Ari Alexander’s ‘Little Cosmonaut’ begins promisingly enough and features some nice visuals, but then turns unbearably sentimental and pretentious. It’s a shame given Guðrún Ásmundsdóttir’s fine performance as the cosmonaut’s grandmother.

The contenders

While this award show celebrated an unusually fruitful year for Icelandic films, the organization is not always the most professional, as demonstrated by the inexplicable decision of also nominating Benedikt Erlingsson’s ‘The Nail’ as best short film. It’s certainly a fine film and deserved to be nominated—in 2008. This odd mix-up was corrected, but left the fifth slot empty, which is a shame since there are worthy films that could have filled that slot (not to mention the slot occupied by ‘Little Cosmonaut’). Director Haukur M. is making interesting short films in Poland, two of which were shown at last year’s RIFF: ‘Invisible Border’ and ‘Mission to Mars.’ Also flying under the radar is Haraldur Sigurjónsson, who has directed four fine short films in the last three years. His latest, ‘Angel,’ went strangely unnoticed despite being his most ambitious to date.

The classics and where to get them

Most current Icelandic feature directors have some roots in short films. Grímur Hákonarson made his name with films such as ‘Slavek the Shit’ and ‘Wrestling,’ while ‘The Caramel Movie’ was Gunnar B. Guðmundsson’s big ticket, but he has since directed ‘Dorks & Damsels’ (Astrópía)’ and ‘Hullaballoo’ (Gauragangur). And Dagur Kári’s short films, ‘Old Spice’ and ‘Lost Weekend,’ are fondly remembered if almost impossible to find, which is the case for most short films made prior to the last five years or so.

Gentlemen
Gentlemen

Still, two short films that stand head and shoulders above the rest are ‘Rare Birds’ and ‘The Gentlemen.’ The former handles teenage angst with a rare humanity and warmth and still remains Rúnar Rúnarsson’s masterpiece. The latter, however, brings with it a lot less fame, but is simply a riot, even if the premise is very simple: three friends talk, drink beer, play music and debate the meaning of Guns N’ Roses’ newest album. But the magic is this: it hardly feels like a film; it’s more like you’re witnessing, first-hand, three lifelong friends shooting the breeze.

But readers should keep in mind that this article omits all the great short films I haven’t seen. Icelandic short films are starting to get the prestige and the coverage they deserve, but they have yet to find their audience—and those of us who do seek them out have few places to look.

There are three festivals, however, that you should check out: Northern Wave in Grundarfjörður, which takes place March 2-4, Icelandic Short Film Days, which takes place in Reykjavík in the spring and finally RIFF, which usually features two or three short film programmes each year. Then there is the internet — a free version of ‘The Gentlemen’ has just been published on vimeo.com by director Janus Bragi, and then there is the haven for people interested in Icelandic cinema: icelandcinemaonline.com, where you can watch more than twenty Icelandic short films, some for free and others for a euro and a half.

Ásgeir H Ingólfsson

Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on March 9th 2012.

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