Reykjavik International Film Festival 2008: The Festival

Reykjavik International Film Festival 2008

I really felt that since this was our first visit to Reykjavik, and to RIFF, that I should talk about some of our exper­i­ences out­side of the films them­selves. In fact, we had some of the best and worst exper­i­ences of the fest­ival when we weren’t at reg­u­lar screen­ings, and these stor­ies are worth telling, at the very least for pos­ter­ity, but also in the hope that they’ll help the RIFF organ­izers fine-tune their fest­ival to make it bet­ter for inter­na­tional vis­it­ors and journ­al­ists.

I’d say that first and fore­most we were taken aback a little by the over­all char­ac­ter of Icelanders them­selves. Though I’d been warned a little bit by my new Icelandic friend Alda that Iceland didn’t pos­sess much of a “ser­vice men­tal­ity,” I was still under the impres­sion that Nordic coun­tries were all very dis­cip­lined and organ­ized. I’ve vis­ited Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark and have found that assump­tion to be gen­er­ally accur­ate. Not so in Iceland. The best way I can put it is that Icelanders pos­sess a com­bin­a­tion of self-reli­ance (not sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing that for most of their his­tory, they were a rocky and bar­ren out­post depend­ent on fish­ing) and bohemi­an­ism (every­one is an artist, musi­cian or film­maker, and often more than one) that makes them com­pletely unique. Unfortunately, it also makes them a little bit indif­fer­ent to what vis­it­ors might want or need. I’m hes­it­ant to provide the fol­low­ing examples for fear of seem­ing ungrate­ful, so I’ll post a dis­claimer first. RIFF was incred­ibly gen­er­ous in provid­ing press accred­it­a­tion to both me and my wife, and every­one we met was friendly. But there were a num­ber of fail­ures of organ­iz­a­tion which, for a fest­ival in its fifth year, are a little hard to under­stand.

