Creative Offerings at the Icelandic Film Festival

Dennis Harvey May 21, 2006

What fuels creativity? Many things, of course. But if we can take Iceland’s recent burst of multimedia activity as evidence, it would seem booze, boredom and really long dark seasonal nights spent indoors … don’t hurt, at least.

OK, that’s the stereotypical view. Though it’s pretty well tacitly admitted in “Screaming Masterpiece” — one of two features in the Icelandic Film Festival taking place at the Castro Theatre this Monday — that this very combo played no wee role in fostering many Icelandic bands, playing to many well-oiled Icelandic clubbers. Could that formula also apply to filmmaking? Maybe not: One difference between a guitar and a camera is that you have to hold the latter steady. (Unless you are still committed to that trembling-with-realism thing we are already so, so sick of.)

Seriously, there must be something in the water or simply the culture that has made Iceland fairly explode in recent years as a place where art — mostly popular art — comes from. Yes, there’s Bjork, and the even more ethereal Sigur Ros, both duly featured in the documentary “Masterpiece.” But there’s also a whole lot more going on. You can get a sense of that, without an expensive plane ticket, all this week in the “Taste of Iceland“ festival of “music, film, food and fun” taking place around the Bay Area May 18-23. It’s got everything from master chef Siggi Hall in residence at local restaurants to live jazz, electronica, and a former Sugarcube (Einar Orn).

But it’s the movies we’re interested in here. Presented in association with SOMA Magazine by tourism/product-promoting agency Iceland Naturally, this third-annual festival is like Iceland itself — low in population, but high in striking sights. Offering what just might be the Bay Area’s most concise film festival, the 2006 edition offers just two features and one short (last year’s Academy Award nominee “The Last Farm”). But it’s all very, very good stuff.

Ari Alexander and Ergis Magnusson’s “Screaming Masterpiece” (at noon and 6 pm) looks at the almost unbelievable level of activity and diversity in the Icelandic music scene. There’s Bjork, natch, expounding on the island’s vocal traditions amidst some pretty arresting remote settings. (The film is as much a well-shot travelogue as it is a musical overview.) Elsewhere, there are trad folk groups, classical and jazz ensembles, garage bands, English-language pop acts, and much more. This documentary makes Reykjavik look like the happening place to be — though let’s hope that doesn’t lead to its Prague-like deluging by expat hipsters.

If it’s an Iceland of pristine white wilderness you’re after, head straight to “Noi Albinoi,” Dagur Kari’s much-liked feature that’s already had a brief U.S. theatrical run (as just plain “Noi”). Its 17-year-old protagonist is the token rebel in a town so miniscule you could probably go snowblind looking at the buildings. Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) is not just maladjusted; he’s also a class-skipping savant of sorts, and an albino. Nobody is rooting for him, certainly not his alcoholic, rarely-there dad. (Mom is absent entirely.) Life here is so bleak it’s perversely hilarious — not unlike Iceland’s prior black-comedy arthouse hit “101 Reykjavik.” Its writer-director Balthasar Kormakur has since made the English-language thriller “A Little Trip to Heaven” with Forrest Whitaker and Julia Stiles, which comes out later this year.

Which is not to suggest that Iceland has always been a hotbed for the cinematic arts. Hunting as ever for exotica, filmmakers began photographing it as early as 1906, when the first movie house opened in Reykjavik. But for many long years the few films shot here were primarily produced by foreigners, most from nearby Scandinavian countries. Exactly one local narrative feature was made during the silent era: 1923’s “Adventures of Jon and Gvendur.” It took another 25 years for the first color sound feature to appear, “Between Mountain and Shore.”

As if exhausted by even that threadbare output, after 1960 Iceland produced no feature films at all for two full decades. Clearly something needed to be done, so in 1978 the Icelandic Film Fund was created to encourage native and collaborative efforts, establish financial incentives, and so forth. In 2003 new laws further strengthened the government’s commitment to film culture and business.

Meanwhile Iceland has become ever more visible as a location in international films, largely due to some big tax breaks offered. Besides, where else can you get black sand beaches, lava beds, volcanic craters, geothermal hot springs, snow caverns, glaciers, ice fields, mountain peaks — and no lack of loooong daylight hours for overtime — in one package? (The notion of Iceland having a “lunar” landscape in some areas runs so deep that US astronauts actually trained here before walking on the moon.) Whether you knew it or not, that was Iceland providing visual thrills even CGI can’t deliver in parts of “Batman Begins,” James Bond adventure “Die Another Die,” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” It’ll also be featured heavily in Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming two-part World War II epic “Flags of Our Fathers.”