for this week’s TRIBUNE : Reykjavik Film Festival report

    “I am honoured to receive this Puffin. I’m not sure if its edible.”
   Standing in the President of Iceland’s house earlier this month – having just received the Golden Puffin lifetime achievement award from the Reykjavik International Film Festival US indie-cinema legend Jim Jarmusch decided to do a ‘Rafael Nadal’ and nibble on a corner of the ornamental bird. His teeth made little impact.
   Jarmusch, at 57 one of the godfathers of American independent film – thanks to the seminal likes of Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down By Law (1986), and more recently responsible for Dead Man (1995), Ghost Dog (1999), shorts-compilation Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), Broken Flowers (2005) and The Limits of Control (2009) – couldn’t be blamed for trying.
   Iceland is very much another country, and they do many things differently there – though, it must be said, presenting an edible ornament to an honoured guest might be regarded as weird even by Icelandic standards.

   In the news for all the wrongest of reasons over the past couple of years – thanks to the implosion of the local banking system (with ramifications for numerous European countries) and the explosion of ash-spewing volcano Eyjafjallajökull (“so easy to pronounce”, according to one popular, sarcastic local T-shirt), Iceland is now seeking to rehabilitate its image – and replenish its sorely diminished coffers – through tourism.
   Events like the six-year-old Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF) are crucial in sending out positive signals about Iceland’s unique geography, countryside and multi-faceted cultural contribution.
   Though this rocky, wind-blown outcrop between the Faeroes and Greenland will never supplant Benidorm or the Algarve, it’s long been a destination of choice for the more discerningly adventurous traveller. The place even enjoyed a “capital of cool” reputation a decade ago when Blur’s Damon Albarn became co-owner of raucous nightspot Kaffibarin, in partnership with internationally-feted local writer-director Baltasar Kormákur (Reykjavik 101 [2000]).
   There’s still a decidedly hipsterish edge to this hedonistic, party-all-weekend city – but the locals are a welcoming, no-nonsense sort, tolerant of the most offbeat behaviour. “Fall down flat in the Cafe Iol — without a glance from the clientele…” as Mark E Smith declaimed on The Fall’s Reykjavik-recorded track ‘Iceland’ (Hex Enduction Hour, 1982.)
   This is a land where everyone, from the President (Ólafur, not Mr Grímsson) to the film-festival’s Director (Hrönn, not Mrs Marinósdóttir), to the most successful, one-time Oscar-nominated film-maker (Friðrik, not Mr Friðriksson) to the most planet-conqueringly famous pop-world export (Björk, not Ms Guðmundsdóttir) is addressed, both formally and informally, by their first name only.
   And now that prices have dipped closer to mainland European levels, Iceland (first settled in the 9th and 10th centuries; part of Norway from the 13th; then Denmark from the 19th; independent since 1944; voting on EU membership in a year or two) is no longer restricted to the Albarn-ishly wealthy.
   The foreign visitors to RIFF – film-folk from Europe, North America and beyond, rubbing shoulders with 25,000 ticket-buying locals  – were near-uniformly voluble in their praise for the festival, the city and the country. Many press and industry delegates took day-trips to explore the dazzlingly rugged beauty of an unspoiled nation whose population (318,000) is smaller than Leicester’s, and whose capital is, depending on where you draw the lines, about the same size as that of Watford (120,000) or Derby (200,000).

   Some of us even managed to find our way into the cinemas – one five-star highlight being the extended Jarmusch interview and Q&A which followed a double-bill of Down By Law and The Limits of Control, and which revealed the Akron-born writer-director in brilliantly iconoclastic, punk-spirited form even as he edges towards his seventh decade on this planet.
   Whereas some festivals sequester away their star guests away in fancy hotels, trapped in an endless round of interviews and opulent dinners, Jarmusch was very much visible on the streets of the city (one one night, well into the early hours) making himself readily available for a near-constant stream of admirers, well-wishers and young film-makers eager to glean tips from an established maestro.
   It was nice to see Limits play to such an enthusiastic reception, especially as its hostile reviews from American and British critics led to the movie obtaining the most fleeting of big-screen exposure during its commercial release last year. Though not without flaws, this aggressively stylised tale of a t’ai-chi-practising, sharp-dressed, espresso-quaffing hitman (silky Isaach De Bankolé, making the most of a rare leading role) as he takes high-speed trains across Spain in preparation for his next “job”, is executed with such confidence, such swagger and, crucially, such a subtly ironic wit, that it was easy to surrender to as a sound-and-vision spectacle.
   Christopher Doyle’s lustrous cinematography and the propulsive, Mogwai-ish score by ‘Boris’ proved crucial in this regard, ditto a string of tongue-in-cheek star cameos including Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael García Bernal and Bill Murray. Now available here on DVD, this sumptuously self-indulgent too-cool-for-school exercise in bohemian chic demands the biggest, fanciest, flattest of TV screens – with the most immersive of sound-systems – but, like all decent films, only really comes alive on the vast canvas of “proper” cinema.

