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.
This time it’s the turn of Ásgrímur Sverrisson, editor of English-language website Iceland Cinema Now.
In 2009 you founded the first Icelandic film industry website to be written in English. What did you aim to achieve with the site? Did you hope that it would increase the international profile of Icelandic cinema, or was there already demand for such information from an English-speaking community?
Both really. My aim is to increase awareness of Icelandic cinema and doing it in English gives you an opportunity to reach a large international audience. I know there‘s a lot of demand out there for other kind of film than what Hollywood is making, so basically I‘m tapping into that demand. When I was the editor of Land & synir, the Icelandic language film site, I received many enquiries from abroad about Icelandic films, so I thought it would be a good idea to attempt to channel that demand and increase it.
What has the response to date been like? Are there any examples of it opening doors for Icelandic films?
It‘s only been three months but the response has been very good and beyond my initial expectations. I know the site is read regularly by international film media and film folks on both sides of the Atlantic and all over the world. I want to continue to build on that. As to opening doors, there have already been interesting reactions from foreign readers, but ICN is about film journalism, cinephilia and connecting to the world, it‘s not intended as a PR site. However, we are planning a store selling Icelandic films, it should start sometime in the new year, but as a separate entity.
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?
I think it’s difficult to compare music and films. Most of these excellent musicians are using English to express themselves, which is easier to do in music. Films are a lot more dependent on being from somewhere, usually dealing with situations, environment and identity in a more direct way. Having lived in the UK, I‘m not sure I agree with there being a healthy appreciation of international cinema there. The UK art house sector has certainly seen better days, and it relies very much on the tried and the tested; France, the American independent films and in recent years Southeast Asia and India. These are all films coming from cultures that UK is familiar with and has had strong connections to. There has been a certain reluctance towards Nordic cinema, it‘s seen as kinda gloomy and this belief can be hard to shake. But my feeling is that the general British mentality is not that far from the Nordic one, and the Icelandic one in particular. We both appreciate black humour with a dash of melancholia and pessimism thrown in. But perhaps the biggest reason is that it can be hard to believe that anything interesting happens in such a small place as Iceland. I guess we have proved – for better or worse – that that‘s not necessarily the case…
Can Icelandic film offer something new to an international audience? What are the nation’s main strengths and weaknesses in filmmaking?
While admitting that nothing‘s new under the sun, I think it certainly can. Our best films offer an interesting view on life that is shaped by man‘s struggle with the elements of nature, negotiating a pact between the old ways of surviving in a difficult place and embracing modernity with all its trappings very fast. This has created a fascinating rift in our culture and the filmmakers are dealing with that in various ways. Those films also reflect how Icelandic society emphasises and celebrates individuality over solidarity but remains close-knit and tribal at the same time, and how this land of fishermen and farmers, hidden people and ghosts, with a deeply rooted fatalistic view of life, has submerged itself in mass culture and technology. As to our weaknesses, there has been a tendency to rely too much on atmosphere and the impact of the scenery, at the cost of interesting characters. We also tend to tell too many stories about outsiders remaining just that, stubbornly refusing to change and see the error of their ways. It certainly can be hard to empathize with people like that.
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?
This is mostly due to the long time it takes for film projects to get from conception to the screen. Film funding has gradually increased by quite a lot in recent years, so naturally we‘ve seen a larger number of films. This year’s films were mostly financed last year, next year we‘ll probably have even more films, some of them were shot back in 2008. But expect fewer films in 2011, as the government has now taken all the hikes since 2006 back and more. However, if Icelandic filmmakers know anything, they know how to get by with very little, so don‘t count us out yet.
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?
It will probably put a damper on things, but the situation now is unclear. How will the funds be managed? What kind of projects will be made? Will there be an emphasis on films that mainly appeal to the local audience, or are we gonna continue to make films which will have international festival and perhaps theatrical and television exposure? Mind you, there‘s not necessarily a direct link between film funding and quality, though money certainly helps. Necessity is the mother of invention as they say. I think Icelandic filmmakers should now start digging deep into the inventive side of their minds, while at the same time continue to fight for a correction in film funding, as the cuts make absolutely no sense, neither culturally nor economically.