f you build a film festival on the French Rivera, they will come. (Because everyone loves a vacation.) If you build a film festival in Toronto, they will come. (Because the Oscar season has to start sometime.) If you build a film festival in New York, they will come. (Because many of them are already there.) But if you build a film festival in Reykjavik? In the dead of autumn? Right in the middle of the New York and Copenhagen Film Festivals?
A quick survey of Wikipedia reveals that there are more than 150 film festivals a year in Europe. And while the Brussels International Festival of Contemporary Silent Film is present and accounted for, Iceland has no entries to its name. It’s no accident. Despite the fact that Iceland does have a number of film festivals, its two major events—The Iceland International Film Festival (IIFF) and Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF)—are both in their infancy. The former, owned by the country’s cinemas and main film distributors, is in its second year. This September’s edition featured a strong program: Volver, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and Tsotsi. But the IIFF is less a festival, and more of a clearinghouse of the stock of popular indie film that the distributors have amassed since its last go-round. Instead of allowing these films natural and (perhaps) long runs in the country, they show for the festival’s length and then either get picked up by theaters in the country or disappear.
This year’s RIFF came hot on the heels of the IIFF. When asked about the proximity of the festivals to one another, RIFF’s director Hrönn Marinósdóttir was understandably unenthusiastic, assuring journalists at a press conference that an agreement had been reached for subsequent years to keep them separated by longer than a fortnight.
However, their September start dates are perhaps the only thing that two festivals have in common: while IIFF serves more as a compendium of recent film for the Iceland public, RIFF’s mission is broader. Marinósdóttir and festival programmer Dimitri Eipides spoke at that same conference of their hopes of more actively fostering a “filmic culture” in the country. By creating a festival that works, in many ways, within the traditional model of European film festivals, RIFF is striving to both become a destination—rather than a sidelight—of critics and journalists seeking to view some of the world’s major new films and to, hopefully, inspire Iceland’s own directors.
Only in its third year, though, RIFF is still a small-scale affair. To its credit, the festival organizers use this to their advantage: far from the impersonal press / filmmaker relationship afforded by a festival like Venice, I found myself at one point atop an Icelandic horse between Andrea Arnold (the director of Red Road) and the female lead from Paradise Now. It’s a necessary schizophrenia, and one that RIFF seems to embrace wholeheartedly.
The 2006 edition of RIFF featured close to 80 films from 30 countries. Much of the credit for those numbers belong to Dimitri Eipides’ work as the festival programmer. Eipides pedigree is impressive: he helped form Montreal’s Festival Nouveau Cinema in 1971 and travels constantly around the world working for a number of festivals—most notably Toronto and the highly regarded Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (one of the biggest of its kind). His hand ensured that some of the biggest films of the festival circuit this year (12:08 East of Bucharest, Shortbus, Summer Palace) and some of the world’s finest directors (Aleksandr Sokurov, Atom Egoyan) made their way to Reykjavik.
Sokurov was there to receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award and to screen a rough cut of his newest film, a documentary called Elegy of Life which tells the story of married couple Mstislav Rostropovich (cellist) and Galina Vishnevksaya (opera singer) and their struggles as musicians in the Soviet Union.
Documentaries are one focus of the festival and, according to Eipides, RIFF is talking about creating another festival solely devoted to the format. Judging by the crowds seen at the first screening of Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. One of the rare movies that has the power to draw both lovers of avant-garde cinema and sports, Zidane tracks the football player throughout an entire match with his club team, Real Madrid. Utilizing seventeen cameras, filmmakers Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon spend nearly ninety minutes of screen time focusing on one man’s face and legs—yet it’s compelling. Scottish post-rock outfit Mogwai provides some soundtrack help, but the music and the brief appearance of childhood reminisces from Zidane as subtitles are mere distractions. The real attraction is trying to figure out what is going on around at him at any given time and, subsequently, giving in to the poetic and inexorable ebb and flow of sport.
Possibly the festival’s least poetic film—unless you count the circular pan of competitive eaters vomiting into a communal receptacle as somehow Joycean—was undoubtedly Taxidermia. I have perhaps never seen a more understated synopsis of a film than in RIFF’s description of it as “the story of three generations in a Hungarian family….[that intertwine] historical facts and surrealism.” The film features no less than three showings of the grandfather’s penis in the first twenty minutes, the aforementioned epic vomiting episode, and a son’s quest to become the first auto-taxidermist. Needless to say, it was one of my favorite films screened at RIFF.
