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 series concludes with Dagur Kari. The Noi Albinoi director’s latest film, The Good Heart, stars Brian Cox and Paul Dano and was recently released in Iceland. A trailer for the film follows the Q&A.
Noi Albinoi is one of the few Icelandic films to be widely distributed internationally (in fact it’s one of maybe four Icelandic films that you can buy in London). What do you think made the film so appealing to an international audience? And how were you received as one of the few Icelandic filmmakers to achieve that level of success?
The success of the Noi Albinoi came as a big surprise to me and is still a bit of a mystery. It was a very important film for me to make, but I didn´t dream of an international audience. I did hope for a ride on the festival circuit, but a worldwide distribution seemed totally out of reach. Success is a mysterious phenomenon, almost like a wave that you catch more or less accidentally, so I don´t know if there is anything more clever to say about it. It’s the combination of good work and riding on the waves of luck. I can only speculate on the films appeal, and my take on it would be that it is a very peculiar film about a very universal subject. People experience the film as being very strange and yet there is a strong feeling of identification.
Your new film The Good Heart is one of the few (or the first?) films to be made by an Icelandic director in English and with a primarily American cast. What challenges and benefits did this bring to your work?
Filmmaking is always extremely challenging, and making The Good Heart was indeed a heavy process. Having to deal with the American system in terms of everybody and their grandmothers having agents and managers was the strangest part to me. I´m used to speaking directly to people and due to the smallness of Iceland, you can make things happen very quickly. But in America people seem to be thinking more in terms of years, when you are thinking in days/weeks and I feel that two years were ripped out of my life dealing with that nightmarish system of go-betweens. But when all that shit is behind, you end up working with amazing and super talented people and that is the biggest benefit.
Could this film open doors for Icelandic film talent working abroad?
Hopefully. There were many Icelanders on the team in America, and at least that is an important experience for them, that they hopefully can benefit from.
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?
The Icelandic music scene is something of a miracle. A very special thing that happens only once in a while. The amount of amazing bands is silly, considering the size of the country and the output is unbelievable. There is nothing similar going on in the Icelandic film industry. Even though we make 5-8 films a year, which is impressive for a nation counting 300,000 people, only one out of 30 will cross over and reach an international audience. Distributing films is a lot heavier process than distributing music and where music has the benefit of speaking directly to people´s feelings and emotions, film have a narrative nature where language becomes a barrier or a threshold.
Can Icelandic film offer something new to an international audience? What are the nation’s main strengths and weaknesses in filmmaking?
In terms of experiencing the strangeness of the country, Icelandic film can offer something new or refreshing. There is an unusually strong tradition of storytelling which will always be a strength. The weakness in our filmmaking has to do with the lack of tradition and the smallness of the industry. The first Icelandic feature was made in 1978 and we have only recently started to master all aspects of the craftsmanship of filmmaking.
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?
It takes a while for an economic crisis to really kick in and many of the films that you are referring to were started when Iceland was still rich. But nothing can kill creative power and usually hard times work only as an incentive to creativity. The government has just pulled off the incredibly stupid act of cutting down the Icelandic film fund by 25%, when other creative institutions only suffer a 3-5% cut. That will definitely set us back by ten years or so, but hopefully what will be lost in quantity will be compensated for in quality.
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?
To me the stupidity of this act is beyond belief and makes no sense whatsoever. Not even in economical terms, because for every cent that is put into Icelandic film, at least 3 cents will enter the country in terms of foreign currency. About 100 jobs will be lost. (Ireland was faced with similar problems recently, but their reaction was to boost the support to filmmaking. Now, that is clever thinking). But most importantly it is a serious setback to an industry that has been steadily growing and is finally starting to really bloom. In times of crisis it is of extreme importance that people can mirror themselves in art, and to butcher the film industry, while other and arguably less effective art forms are left more or less untouched, is obviously very hard to believe.