As 2009 drew to a close, I asked many of Iceland’s leading filmmakers a number of questions about the local film industry as well as their own work. This was for a feature focusing on Icelandic film talent that ran in UK music magazine Clash that you can read online right here.
The full Q&As will be uploaded here imminently. First up is director Einar Thor. You can check out more of his own cinematic projects at Passport Pictures.
It seems that most Icelandic films examine unusual characters and events. Yet your recent film Small Mountain seemed to focus on characters that were much more conventional and is consequently one of the most accessible Icelandic films that I’ve seen. Does this reflect your thoughts on Icelandic cinema in general?
I agree that in the gallery of Icelandic film characters you can find many unconventional ones. Icelandic films, mostly the early ones, are more or less “author cinema”. Perhaps because European cinema, in the early days of Icelandic feature film production thirty years ago, was more along those lines. Icelandic cinema often flirted with the weird and the obscure, the unusual stuff, the black humour, and sometimes quite entertaining, but with not as full blooded plots as other European films had, and sometimes the story was told through mood. Consequently, to fully understand an Icelandic film character one perhaps needed to understand the mood of Iceland where things don’t necessary make sense all the time. Why this seems to be a characteristic of Icelandic cinema could make an interesting analysis, because unusual characters are not a great tradition in Icelandic literature. I think it has much to do with the vision of few film writer/directors, perhaps as a comedy device. It may also suggest little diversity in Iceland’s film making history.
Being an Icelander through and through I wanted from the first working day on Small Mountain to do a film that was Icelandic through and through as well. And inspired by early Icelandic cinema I wanted as a director to develop it further towards simplicity. In many Icelandic films the same odds and ends keep popping up: A handful of mountains, stunning landscape, a Land Rover, a horse, a drunken farmer, a rifle or a pretty girl. I somewhat wanted to build on this tradition and take some of the eccentric bits and give them a meaningful clarity relevant the story I was telling. I guess that was ambitious. But it wasn’t that I wanted to do something more accessible, at least it wasn’t at the top of my head, but just simply to take elements in early Icelandic movies and develop and simplify them. Part of that development, and I am honestly not trying to be sarcastic, was to skip the Land Rover, the horse, the booze, and focus on the story and the cinema in it. Eventually it meant trimming out some of the traditional Icelandic cinema elements. If we for a moment imagine a soundtrack for a movie, then we may want to take out somebody’s footsteps in a particular scene in order to create a mood, suspense or lenience, in order to draw the attention to something more relevant to the story. Metaphorically, perhaps I could say that Small Mountain is therefore a traditional Icelandic film but without the footsteps. But as a scriptwriter however I didn’t think that much about tradition. The bottom line was to get a cross a simple story told through characters, a story which partly echoed my fading belief in Icelandic democracy. To go into character study of highly unusual characters didn’t fit.
Small Mountain has screened at international festivals all over the world, including Italy, India, Germany and USA. Has it received a better reception internationally than at home?
Yes it has. In terms of reviews abroad, I have just seen a positive take on Small Mountain, and in fact for most part at home as well. The comments I can recall that were not so enthusiastic locally were however quite funny, for instance, “a typical Icelandic pile of shit”. I quite like young critics with attitude. In terms of international festivals it has been a nice collection of festivals where our film got exposure and we for instance visited Shanghai Film Festival, China, with support from European Film Promotion and The Icelandic Film Centre to promote it. Considering that in the first quarter of 2009 our potential sales agent in Germany went out of business as international promotion was planned to go ahead, Small Mountain has been travelling on its own, but yet had a very decent run at festivals and it seems for some part through word of mouth. The exposure of the film at home was not as expected, partly due to promotional budget restrain. A few months after it was released I also got a confirmation from our local distributor that “some people in the business” had written it off months before it was completed – which obviously raised questions – and there was a feeling at some point it was going against the wind. After Shanghai in June, which was the first A-list festival an Icelandic film was screened at in 2009, I have felt a fast growing interest in Small Mountain at home. I even get messages from fans, so never a dull moment. But it is not easy to portray the debate on films and reviews in Iceland. I can think of only three or four film writers and critics who have a notable track record and a decent overview of both film history and film criticisms, and who write regularly about movies. A number of film reviews for national daily papers and monthly magazines for instance seem written by teenagers, in some cases the editors themselves seem to find it a good idea to try it, maybe once or twice, or celebrities are given the honour to write a review about their friend’s latest movie.
