The Fourth Annual Reykjavik International Film Festival
stood at the bookstore, trying to buy the electricity adaptor to write this article on my laptop. “There was a poet outside,” the clerk informed me. “He was a murderer. He killed people and wrote poems in their blood.”
Did this gentleman just want to liven things up for an American tourist? I thought I seemed Icelandic, with my blond hair and blue eyes. I had, in fact, chosen a blue shirt to accentuate my eyes, thinking that would reduce the number of helpful comments directed towards me and the deer-in-the-headlights gaze I adopt when in a foreign country. But there I was, being told about poems written in blood, probably poems about icy landscapes and puffins and solitude.
The man asked where I was from. I told him I lived in Manhattan, and he asked me to recommend a school where he could study bartending and sculpture. Most of the people I met last week had multiple talents, whether they were directors, critics, mayors of towns in Spain…or regular Icelandic people, whose widespread artistic temperament and incredible productivity can perhaps be explained by the invigorating air (for what could be accomplished in the stultifying heat of California?) and amazing tap water (“the same as Fiji water,” a woman told me, “it’s so high in pH”). Perhaps this atmosphere explains the high turnout at the fourth annual Reykjavik International Film Festival, which attracts far more of its country’s population—proportionally speaking—than any other festival across the world could hope for. And this festival delivers, with eighty films from five continents, and a Fassbinder retrospective that would make the Film Forum of New York City weep.
Sigur Rós – Heima (Dean DeBlois, 2007)
“Say hi to Sigur Rós for me,” quipped my friend as I left my dorm room. I ignored her, trying to disguise the fact that I was totally going to listen to Sigur Rós on the flight from JFK. (I really dislike Björk at the moment.) Lo and behold, I turn up in Reykjavik, receive my proposed schedule, and discover that the opening film of the festival is Sigur Rós – Heima, and that the band will be in attendance.
Before the screening, the director said (among other things, but this was the only phrase in English), “This piece is pessimistic, but it’s Icelandic.” This description continues to bewilder me, as the film is a moving tribute to the power of community. “Heima” means “at home,” and the documentary follows a two-week series of free concerts that the band spontaneously played around Iceland. Concert footage, interviews with the band members, and striking shots of Icelandic landscape set to the thumping beat of Glósóli: it sounds predictable, if lovely (how much can one really hate shots of nature?). And indeed, the audience reaction was mixed, from transfixed grandmothers who had never heard of Sigur Rós, to hip twentysomethings who castigated the “candlelit New-Aginess.”
Yet we are in the hands of a genuinely talented director, who does begin—if subtly—to work beyond the gushing strings overlaying shots of waterfalls moving backwards and upwards. It’s little things at first—cutting slightly out of sync with the ponderous beat, the drum beat set not to the change of scenery, but to disturbing images of fetuses momentarily flashing across the screen.
But when the band sets out on their tour in earnest, Heima reaches unprecedented levels. The band sets up in a frozen field, where villagers come: thirty, then a hundred. In a series of swift cutbacks, the scene expands and expands, until—shockingly—the camera is perched on a mountainside, beholding the entire village. The camera returns—it is dark now—but the film doesn’t focus on beautiful children gazing raptly at the band. It sees people engaged in conversation, old men yawning, trucks driving away before the concert is over. The film is not just about Sigur Rós, but also about the Icelandic community, one that has more to do than listen to music. Of course, entire families do picturesquely listen to the songs in coats and mittens.
In little interviews interspersed throughout, the band seems like a remarkably nice bunch, playing their percussion sets made up of rocks as they mutter amiably about community and friendship (the mumbling is one of my few complaints, for this is not only social awkwardness, but bad sound mixing). Again, the commentary is at first squeaky-clean, but as the word “unity” is tossed about by adorable girls with violins, they are ironically (but not obnoxiously ironically) juxtaposed with the scream of electric guitars. The grandmothers no longer seem so happy, and we see for the first time the disconcerting lazy eye of the lead singer.
These little touches keep the material fresh and interesting, but Heima is overall an uplifting experience. How comforting is it to know that a small child toddled up to the band as they recorded “Viðrar vel til loftárása,” that the pianist made eye contact for a few moments before returning to his music? For me, very much.
Iska’s Journey (Csaba Bollók, 2007)
Ten minutes into this Hungarian journey, and I felt awful. The plain heroine—whom everyone keeps mistaking for a boy—has been begging for food and carting rocks through the mud. Her ill sister sits at home as her father tugs at her hair with rusty scissors, her hair yanking out as she whimpers in pain, too afraid to protest. The really depressing part, though, comes not as Iska trudges through the mud, but as she stops and stands motionless for a moment.