   It was somewhat disappointing that only two Jarmusch features were shown to accompany the director’s visit – but then again, Reykjavik isn’t (yet) a festival that dwells on retrospectives. Aptly enough for a city with such a boisterously youthful population (check out the much-missed pop-punk outfit Jakobínarína on YouTube for a bracing distillation of this particular demographic tendency), the emphasis is on newer talent: the main prize in the competition, for which another Golden Puffin is awarded, is officially entitled Discovery of the Year (last year it went to Québécois teenage prodigy Xavier Dolan’s I Killed My Mother.)
   This year the jury considered a dozen features for what the French would call the Macareux d’Or, plumping for Michelangelo Frammartino’s suitably animal-centric The Four Times (Le quattro volte) – in which the main “characters” are an elderly farmer, his delightfully clever dog, and his herd of free-spirited goats.
   The international critics of the FIPRESCI organisation concurred, praising this word-free chronicle of rural life “for a brave and fresh approach to the film medium which conveys both spiritually and poetically the inexorable forces of nature. Furthermore, it underlines that narrative cinema does not need to rely on dialogue to fully involve the audience in its means of expression.”
   Well, colour this critic firmly uninvolved. I’d already seen The Four Times in September at Spain’s San Sebastian Film Festival, and found it the least satisfactory of the 30 movies I tried. At least I got to the end – I’d walked out of Frammartino’s previous effort The Gift (2003) after about an hour of its 80 minute run-time, utterly exasperated by the picture’s snail-paced pretentiousness. This new one is no better – if anything, it’s even worse – but I stuck it out, having read so many reliable, sensible critics’ comments that it was really something special. Different strokes, and all that…

   My #1 pick from San Sebastian was, as it happens, also in the Reykjavik competition line-up. As glowingly described in these pages last week, Marcin Wrona’s The Christening (Chrzest) is a superbly tough thriller from Poland – one which I ended up watching for a second time up in Iceland, just to confirm my initial reaction (the second view thus enabling me to break convention by mentioning the same movie in consecutive film-festival reports.)
   The Christening is even better when you know what’s coming, allowing a greater appreciation of the structural intricacies and ironies lurking beneath the slick, blood-spattered surfaces. In San Sebastian I was impressed and moved – in Reykjavik, I’m not ashamed to say that I cried. The main-competition judges were made of sterner stuff, it seems – the only recognition Wrona received in the closing ceremony was (ironically enough, given that he’s an avowed non-believer) a “special mention” from the Church Jury.

a tense moment in 'Undercurrent'

   The ceremony was followed by the world-premiere of a brand-new Icelandic film, Undercurrent (Brim) by Árni Ásgeirsson, which follows the misfortunes of a rustbucket fishing-trawler’s crew as they ply their precarious trade through some nausea-inducingly choppy Arctic waters.
   ‘Worse things happen at sea’ as the saying goes, and many of them feature in Asgeirsson and Otto Geir Borg’s script here (adapted, rather surprisingly given the tempest-tossed mise-en-scene, from a stage play) including random violence, severe injury, a couple of suicides, dire accidents, and decidedly ill-timed storms.
   With a doomy Joseph Conrad trouble-aboard-ship feel (apt for what is a Polish co-production) and a hyper-close attention to the quotidian nuts-and-bolts of trawler life – plus a welcome streak of flinty Icelandic humour – Undercurrent features several familiar faces from the biggest recent international hit from the country, Albarn-pal Kormákur’s Nordic-noir adaptation Jar City (2007).
   The country’s leading thespian Ingvar E Sigurðsson (he played the giant monster Grendel in 2005’s Iceland-shot Beowulf and Grendel opposite Gerard Butler) makes for a suitably weather-beaten Captain – with requisite mysterious, tragic past – while his genial Jar City co-star (and Icelandic cinema’s reigning beefcake pinup) Björn Hlynur Haraldsson has great fun – amid what must have been a hideously tough shoot – as the gloweringly brooding Logi, a tattooed evangelical Christian prone to outbursts of psychotic bloodshed.
   Undercurrent will no doubt find numerous ports of call at the world’s festivals, as there’s such interest in Icelandic fare just now. And the picture is suitably drenched in cobalty local colour – with a quotidian attention to lived-in details of life on and off the waves that gives it a tang of authenticity missing from Hollywood equivalents such as The Perfect Storm. But for all the director’s brackish atmospherics, the screenplay ultimately has a slightly underdeveloped feel, with a rushed third act that leaves one with a general “is that it?” feeling as the credits roll.

