Ásgrímur Sverrisson has enjoyed a long career as a film journalist and creative talent in his own right. Currently blogging at http://asgrimur.wordpress.com/, Sverisson took time out of his schedule to talk to Icelandonscreen about the nature of film criticism in the country and how the local film industry has developed during that time.
Your career in the creation and criticism of film dates back almost thirty years. In your opinion, what have been the most important developments in Icelandic film since then?
Thirty years ago we kind of started making films, i.e. features. 1980 is a watershed year, as three full-length films appeared. Before we had only a handful of features, scattered here and there. Few believed back then that it was possible to sustain regular feature filmmaking in such a small country (to tell you the truth, it‘s not really possible – just don‘t tell anyone). Since then we‘ve made more than one hundred features and many more documentaries, shorts, animation, experimental films etc. Icelandic films enjoy support from the local audience, and are now a part of international cinema. They show up regularly at large and small festivals all over the world, some get good distribution in various forms. I‘d say these are the most important developments, i.e. we‘ve managed to create Icelandic cinema from scratch. In terms of subject matters and approaches to filmmaking, the films vary a lot so it‘s difficult to pinpoint specific things. We had a generational shift at the turn of the millennium; I guess I could say that most of the first generation of Icelandic directors, born in the forties and fifties, are deeply rooted in the ideals of European filmmaking, while also dealing with the issues of national identity prevalent in our culture for most of the 20th century. This changes gradually with the younger directors and other cultural influences come into play; urban life, mass media and communications, changing social structures etc.
To write reviews about Icelandic films is a sure-fire way to end up with no friends!
What is the nature of film criticism like in Iceland? Is there a specific emphasis on filmmaking as an art form or is celebrity equally as importantly? Similarly, are different approaches taken to local film as opposed to blockbuster imports?
There‘s certainly a tradition of regarding films as art, some of the more established critics certainly write from that standpoint and a few of the younger ones. But film reviewing is a free-for-all, here as everywhere else, so we‘ve seen a lot of increase on blogs and websites, with the newspapers exploiting that. Most of those writers seem to limit themselves to the latest Hollywood offerings and generally have nothing to say whatsoever. Local films do tend to get the soft treatment; this is a tradition from the time when they started to appear and the critics wanted to show support. Another factor is the close-knit nature of the community; the critics might know the filmmakers personally or as acquaintances. It‘s therefore complicated to be very blunt, especially as film directors tend to be highly sensitive souls. One critic once told me that to write reviews about Icelandic films is a sure-fire way to end up with no friends! Mind you, I‘ve never really reviewed Icelandic films. Both because I‘ve also been working as a filmmaker and also because most of the directors are good friends of mine, some of them even very close friends. So I‘m kinda unqualified for that particular job, even though I‘ve been sorely tempted many times…
Local films do tend to get the soft treatment
What have been the highlights of your career as a critic across television, newspapers and the internet?
Film criticism has only been a part of my job as a writer on film. I‘ve been more of a film journalist across different kinds of media; editor of the filmmakers magazine and website, written news and analysis, written on various aspects of film history, hosted film programmes on TV, taught filmmaking and film appreciation, mc‘d Q&A´s at festivals etc. The highlights are probably the creation of the film magazine Land & Synir and keeping it alive for fourteen years, also its website for almost six years now. I‘m also fond of Take Two, the twenty episode programme I did a few years ago for public broadcaster RUV, were I interviewed twenty key Icelandic filmmakers about the ideas behind their films and showed excerpts from them.
And who are the main players in Icelandic film criticism now?
Olafur H. Torfason at RUV Radio would definitely belong there, he‘s been a critic for decades and is usually good, insightful and interesting. I think Heida Johannsdottir still writes for Morgunbladid daily, she‘s probably the most interesting critic of the younger generation. The problem is that nobody is a full-time critic in Iceland and very few have anything interesting to say. I do miss two critics who wrote about films with passion; Arni Thorarinsson who wrote for years for Morgunbladid – he‘s now a successful crime novelist and screenwriter; and Egill Helgason who wrote for the now defunct weekly Helgarposturinn; now a high profile TV personality, hosting an influential weekly political talk show and another weekly programme on literature. He occasionally blogs about film, usually claiming his waning interest in it. I don‘t really believe him…
You have a substantial body of work as a writer and/or director of various films, shorts and documentaries. Do you think it’s more common for Icelandic film critics to be regularly involved in the creative process than it is in the UK, for example?
In the UK it‘s possible to have a full-time career as a critic and you do have several excellent ones. Here in Iceland we‘ve had several filmmakers doing criticism; Fridrik Thor Fridriksson started out as a critic and published a film magazine for a couple of years, directors Hilmar Oddsson and Agust Gudmundsson reviewed films on TV… there have probably been others. I have been doing both since early age, making films and writing/talking about films. I am very interested in both, for me these are two sides of the same coin.
Hollywood rules in Iceland with around 90% market share
How can you see film criticism in Iceland evolving in the coming years? Do film reviews on websites and blogs help the local industry by providing more exposure? Or does it just mean that the country is saturated with hype from the same big films as everything else in the world?
I do worry about it because this is a fight against the odds. Hollywood rules in Iceland with around 90% market share, that‘s even more than in the UK. And since the majority of Hollywood films are rubbish, it can be hard to keep any meaningful reviewing or interesting dialogue about cinema going. Not to mention the cultural impact this has. It‘s not that we‘re Americanized, we‘re more Hollywood-ized. We are a great cinema going nation and that‘s a long tradition. We go to the cinema around five times a year, in the UK I think it‘s around two times a year. We watch even more than that at home. But we don‘t really do much with it in the terms of approaching it critically, it‘s more of a diversion, which then seeps into our world view and sense of identity. This is of course happening all over the place, but I‘d say we‘re under a really severe attack. We do have a good film festival though, The Reykjavik International Film Festival, which has been going for several years and is well attended. Also, on the bright side, the Icelandic people are quite supportive of local films and their distribution and marketing is relatively easy. In recent years we‘ve seen attendance figures of a couple of local films go up to over a quarter of the population; on average around 6% of the population buys a ticket to an Icelandic film. That is proportionally extremely high average, but being a small nation it‘s easy to be the champion of the proportional contest…
Who would you say are the most accomplished talents in Icelandic cinema? And is there anyone you can tip for a bright future?
Nowadays, obviously Baltasar Kormakur, Dagur Kari, Ragnar Bragason and Fridrik Thor Fridriksson would belong to that group. I would also add Gisli Snær Erlingsson, a wonderful director with a great visual talent but he hasn‘t made a feature in about ten years; and Hilmar Oddsson, who usually makes sensitive and soulful films. Noted editor Valdis Oskarsdottir has also started directing and did an interesting experiment last year, Country Wedding. She‘s doing another one this year. Olafur Johannesson is an interesting and growing talent and Einar Thor made a quirky little film (Small Mountain) last year which I liked. Among several emerging talents are Grimur Hakonarson, who‘s now shooting his first feature and his buddy Runar Runarsson who‘s just graduated from The Danish Film School after having made two shorts (The Last Farm and 2 Birds) which were respectively nominated for an Oscar and competed at Cannes. Expect an interesting movie from Runar in about two years.