I came across a thesis on film criticism written by an Icelandic MA student recently who quoted various reviews which appeared over some years in the Icelandic press and at times made an amusing reading, something like, “this film is like the Volvo version of Sound of Music”. So although the press doesn’t seem ambitious when it comes to film criticism it can make an entertaining read. It has been mentioned that the smallness of Iceland’s society makes it harder to be critical about other peoples work, but that however doesn’t apply to reviews and criticism in the world of Icelandic theatre, music and literature. Perhaps the Icelandic film community is just a little bit crazy. But I feel that the local film community hasn’t had a strong voice on the outside and the long term effect is a fairly simplistic but happy-go-lucky attitude in the local press towards the film industry.
Your Wikipedia page states that you were highly critical of the Icelandic film industry. What’s the full story behind this statement?
The 1990s was very much the time when the Icelandic film industry needed to expand and to develop a proper film policy. What may have been highly critical over a decade ago isn’t so critical today, for instance, the running of The Icelandic Film Centre today is a different story, new film law was applied in 2003, The Icelandic Film Corporation (IFC) went bankrupt 2004 and is history, and so on. Thou however there still remains an ongoing problem which has more to do with the kind of society Iceland has developed into the last 20 years or so and the people here are dealing with now. To answer this question as bluntly as possible and without going into too many details of a complex subject matter (a valuation of film production for a national culture, cultural policies/film policies etc.), which is possible the most demanding and complex area of modern government, I’ll touch upon three main areas. That is the 1990s, the local government, and the local film community.
Why the 1990s is important to mention is that all areas of political and cultural life in Europe and around the world were affected by two events, the end of the cold war, and the launch of the internet. We can add the digital revolution which opened doors for a new generation of film makers, but further to this, globalisation was one of the most talked about topics of the 1990s, again in all areas of political and cultural life. I personally don’t think there was a globalisation strictly speaking, but turns in the development of modern capitalism and technological innovations. But what a small independent nation and a marginal cultural territory like Iceland were faced with was how to react to this development, that is to go on the defensive or seek new opportunities in a changing world. What the Icelandic government and the film community as regards to film policy making did in the 1990s to address these exciting issues, was nothing.
Until 1998 the government’s financial support to the film industry was tiny, so after great and successful pressure from the film community the government increased its support late 1998, but without reviewing its old film policy. The film community didn’t make effective attempts to define its goals either. No dialogue, no conferences and poor communication on behalf of The Icelandic Film Fund and so on was evident throughout the 1990s and will into this century. In fact, in the history of Icelandic filmmaking, one single report (Aflvaki) has been produced which valuated the impact of filmmaking on the country’s economy.
When funding and vague policy review, in the course of two decades from 1979 onwards, eventually seemed to be tailored to fit the needs of few 1980s film producers, this system which for instance needed ongoing collaboration with foreign media companies, was doomed to collapse. Which it did summer 2002, and later the IFC went into bankruptcy. The IFC has to be mentioned here because from 1992, when its founder Fridrik Thor Fridriksson received an Oscar nomination, many doors opened for Icelandic film business and the IFC was able to bring in new finance and equipment, benefiting the small industry as a whole. That lasted for a few years, or until the politicians and the IFC itself started to look at the IFC as The Icelandic Film Industry. A problem escalated, that is to keep a company running which didn’t have the business model to meet the changing needs and trends to work with the outside film world. The dept increased, The Icelandic Film Fund continued to fund too many films produced by the IFC of poor quality, and the IFC dept started to hurt the credibility of the Iceland’s film industry as a whole within the banking system. Icelandic media lending, based on international sales agents estimates and presales strategy seemed a distant dream. But all this was essential to develop an industry, something like a happy marriage between artistic and commercial filmmaking. In fact, few Icelandic film producers established in the 1980s seemed to have the basic know-how or interest to seek new opportunities outside of the traditional co-production territory, that is the cultural funding system in Nordic countries and Germany. The new generation, the post-cold war generation which for instance didn’t suffer greatly from anti-commercial or anti-Hollywood mind-set, was somewhat stuck with an older and more patriotic generation.