   No such problems with what was, pound-for-pound, the most satisfying local production I saw in Reykjavik – the 14-minute short, Permille (Prómill) by writer-director Marteinn Thórsson (proper Icelandic transliteration: Þórsson). It features Undercurrent supporting player Ólafur Darri Ólafsson very much front-and-centre as Eirik, a hallucination-prone, booze-addled Reykjavik party-boy slumping drunkenly towards middle-age. The bottle is Eirik’s way of dealing with what the film describes as “the shitty state of the country” – and Þórsson could have found plentiful real-life inspirations on the city’s streets, especially after dark.
   According to Þórsson, “the flick was shot on a lark last May as part of an experiment to utilise the Canon 1D and 5D cameras in feature filmmaking.” If so, this larkish experiment must be counted a notable success, as Permille deploys an uncompromisingly scuzzy aesthetic to take us right into the woozy, paranoid delusions of its protagonist. The results are deliberately nightmarish and unpleasant in a manner that’s first grating, then stimulating and finally, thanks to a daringly abrupt denouement, audaciously jarring.
   Far from being some greenhorn neophyte, the fortyish Þórsson already has one feature to his name – 2004’s One Point O (aka Paranoia 1.0), featuring cult favourites Udo Kier, Lance Henriksen and Deborah Kara Unger. Permille suggests that his upcoming feature Stormland is worth keeping a weather-eye out for in 2011 – and that Iceland’s hardy cinema culture won’t let minor matters like ash-clouds and international financial crises drag it down.

   Meanwhile, looking even further afield, it was heartening to see what was billed as the first ever ‘Greenlandic’ movie, namely the Greenland/Denmark co-production Nuummioq – written and directed by Greenland-born, Copenhagen-based duo Torben Bech and Otto Rosing, and starring the latter’s brother Lars. Greenland is still, strictly speaking, part of Denmark, and the movie goes to considerable pains to present its Inuit and Danish inhabitants as part of one big happy family – quite literally so, in the case of Danish-descended Malik (Rosing) and his Inuit-descended cousin Michael (Angunnguaq Larsen). The drama, such as it is, concerns Malik being diagnosed with cancer, and going on a journey with Michael to a remote area where he uncovers long-hidden secrets from his family’s past.
   Making excellent use of the breathtaking Greenland scenery via Bo Bilstrup’s cinematography, Nuumioq (which apparenly means “a person from Nuuk” – the Greenland capital also known as Godthab) is transcendent in its many external scenes but relatively pedestrian when it ventures indoors. A heartfelt, slightly sentimental reflection on vita brevis and memento mori, the film is Greenland’s first-ever submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, and if nothing else shows that cinema can flower in the most unlikely of wildly remote locations.
   As the picture’s producer Mikisoq H. Lynge puts it: “cool stuff is in the making and I look optimistic at the future” – as good a motto for this part of the world in general, and the Reykjavik International Film Festival in particular, as one is ever likely to find.

links to official siteNeil Young
11th-14th October, 2010
(expanded version of an article written for the 21st October issue of Tribune magazine)

THE CHRISTENING : [8/10] : Poland 2010 : Marcin Wrona : 86m approx : seen 1st October at Paradis cinema* : {23/28}
THE LIMITS OF CONTROL : [7/10] : Spain/US 2009 (copyright-date 2008) : Jim Jarmusch : 116m approx : seen 1st October at Haskolabio cinema :{20/28}
NUUMMIOQ : [6/10] : Greenland/Denmark 2009 : Torben Bech & Otto Rosing : 95m approx : seen 30th September at Paradis cinema : {17/28}
Permille : [****/5] : aka Prómill : Iceland 2010 : Marteinn Þórsson : 14m approx : seen on DVD, 2nd October in festival videoroom : {12/13}
UNDERCURRENT : [6/10] : Brim : Iceland 2010 : Árni Ásgeirsson : 91m : seen 2nd October at Haskolabio cinema [world premiere] : {16/28}

 all films seen via complimentary press tickets at Reykjavik International Film Festival, Iceland
* The Christening previously seen Sep.23. in San Sebastian, Spain (original rating 21/28}

BAD FAITH : [W/O] : Ond Tro : Sweden 2009 : Kristian Petri : 100m approx : seen 30th September at Paradis cinema (walkout)
Clean : [**/5] : Iceland 2010 : Ísold Uggadóttir : 10m approx : seen on DVD, 2nd October in festival videoroom : {4/13}
In a Heartbeat : [***/5] : aka Heartbeat : Iceland 2010 : Karolina Lewicka : 7m approx : seen on DVD, 2nd October in festival videoroom : {7/13}
INSIDE AMERICA : [6/10] : Austria 2010 : Barbara Eder : 107m approx : seen 1st October at Paradis cinema : {15/28}
Knowledgy : [***/5] : Iceland 2010 : Hrefna Hagalín & Kristín Bára : 18m approx : seen on DVD, 2nd October in festival videoroom : {8/13}
Try Again : [****/5] : Reyndur aftur : Iceland 2010 : Sverrir Kristjánsson : 16m approx : seen on DVD, 2nd October in festival videoroom : {9/13}







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