The unquestioned favorite, though, was 12:08, East of Bucharest, which also won Cannes’ Camera d’Or this year. Its title refers to the time of Ceausescu’s flight from Bucharest—and concerns itself with a small-time Romanian television show that attempts to answer the question of whether a revolution had occurred in their town before 12:08 sixteen year earlier. In trying to address whether one guest of the television show indeed was at the town square before that moment, this gem adeptly addresses the question of revolution—politically and personally.
Iceland has its own films, of course, but of the few that were screened only one seemed to stick: the Lost in La Mancha-esque Wrath of Gods. The film tracks the filming of Beowulf and Grendel on location in Iceland. David D'Arcy does a great job of explicating the plot at GreenCine Daily but, in short, nature, financing, and what may or may not be Norse Gods all conspire against the filmmakers. As D’Arcy points out, despite the film’s nearly-universal panning among critics, Wrath of Gods biggest success perhaps lies in forcing you to return to the source text to see if any of the turmoil found its way to the finished product.
Another of the festival’s quirks is its dedication to the interdisciplinary. Last year featured Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's photo series, “The Roads.” 2006’s edition seemed to have its sights set towards music: Morr Music act Benni Hemm Hemm performed a live score for two showings of 1918’s The Outlaw and his Wife and the festival had the good fortune to secure the first DJ performance from Thomas Bangalter in nearly a decade in support of Daft Punk’s new film, Electroma.
I didn’t have the chance to stay long enough to see said DJ set, but judging by the ponderous Electroma, it might’ve been for the best. The film concerns itself with the two robots from the group’s “Robot Rock” video and their quest to become human. If it weren’t for the nearly perfect soundtrack featuring the likes of Linda Perhacs, Sébastien Tellier, and Curtis Mayfield and one singularly hilarious reveal, there’d be nothing to recommend. As it is, the film aims for poetic and settles for tedious, recalling Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point in both spirit and its climactic explosion. Aping one of the largest critical disasters of the 70s is a dubious call for Bangalter and De Homem-Christo’s first feature film. But, then again, the duo has recently claimed to be human after all, so can we really blame them?
One film that did capture the frailty of humanity all too well was Andrea Arnold’s debut, Red Road, the winner of the festival’s FIPRESCI award. It follows Jackie (Kate Dickie), a Glaswegian CCTV operator, who becomes obsessed with a man from her past that appears on the street that she patrols. Eventually, tracking him on-screen isn’t enough and she begins to force her way into his life. Red Road’s narrative works in the same way as HBO’s “The Wire”: never revealing much, with many of the details obscured by Scottish slang and careful editing. When what relation the mysterious man has to Jackie becomes clear, the conclusion becomes all the more powerful.
Adding to the intrigue of the movie, Red Road is the first of three films to be made under the Advance Party banner. The concept—explained via a set of constraints given to Arnold and two other first-time feature filmmakers—is simple: each film must contain the same group of characters played by the same set of actors. So, for instance, while Kate Dickie may not play a CCTV operator in the next film, she will have a “dark event in her past” and her name will be Jackie. As one of the entries was described by Arnold as “a romantic comedy,” it will be interesting to see how the trilogy plays out.
There are problems at RIFF: at the first screening on the second day—for all intents and purposes when the festival really begins—Euphoria was plagued by sound problems. For much of the film, the dialogue and music sounded as if it were being transmitted through tin can telephones. It was eventually fixed, but only after phone calls were made and excuses proffered.
Meanwhile, the opening night film was slight: Stephen Frears’ The Queen, which features a strong performance by Helen Mirren and a sometimes-witty script, suffers from the simple fact of its existence. It’s certainly nice enough, but its purpose is unclear: Wedding Crashers makes you laugh, Taxidermia unsettles you, The Queen leaves you feeling exactly the same way that you entered: pleasant and unbothered.
While there will always be movies that festival-goers dislike, the placement of The Queen as RIFF’s opening film means that serious thought and consideration was put into its choice. Eipides said that it was meant to be as slight as some critics have found it, allowing for an easy entry into the more difficult films that would follow in his program.
This sort of concession to the audience is a great example of the tensions that fuel RIFF—and the tensions that make it great. By having so many different audiences to speak to (Iceland’s public, critics and journalists, Iceland’s filmmakers), the festival’s program ends up being diverse enough to speak to all of them. If it continues down this path, it won’t be one of the best-kept secrets of the film festival circuit for long.