As time passed, well into the 21st Century, there were limited efforts to make clear definitions of mission in a new financial and international cultural environment, no realistic statements of goals, failure never considered as an indication that the objective was defined wrongly, little search for innovative opportunity and weak efforts to tackle internal problems or focus on new opportunities. The promising and new beginning after 1992 when the IFC was very supportive to the Iceland’s film community, ended in a mess ten years later after the IFC had been damaging the growth for too many years with the support of the aimless Icelandic government, a government which seemed somewhat jammed in an old fashioned nationalism.
I believe the development of the governmental infrastructure over the past two decades, a development where accountability wasn’t meant to have a place in history, had a negative effect on development of both films and the Iceland’s creative industry in general. Further to economical and political crisis that hit Iceland late 2008 and the scrutiny that followed, it is perhaps easier to understand the underlying factors which eventually brings any system to hold, as Iceland’s film business did in 2002.
This is not “the full story”, but I wrote various articles and studies on this issue at the time, the latest one in 2001 and a “summary of thoughts” in 2003 on the subject which appeared on an Icelandic website, kistan.is, which for some reason thou was later removed. On personal level, the decision in 1998 to increase funding without any policy review was a turning point. I was convinced The Icelandic Film Fund would eventually collapse and the IFC would go bankrupt, and was not ready to stand in a queue and wait for it. I mention this because I doubt I was the only one. The fact remains that during five years in the mid-1990s, no new Icelandic feature film director appeared on the scene. In 1999 I returned to the UK after a brief stop over and continued my academic studies. In addition to this and further to my commentary on the Iceland’s film industry development at the time I received number of anonymous messages with the advice I should not be interfering in business I knew nothing about and I would in all probability never work in this town again. I also mention this because, again, I doubt I was the only one.
What can we expect from your next film, North West?
North West is a feature documentary, conventional in narrative style and form, where different formats from various archives are mixed, that is 8 mm, 16 mm, stills and TV news clips with HD and 3D models. It deals with a natural disaster in Iceland, a snow avalanche in 1995. As the avalanche hit a small seaside community I crew up in and where twenty people died, I thought about it for a good while if I should make this film because of how close I was to the subject. During the production I have therefore experienced the strength and weaknesses of being somewhat attached, and hope the film benefits from the strength bit. It is though not a personal film, first of all I want to tell a story of an amazing rescue operation which at the same time gives you an idea about the society up there.
Various Icelandic bands have found an audience in the UK (Bjork, Sigur Ros, Mum, Minus, Emiliana Torrini and various others), but hardly any Icelandic films have been released here despite there being a healthy appreciation of international cinema. What would you say are the reasons for this?
Firstly I’d say that its not because there aren’t audiences or a market for Icelandic movies, I believe there is. While living in the UK for a total of 16 years I got to know in London cinemas and on UK TV Channels many of the international films and filmmakers I later came to admire. I was also surprised how much Icelanders and the English share when it comes to sense of humour for instance. So I have wondered why Icelandic films are not there so often, because there is a range of Icelandic movies of good quality which should have. The key factor I believe is because Icelandic musicians have been more enthusiastic about the UK than Icelandic filmmakers. During the first 20-25 years of continuous Icelandic feature film producing, Icelandic producers worked almost exclusively away from the UK, that is with Nordic and German co production companies. So the groundwork in terms of marketing Icelandic art house cinema is not as great in the UK, though it has been growing over the past 10 years or so. The tools to sell in the UK are missing, or say, under-developed. No single sales agent, TV station or distributor are yet dedicated to develop a sound market for Icelandic films.
Can Icelandic film offer something new to an international audience? What are the nation’s main strengths and weaknesses in filmmaking?
As discussed, I think the weaknesses are in the politics of things. But the strength can be found in the significant creative talent around and I feel that the new generation which is coming up is more aggressive in terms of getting their stories right, the script good, and make things happening. If we managed to learn from past political mistakes, the new generation will generate a fresh and imaginative voice and I feel that sort of stuff is always appreciated be international audiences. I just hope the new generation will not be as monotonous as previous generations.