  1. Though we were accred­ited as press, there didn’t seem to be any sort of press centre in evid­ence, nor was there someone func­tion­ing spe­cific­ally as a press coordin­ator. We weren’t con­tac­ted to set up inter­views with film­makers, nor was there any oppor­tun­ity out­side of reg­u­lar screen­ings to see the films.
  2. Though there were only three ven­ues for screen­ings, the pro­gramme neg­lected to provide any sort of map. We ended up see­ing films at only one loc­a­tion since it was the only one we could find. Our exper­i­ence in try­ing to loc­ate one of the oth­ers, the Nordic House, will illus­trate: After a late din­ner, we attemp­ted to get to a 10:30 screen­ing of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. On the map provided by the tour­ist office, it looked like a fif­teen minute walk. After walk­ing for more than half an hour and find­ing ourselves in the middle of what looked like a deser­ted office park, we gave up. Some sort of sig­nage or guid­ance would have helped.
  3. The tiny sched­ule prin­ted on the back cover of the pro­gramme was far too small and cramped to make much sense. To make mat­ters worse, on some days the sched­uled screen­ings were half an hour earlier. But when we showed up early, we were told that because of the con­fu­sion, they’d have to start at the later time. We weren’t clear if that was an adhoc decision or was now policy.
  4. Two of the films I saw were pro­jec­ted in the wrong aspect-ratio, squeez­ing what should have been lovely widescreen images into a TV-shaped frame.
  5. Volunteers didn’t seem to have answers to our ques­tions. The head volun­teer at one of the major ticket out­lets was a British woman who spent more time mak­ing cracks about Icelanders than provid­ing any use­ful inform­a­tion.
  6. I have two stor­ies about one of my most-anti­cip­ated events, a screen­ing of Danish silent film Sons of the Soil (1920), the first fea­ture ever filmed in Iceland. Up-and-com­ing Reykjavik band Hjaltalín had writ­ten a score and were sched­uled to per­form it as live accom­pani­ment to the film. Since this was a spe­cial event, there was a charge of 2000 kronur (about $23 at the time) for tick­ets. When we first attemp­ted to buy tick­ets, a week before the show, we were offered tick­ets to the film screen­ing (at 900kr), which our press passes gave us free acess to. Then the above-men­tioned British woman scol­ded the Icelandic volun­teer and said tick­ets weren’t actu­ally avail­able there, and that we’d have to buy them at the venue. But what to make of 900kr tick­ets to a 2000kr con­cert? There was no other screen­ing of the film sched­uled. About two days before the con­cert, we were finally suc­cess­ful in pur­chas­ing our tick­ets at that very same ticket desk. I was a little dis­mayed to see the num­bers “003” and “004” on them, but at least we had them in hand.
  7. We’d read in the pro­gramme that buses would be dis­patched to take us to the con­cert since it was at a dif­fer­ent venue, simply lis­ted as “Bæjarbíó” with no address given. Though the tick­ets stated the screen­ing star­ted at 8:00pm, the prom­ised buses were also sched­uled to pick us up at 8:00pm across the street from the book­store where we’d pur­chased tick­ets. When we asked the British volun­teer chief, she assured us that buses would be there and that film fest­ival volun­teers in their yel­low t-shirts would be there to help us. Being cau­tious, we showed up at about 7:45pm but couldn’t see any volun­teers. The weather was too cold to be stand­ing around in t-shirts any­way, but no one appeared to be around, neither volun­teers nor other people wait­ing for the bus. Worst of all, there was no bus, even by 8:10pm, when we decided to hail a taxi. After show­ing the driver the tick­ets to see if he knew where to go, he had to call his dis­patcher, which is never a good sign. After that he hap­pily set off for the south­ern sub­urb of Hafnarfjorður, where we’d spent that very morn­ing in our rental car, look­ing around. 3000kr later (about $35), he dropped us out­side of a build­ing we’d walked past that very morn­ing. My tem­per was begin­ning to boil. As we walked into the theatre at about 8:25, we spot­ted Yung Chang, dir­ector of Up the Yangtze (review), whom we’d met the night before, and I made a note to find out how he’d got­ten him­self there. Since we were late, we had to take seats in the second-to-last row and as we settled in, we could hear a man giv­ing a rather lengthy intro­duc­tion to the film only in Icelandic. Then the band came out and the film star­ted. We had no idea what the run­ning time of the film was, but I was treat­ing it like a con­cert, so expec­ted about 90 minutes or so. Nearly three hours later, we emerged, dazed and con­fused. There were no English inter­titles for the film, which seemed to have sev­eral false end­ings. The score, though beau­ti­ful in stretches, was dis­cord­ant in oth­ers, and simply score-like for most of the rest. We headed out­side hop­ing to see a bus, and were not com­pletely sur­prised to see none. I was able to find a volun­teer and asked where it was. She had no idea and went to find her super­visor. “Oh, it’s not out front?” she asked me. “Let me go and find out.” After find­ing and ask­ing the fest­ival dir­ector without suc­cess, she wandered off across the street. Luckily for us, Yung offered us a ride back to Reykjavik with his Icelandic friend Hana, and we gladly accep­ted. I still don’t know whether any buses exis­ted.
  8. Earlier in the fest­ival, there had been a drive-in sched­uled to take place in the park­ing gar­age of a local mall. Though the list­ing was duly trans­lated into English in the guide, I noted that both Icelandic and English text said the audio would be broad­cast over the car radio on the 91.9 fre­quency. Though the guide prom­ised that all films would be screened in English or with English sub­titles, I also noted that one of the fea­tures of the drive-in would be the sea­son premiere of a pop­u­lar Icelandic tele­vi­sion show. Suspecting that there might not be any English trans­la­tion avail­able, I sent an email with my ques­tion to the festival’s guest coordin­ator. I also men­tioned our con­fu­sion with the Hjaltalín con­cert tick­ets. Three days later, I got an email thank­ing me for my mes­sage, which she would “get to later” and then invit­ing us to a din­ner sponsored by the Icelandic Film Centre that even­ing. I never did get any reply to my ques­tions.
Dream team of Icelandic directors and producers
The dream team of Icelandic dir­ect­ors and pro­du­cers we met at a “sneak peek” event

Whew. I didn’t intend for that to be as long and ranty as it turned out. If you’re still with me, I don’t want to give the impres­sion that we didn’t have any fun. In fact, the best times we had were at a num­ber of smal­ler events that we were spe­cially invited to. For those, I’d like to spe­cific­ally thank the Icelandic Film Centre (in par­tic­u­lar Thóra Gunnarsdóttir and Laufey Guðjónsdóttir) who have always seemed noth­ing but pro­fes­sional in my con­tacts with them.

