This week is dedicated to the most climatic, fairytale-like place in Europe. Ultima Thule, a project aimed at promoting Icelandic culture in Poland, has arrived in Warsaw, bringing the country’s most notable films to Iluzjon cinema. And I had the great opportunity to speak with three gentlemen representing the festival – Christof Wehmeier from the Icelandic Film Centre, Steven Meyers from Reykjavik Film Academy and Rúnar Rúnarsson, the Oscar-nominated director of Sparrows and Volcano.
UMP: Thank you for the opportunity to talk a bit. Let me begin with stating that Icelandic films are still not that popular among the Polish viewers. It’s understandable that Ultima Thule is a “move” to change this perspective. But what makes Icelandic films to be special among other European countries?
Christof: You start (turning to Rúnar).
Rúnar: Should I? (laughs)
UMP: Well, as a director…
Rúnar: Okay. Well, we do a lot of various films at this time. There is a tradition of author cinema in Iceland and at the time when the genre cinema is flourishing, becoming more and more relevant to the rest of the world, it has been the author cinema from Iceland that is travelling the globe, the festivals, gaining awards.
The reason for the author films for getting this recognition might be the fact, that the Icelandic cinema is relatively young – it started in 1980. It’s such a small market that the author cinema filmmakers cannot really rely on tickets, on crowdpleasing. But even though, we have managed to let these “voices” be heard abroad. These are the works of artists of this particular country, not by any other.
Christof: I would say that this last year was our banner year. We had three great films – Rams, Sparrows and Virgin Mountain, before we’ve had Of Horses and Men in 2013 and Life in a Fishbowl in 2014 too. As Runar said, we have a specific voice, also with this special background of the Icelandic landscape. These films are usually also very personal stories. Even in comparison with other Nordic films, we still vary from others thanks to this voice.
Icelandic films are also gaining on the recognition – there are usually three or four films that are made per year. And they also create a positive picture of our nation too. From my perspective, I would say that we emphasize this positive image, because we would really like to forget about the financial crisis that hit us. Nevertheless, I hope that the Icelandic cinema will keep this momentum that we have today, we should keep it. And it’s not only the case of film industry – also music and literature, which are highly valued too.
UMP: Like the emergence of Sigur Ros, which was the first Icelandic band to gain this huge popularity?
Rúnar: Sugarcubes were first!
Christof: Yes, Sugarcubes were the case, then Björk and eventually Sigur Ros. But there so many other artists.
Steven: The only thing I would add – if you guys would agree – is that there is still an ongoing process of creating an identity of this cinema. Despite these great successes in the past, some unique voices as you say – there is still a lot to come. I see it as the beginning of a process.
As to what differentiates these films from other national works – the Nordic, Scandinavian films – I am not sure yet too, except a lot of them tend to be shot in the western fjords?
UMP: Maybe the atmosphere of the films? That’s how I see the Icelandic cinema. After seeing Sparrows, Brave Men’s Blood and some other titles, I came to a conclusion that it’s the role of nature. It captures the film’s atmosphere, what happens inside the characters’ minds. Would you agree?
Christof: Yes, it’s true. I would also point out the Icelandic humor – it’s a bit sarcastic, but there is more to that. It’s sometimes the so-called dark humor and this might be the reason why the Icelandic films stand out from the rest of Scandinavian ones. But as Steven and Runar pointed out, there is still a lot ahead, hoping more to come in the near future.
Rúnar: What could be also interesting is that the other Nordic countries measure us to them, like we tend too. But they have a strong filmmaking school tradition, backed up by the governments. Majority of filmmakers there go through these schools, which creates a foundation for their narrative approach. In Iceland, we have only a private school and therefore, most of the directors studied abroad, gaining different perspectives. Then there are self-taught artists, who constitute a substantial percentage – so there isn’t a strong editorial line, if I may say so, to a strong film school. This causes also a bigger variety of the voices in the Icelandic cinema.
Steven: Voices, experience, training – it’s very true.
UMP: I also would like to ask about the films Rams. There was a strong back up for this film around Europe for this film to get an Oscar nomination. It also received multiple awards, even at the Cannes festival. [To Runar] Your short feature – The Last Farm – was nominated a few years back too, so my question is this – would it change a lot for the Icelandic cinema if Rams received this nomination?
Rúnar: You win some and you lose some. That’s how it is, the film’s been doing pretty well, but eventually it didn’t happen.
Steven: Besides Runar’s film, there was another Icelandic film nominated once – Children of Nature. But of course, each nomination of such great statue means a great deal to the individual filmmakers and the industry as a whole. There was a certain expectation, or maybe hope that this might be “the year”. At the same time, we have to put those things in a perspective. In the end of the day, there are things that matter a lot more. Despite that, the success of this film is great and it’s fantastic to see it.
Christof: This particular films has done 1.1 million admission figure worldwide so far and it’s a festival film. Honestly, I really thought it will be shortlisted and I believe it deserved it, but you know how the competition goes. It’s really expensive to plug the film, spend lots of resources on marketing and advertising. But after all, it has won lots of festival awards – it would be nice, but there is nothing to worry about.
Rúnar: This marketing element in the Oscar race, after they’ve changed the procedures for the foreign language films, makes it almost impossible for small films to make it to the competition really. Especially without huge, financial backup. The regulations have changed – now relying on the number of people going to specific screenings, then there is a formula that calculates, which film will eventually get the nomination. It might be bold to say, but this is a system for lobbyists. It’s a game of huge money.
Christof: Yes, there’s lot of plugging on the way. It’s how it is.
UMP: Unfortunately. But going back to Ultima Thule – what are your expectations from this event? That more people will watch Icelandic movies or maybe new opportunities for cooperation with the Polish filmmaking industry might emerge?
Steven: All of the above, possibly. As you may know, this project started a year ago. When I was approached by the film archive here about this idea of a project that they had – showing Polish films in Iceland and other way round – many other elements were involved. There are workshops for children that started back in Reykjavik in August 2015, series of film concerts for kids, seminars and discussion revolving around the screenings in both countries. Furthermore, we had a really successful program in November regarding the Polish cinema. We were really surprised how many people came out to see them and we hope for the same here. Hopefully, apart from the sharing culture aspect, there would be the business side of it – we will become more familiar with each other and establish some working possibilities in the future.
Rúnar: It’s interesting for Iceland especially that the biggest number of immigrants in Iceland are Poles.
UMP: I didn’t know that to be honest.
Rúnar: Yeah, so it’s highly relevant for us as well to explore these ties better and create some cultural exchange between Poland and Iceland. Just like this project aims at.
Christof: Totally agree.
UMP: Such festivals are great things to happen and to attend to, but majority of them happen only in Warsaw, when it comes to Poland. Frankly, this festival was already in Gdańsk and Poznań, but do you plan to go even further wit this project? Other countries maybe with slightly different version of this festival?
Christof: Yes, we have actually done that. We cooperate with other Nordic film institutions, but around three months ago we had an Icelandic short film focus in Southern France. Furthermore, we had a Nordic Film Focus in Sao Paulo last year. Well, I myself am dealing with short films and documentary films in terms of international relations and film coordination, but that’s another story (smiles).
Probably something going on in UK next year, something in Belgium this year and then Switzerland. We also plan to go with the Nordic Film Focus to Dubai. It’s a great way of introducing film culture, using different types of films. This might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, I hope.
UMP: I hope that too. Thank you gentlemen for the discussion.