The 2010 Reykjavík International Film Festival
September 23–October 3, 2010
Iceland may have made world news in 2010 for the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions and the temporary halting of air travel, but the seventh annual Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF) was more concerned with cultural eruptions. Despite Iceland being more renowned for its remoteness and unique terrain, it has progressively made inroads into global popular culture. The first resonances came with the music scene of the early 1980s, documented in Rock in Reykjavík (Rokk í Reykjavík, 1982) by director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson and featuring Björk and her first band Tappi Tíkarrass alongside many of Iceland’s post-punk outfits. Rock in Reykjavík came early in the career of Fridriksson, who later directed Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar, 1991), which garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, and the critically acclaimed Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins, 2000).
Fridriksson spoke of the fate of many artists featured in Rock in Reykjavík in the more recent documentary about Iceland’s diverse music scene, Screaming Masterpiece (Gargandi snilld, 2005), written and directed by Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon. In Screaming Masterpiece, musician and neopagan priest Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson states that the roots of the current scene go back one thousand years, while Björk details how the punk movement of the 1970s liberated the Icelandic people from their creative inhibitions. As in Rock in Reykjavík, live performances, intercut with stunning Icelandic imagery and interviews with key groups such as Sigur Rós, Slowblow, múm, Quarashi, and Singapore Sling, precurse this year’s RIFF screening of the music documentary Where’s the Snow? (Huar er snjórinn, 2010 written and directed by Gunnar B. Guõbjörnsson and Bowen Staines), bringing this perennial golden age of Icelandic music full circle.
Not surprisingly, one of the sections in this year’s RIFF was titled “Sound on Sight,” and featured seven very different films about music. The two Icelandic documentaries were equally well received by the audience. Pendulous Chances (Meõ hangandi hendi, 2010), co-directed by Árni Sveinsson and Eva Thorgeirsdottir, is a full-length documentary examining crooner Ragnar Bjarnason’s sixty-year career and influence on the Icelandic music scene. Now age 75, Bjarnason looks back on his career as the documentary follows him during a performance to honor his milestone birthday, underlining the open and widespread fascination in Iceland with people from diverse musical backgrounds. As historical musicologist Donald Gislason says in Where’s the Snow?, “There’s no boundaries between musical genres, and there’s no boundaries between generations.”
The screening of Where’s the Snow? was significant in being the first collaboration between two of Iceland’s biggest art festivals—Iceland Airwaves and RIFF. Where’s the Snow?, written and directed by Gunnar B. Guõbjörnsson and Bowen Staines, a short feature documentary at just 52 minutes, was filmed during the 2009 Iceland Airwaves festival and features 150 artists and music lovers, some of whom explain what makes this festival so special. Gislason attempts to explain the uniqueness of the festival by saying, “People come here for just another music festival. What they don’t realize is the depth of talent that’s here, or else the entire world would come here.” He adds that the bands are not chasing money or a record deal and are liberated by the music they want to play.
Where’s The Snow? avoids the festival’s major acts and concentrates instead on new Icelandic artists. Featured are live performances and interviews with Retrön, (the appropriately named) Reykjavík!, Mammút, Páll Óskar and Hjaltalín, Bródir Svartúlfs, Agent Fresco, Dikta, Olafur Arnalds, Retro Stefson, Dr. Spock, kimono, and Esja. Appraising the spirit and camararderie among the artists and audience, Reykjavík! guitarist Haukur S. Magnusson proclaims, “This is the one week in Iceland where everyone goes out and gives everybody a chance.” Esja’s Krummi Bjorgvinsson summarizes, “It’s not mainstream, but if you like alternative music it’s the perfect festival for you.”
Where’s The Snow? justifiably conveys the frenzy and excitement of the five-day schedule in its use of multiple locations, fast editing, and other effective post-production techniques. The camera focuses on audience reaction as much as on the performers, therefore emphasizing the communal spirit. In the closing credits, the makers were thankful to the “Eyjafjallajökull volcano for going off when we wanted volcanic footage.” This irony was not lost given that Iceland Airwaves is sponsored by Icelandair. Thankfully, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano was quiet when both the Reykjavík film and music festivals took place, so non-Icelanders could fly in.
Steven Yates is a British freelance film journalist and member of the International Federation of Film Critics, and has sat on the critics’ jury at numerous film festivals in Europe including the 2010 RIFF.