In a small country like Iceland even the successful artists are often struggling ones, so there’s always a decent chance the person serving you coffee is a part-time musician, a struggling poet or an aspiring filmmaker. The bearded, wiry waiter at Hressó is a good example. His name is Jasmin Rexhepi and he moved to Iceland from Kosovo four years ago. And he’ll be going to the world’s most prestigious film festival with his short film this spring.
Jasmin was born 28 years ago in Gnjilane, a small town between the Serbian and Macedonian borders of Kosovo. His teens were spent during the civil war, but he plays it down. “Things were much worse in other parts of Kosovo.” He studied journalism in Pristina and worked as a journalist there for four years, before moving to Iceland. He had grown weary of the Balkans and isn’t eager to dwell on the past there. “I needed something like Iceland and now I consider Iceland my country,” he says.
The Forgotten Monique
However, the film he’s taking to the Cannes Film Festival feels neither Icelandic nor Balkan. It’s all in French and we don’t learn the title or see the main character until midway through the seven-minute film. It starts with a long montage of various people on Christmas Eve, spending the holiday in very different ways. Then, midway through, we find the chain-smoking Monique, the title character of ‘The Forgotten Monique’ (“La Monique Oubliée”). She’s alone for Christmas and is texting her friends, asking them to pay her a visit. “It actually happened to me once,” Jasmin says. “I’d just gotten back and wrote to my friends, only later I learned that they had changed their numbers. But everybody has his or her own stories and I found it interesting to create the character of Monique—a selfish prima donna who knows that she’s beautiful. She only cares for herself, but everyone is sensitive in those moments.”
But why French? “I just like the French style of moviemaking. This Mediterranean style… I could understand it. I like to make colourful movies. But I’m still on that level where I’m trying to find my style,” he says.
The movie has no actual dialogue between characters, just voiceover and music. It’s a rather eccentric voiceover reminiscent of ‘Amelie’. “I like [Amelie Director] Jean-Pierre Jeunet,” he says. “I like that style. And yes, it’s in French, it has voiceover, it’scolourful and there are a lot of dolly shots. But all of that is simply something I like; in all my scripts I use a lot of voiceover, and the time we had was limited and I wasn’t sure I’d get professional actors.”
As he goes on I realise that one of his strengths is what a practical filmmaker he is; he realises the limitations, his limited experience and lack of budget and manages to turn them into a virtue, simply by finding out what can work best given the limitations. “I had a few projects in mind and I wanted to shoot the movie inside, with only interior scenes. I was afraid of using locations that might ruin my scenes,” he says. “So I skipped the dialogue and the background sound and usedvoiceover and music instead, and in that way it could look very professional, given the conditions it was made under.”
He’s been studying at the Icelandic film school recently, but film is an old love. “I have been trying to get into the movie business for a long time,” he tells me. “After I finished my degree in journalism in Kosovo I’ve been writing all the time, including some documentaries. But then I applied to Kvikmyndaskólinn [The Icelandic Film School]. I think it was a good solution, even though it’s a bit expensive it could be worth it if I use it well. I find studying there interesting, I don’t speak Icelandic wellyet but they helped me a lot, gave me transcripts in English, gave me extra hours and were always willing to help. It’s not the best school in the world, but in every school in the world the principle is the same: if you want to gain something, you will do it yourself, rather than wait for the teacher.”
And he found his Monique at the film school’s acting department. “She’s called Vanessa Andrea Terrazas and I think she is a really talented actress. And the others I found from my world, through work, friends… there are a few Kosovo guys helping me. Ervin Shala who played the doctor has worked with me a lot and the editor [Dukagjin Idrizi] is also Kosovar.”
The French Reykjavík
The film may be in French but in fact the voiceover is the only thing that is really French. “Some people have asked me: ‘Did you shoot in France?’” Jasmin says of the film, which was shot entirely in Reykjavík. “It helped it was all shot inside; you can fool people better that way, it’s easier to play with. The main stage, where we shot Monique’s scenes, was at my house. I decorated it myself; found ten packs of really artistic looking playing cards at work and that made the wallpaper very colourfuland good looking. Then I bought a lot of props in Kolaportið and Góði hirðirinn; it doesn’t matter if they are cheap or expensive—if they look good people are not going to think about how much they cost.”
So what lies ahead after Cannes? “I’m working on some five projects,” he says. “It may not sound good to juggle so many things at once, but I’m trying to gain more experience in short films for one more year or so… we‘ll see what the future brings. We’ll work hard and it will pay off.”
Ásgeir H Ingólfsson
Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on May 18th 2012.