The film is a loose collection of mini-journeys, following the drifting narrative of a young girl’s life. Occasionally the movie devolves into a work of surrealism or a musical of young romance, but mostly it’s grit. Small foreign movies like this seem to have a genius for provoking brilliant performances from their young stars, and Iska’s Journey excels from scene to scene. But the situations do not unite; the character does not become a multi-faceted whole, but instead a collection of vignettes. A sub-theme of female exploitation suddenly resolves itself, taking the film to its finale before the narrative peaks off, leaving us to mildly hope that Iska will make it, that her ugliness will protect her from the fate of her more beautiful friends.
The Band’s Visit (Eran Kolirin, 2007)
“Not many people remember this story. It was not very important,” read the opening titles of The Band’s Visit. Once this type of movie is over, everyone wants to go up to the director, looks him in the eye, and congratulate and thank him. (And in the intimate setting of the Reykjavik International Film Festival, everyone can do so.) This is like an Egyptian Little Miss Sunshine, where characters force themselves into endearingly awkward situations before revealing their deepest and darkest secrets. Still, the story is only half as contrived and twice as honest.
An Egyptian band, dressed in absurd blue uniforms, arrives at a small Israeli town, only to discover that they’ve reached the wrong destination and must depend on strangers for the night. The visual humor is sharp and precise, and the story rolls on with a melancholy, gentle humor, imbued with far more global relevance than Little Miss Sunshine could ever summon. Some social dynamics simply aren’t resolved; some character climaxes are awkward and ugly. The Band’s Visit finds solace in the brief wave of a hand, a tiny moment of forgiveness that brings a huge rush of relief. It achieves the small profound moments we’re all waiting for the director to provide, but he does not do so cheaply, first prolonging our unhappiness.
You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)
If The Band’s Visit fulfills our wish to see sad characters find happiness, then You, the Living feeds our desire to see people be horribly screwed over. (Why does this sort of humor seem distinctly European?) Roy Andersson (Songs From the Second Floor) directed this bizarre movie, a series of over fifty tangentially related vignettes. Let me provide one example: A decrepit old man hobbles by on a walker, with a whimpering dog tangled up in a leash dragged behind him. Everyone in the audience cracked up; my entire row of chairs shook with laughter. I sat in shock, occasionally letting out bewildered snorts.
And so the film continues. A common theme? Musicians that play their instruments far too loudly (driving neighbors to suicide), people unable to fit into full elevators or crowded bus stops. The skits provide a wide cast of characters, but eventually the audience seemed to tire of the never-ending parade of dismalness, all shot in a dingy shade of gray. The nearly constant roar of laughter during the first thirty minutes trickled down to giggles, but a big belly laugh came every fifteen minutes, with more than one moment of quiet contemplation. Should you go to see this film, expect a worldview blacker than Dr. Strangelove. Some of the visions are so horrible, even the (clearly soulless) director feels compelled to couch them in a dream, presumably to protect his audience. And no, the trussed dog being dragged through the streets doesn’t qualify as dark enough.
Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, 2007)
The program guide to the festival says the characters of this film “could just as well be born out of the old Icelandic sagas.” I agree, and I’d compare them to the casts of Shakespeare and Aeschylus as well. Three brothers—named Son, Boy and Kid—feud against the other children of their father, who abandoned them to become a Christian and start a new family. This story is exactly as archetypal as it sounds; it screams its own importance, but has the strong performances, gripping subtext, and Southern atmosphere to pull it off. The movie feels like David Gordon Green and, sure enough, he produced it.
Jar City (Baltasar Kormákur, 2006)
I scribble in my notebook during all screenings; it’s funny what sort of films set my pen to work. I probably wrote three words during Parents (Ragnar Bragason, 2007)—one of the four Icelandic films I saw at the festival, a dour familial drama with some decent performances and that’s about it. Five minutes into the next film, Jar City, and I already had a full paragraph.
It’s funny how a sentimental scene can take it one step too far and become something else entirely. Todd Haynes is a master of this dynamic, and by the looks of it, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik) isn’t so bad himself. The scene in question: a man sings to his child, who lies pitifully on a hospital bed. A chorus takes over the melody, and the music soars. Then, we realize it’s a funeral chorus. We see the little girl’s naked body, being prepared for burial. It’s stark and alarming—completely devoid of sentiment—and instantly provokes guilt in those who thought their heartstrings were being pulled.
The rest of Jar City continues to make putty out of our minds. It’s a thriller with psychotic inmates, genetic disease, invasion of privacy, a small town reluctant to divulge secrets, and a police inspector straight out of The Sweet Hereafter. When crazy people jump at the screen, overlapping demonic voices drown the loudspeakers. When people eat, they eat the heads of calves, allowing us to see and hear the eyes being slurped down. The title, Jar City, refers to a morgue where brains are kept. Suffice it to say that my eyes were covered most of the time. Don’t miss this film if it’s in a country near you.