Despite Iceland’s recent economic problems, the film industry seems to be flourishing. Why is this? Does such a situation inspire creativity in spite of creating more practical problems?
I reckon we will not see the full impact of the economical problems until later, say, one or two years. In 2011 we will still be seeing new films that got their Icelandic finance in place before the government funding was cut by 23% in December 2009. We are however already seeing loses of jobs and filmmakers moving abroad. In coming years producers may tend to make small quick money movies, tailored to play in their cost in local market alone to keep their business running. With quick money movies I mean low budget comedies, thrillers and teen movies aimed at local audiences which may not make a good cross over to international market. It will though keep some people busy and working I hope and deliver experience for newcomers. But what I also hope for is that the know-how and technology already invested in, mixed up with the now predictable poor cash-flow, will lead to something fresh. The grassroots may now be entering their golden decade, but I in my opinion it can deepen the crisis in the long run if they are left out.
But yes, in general terms, crisis situation will certainly inspire creativity, but on what level remains a question, which I feel makes Iceland an exciting place. I believe economic recovery will come soon, traditionally Iceland is a hunting community with stubborn farmers and fishermen living in sometimes uncompromising nature where people needed to fight back swiftly to survive. But the underlying factor to all this is the political crises. Icelanders are still figuring out how this financial meltdown could happen and who is responsible. Throughout this past decade we have been witnessing theatrical business ventures where business people, which have for instance been honoured and awarded by the president of our country, seem to have been fooling an entire nation. This is a nation that needs to “face it”, and the dialogue necessary to sort out why this took place will include questions about what the national character stands for and how it is possible to demonstrate that character. I am hopeful this political crisis will spark creativity and help to develop the film industry to be daring and diverse in the future. The future is bright although there will not be big party this year.
The government has recently announced cuts in its financial support of the film industry. Will this kill the Icelandic film industry just as it has the potential to grow into a useful export? What impact will this have upon your own work?
As far as my own projects concerns, I have three feature film projects in development, one ready to go for financing, but will hold my horses until it’s clearer how The Icelandic Film Centre and also The National TV station will react to the situation and what kind of policy will be applied considering the cuts. The National TV, which can be a significant player in terms of top-up financing, is and needs to take the internal inspection-tour like so many other Institutions in this country these days. I am completing North West in the coming weeks and as I have recently received a green light from The National Theatre to write a stage play, I will commit part of my time to writing for theatre until spring 2010.
The 23% cut in government financial support, which we can say is a bit of a punch in the face, is however what the local film industry may have needed. The cut will not kill anything, the opportunity to grow films into a successful export doesn’t leave us thou short term difficulties come about. But they will not be short term if the film community doesn’t regroup and reorganise. It needs to take a hard look at itself and ask questions about how they run their own affairs. Considering that other sectors of the creative industry suffered much lower cut, from 4% to 8%, the film community needs to investigate what their unions have been doing, what kind of strategy was followed in promoting their craft within the government, look carefully into reports of the past years, etc, etc. Do the homework. The cut was anticipated, it was clear by the end of 2008 it would happen thou unclear how big the cut would be, it was obvious a tough lobbyism was essential. But the industry wasn’t ready for it. The Association of Icelandic Film Producers, the strongest body in terms of lobbying on behalf of the film industry, did nothing until a year later. The old Film Council was recently replaced by the a new one, a small but good beginning in order to recuperate. But the old style argument from filmmakers of the 1980’s against proposed cuts, a blend of patriotism and to point out the value of exploiting cultural resources in general terms, was not only ineffectual, but came way too late. The ideas put forward to the government, to the local DCMS and various MP’s from the unions lacked a proposal for a comprehensive film policy. Because it doesn’t exist. On top of this everyone in the industry knows that The Association of Icelandic Film Producers has been pretty dysfunctional since 2003, by mismanagement, with approximately ten companies leaving the Association in revolt last year. Turning a blind eye to that sort of stuff is going back to the 1990’s. I am not too enthusiastic about participating in blaming the government for everything.