  1. Brooke and I were delighted to be invited to a “sneak peek” event early in the fest­ival where we met sev­eral Icelandic dir­ect­ors and saw clips of upcom­ing releases. This was held at a beau­ti­ful res­taur­ant with a lovely view of the har­bour. I think we may have been among the first to see the trailer for Júlíus Kemp’s Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre, which looks to be a scream (lit­er­ally). We also saw clips from Sunshine Boy, an upcom­ing doc­u­ment­ary about aut­ism by Friðrik Thór Friðriksson, per­haps the god­father of Icelandic cinema. Steeled by some free wine, we actu­ally spoke to sev­eral dir­ect­ors we’ve been fans of for a long time, includ­ing Friðriksson, Baltasar Kormákur (101 Reykjavik, Jar City (review)), Valdís Óskarsdóttir (Country Wedding (review), and editor of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and many other “Hollywood” films), and Icelandic author Andri Snæer Magnason, whose best­seller Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation is being made into a doc­u­ment­ary. When we left, we were presen­ted with a gift bag full of DVDs of Icelandic films as well as press mater­ial for the upcom­ing films we’d seen pre­viewed.
  2. Later in the week, as I men­tioned above, we were invited to an intim­ate din­ner where we were among not only the Icelandic film­makers but all of the inter­na­tional film­makers and guests who were at the fest­ival. At our table of ten, guests included Friðrik Thór Friðriksson and Canadian act­ress Arsinée Khanjian (serving on the jury). Scattered around the room were Costa-Gavras and his wife, Finnish doc­u­ment­arian Arto Halonen (Shadow of the Holy Book (review)), Faroese film­maker Katrin Ottarsdottir, Irish doc­u­ment­arian David Kinsella, Canadian doc­u­ment­ary film­makers Gwen Haworth (She’s A Boy I Knew, awar­ded a Special Mention at the Queer Cinema Awards in Reykjavik) and Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze), and Dimitri Eipides, pro­gram­mer for RIFF, TIFF and the Thessaloniki Film Festival. A deli­cious meal of Icelandic lamb was fol­lowed by drinks includ­ing Brennivin, the legendary schnapps nick­named “Black Death.” A good time was had by all.
  3. At the din­ner, we met RIFF dir­ector Hrönn Marinósdóttir, who made sure we knew about the clos­ing party which was being held aboard a whale watch­ing boat in the har­bour on the final Saturday night of the fest­ival. In fact they had attached three boats together to acco­mod­ate every­one, includ­ing the boat that Brooke and I had gone out on the week before. There were many more people there, undoubtedly attrac­ted by the open bar and the inter­est­ing loc­a­tion. There was a DJ (and our new friend Yung Chang even jumped in and played a DJ set off his laptop) and it was def­in­itely a young and local crowd. The fest­ival handed out its awards and later, we spot­ted Björk in the crowd. In fact, we were prob­ably within a foot or two of the pix­ie­like singer, per­haps Iceland’s greatest export. In this con­text, Icelanders’ lack of form­al­ity was actu­ally a bene­fit, since nobody seemed to treat her too much like a celebrity.

All in all, we had a won­der­ful time, and spent quite a few of our days driv­ing around the coun­tryside see­ing the sights. I’ll look for­ward to see­ing how RIFF matures, and would def­in­itely be inter­ested in com­ing back again soon. Next time, I’ll just carry a bet­ter map!

Here are our pho­tos from the entire trip (warn­ing: many non-film-related ones, but you’ll enjoy them, I assure you!)

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