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REYKJAVIK — On the eve of its tenth installment, there was clearly no need for the Reykjavik International Film Festival to convince the world’s A-listers to come to Iceland. Christopher Nolan had just finished shooting a chunk of Interstellar on a nearby glacier. Ryan Gosling was in town, keeping a low profile while working with editor Valdis Oskarsdottir (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) on his directing debut, How to Catch a Monster. And Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen‘s megayacht Octopus sat offshore, with rumors circulating that he was using the ship’s mini-submarines, James Cameron-style, to tour scientists around underwater geothermal vents.
RIFF, which kicked off Sept. 26 and concluded Oct. 6, did bring some established filmmakers to town, with a focus on interaction instead of red-carpet gawking: James Gray and Laurent Cantet were both honored with mini-retrospectives on the occasions of their latest films, spoke in free Q&As and held private sessions in the fest’s Transatlantic Talent Lab. They were also honored by Iceland’s president Olafur Ragnar Grimsson at a remarkably inclusive affair where members of the hoi polloi were greeted individually by the President, and, after a few thoughtful remarks, invited to explore his offices and library as if they were in their own homes. Scruffy young film students drank champagne while comparing the hundreds of exotic gifts — a narwhal’s tusk sat propped by a doorway — brought to Iceland by visiting dignitaries.
The film program itself wouldn’t have drawn much foreign interest, despite its generally high quality. But while the tiny number of premieres here — a standout was Solveig Anspach‘s Lulu in the Nude — demonstrated the event’s rank in the global hierarchy of film festivals, it was clear that RIFF is big enough now to chafe at the “for the locals” label. It’s true that the eleven-day event is a boon to movie buffs: Reykjavik’s three-screen Bio Paradis, the only arthouse theater in Iceland, can only screen so many foreign and indie films in a year. But organizers evince bigger ambitions, even if they’re not quite sure what shape a grown-up RIFF will take.
Festival director Hronn Marinosdottir acknowledges that the world may not need another sales-oriented festival, even if Iceland’s location makes it a convenient meeting point between the U.S. and Europe. Still, she and her colleagues hope to make the fest globally relevant. Panels included a focus on the economic collapse’s impact on moviemaking, with directors from Greece on hand to compare their experience with those of local counterparts; Iceland farmers and consumer advocates joined to discuss Slow Food and organic movements with documentarians from abroad. Most ambitious was an Earth 101 conference, distinct from the fest but holding some joint events, which introduced filmmakers to scientists and sociologists in an attempt to find better ways of discussing climate change on film.
In expanding the festival’s reach, Marinosdottir has an invaluable asset few festival directors can match: the country itself. All week, foreigners were heard comparing notes about the things to be seen and done just a short drive outside city limits. On a “Black and Blue” outing, one could start off hiking through a lava-tube cave and wind up snorkeling in the near-freezing waters of the Silfra fissure, a dramatic rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Guides with crampons to spare take visitors hiking across ash-streaked glaciers; further from Reykjavik, amphibious trucks swim through icebergs in a glacial lagoon used in the Bond film Die Another Day and at least three other blockbusters.
Though small nature tours organized by the festival felt more like hospitality than a sales pitch, resourceful filmmakers on the bus surely noted the easy access to a wide range of terrain, much of it otherworldly enough to offer sci-fi settings on a shoestring budget: faux craters and bubble-like stone left by ancient lava flows; muddy fields spitting steam and gurgling with primordial goo; multi-hued moss that covers rocky earth for kilometers in every direction.
The landscape was a boon to New York City filmmakers Ani Simon-Kennedy and Cailin Yatsko, who decided to make a film in Iceland (despite never having been here) after discovering local band Hjaltalin, who’ve found some success in Europe but aren’t yet known in the States. The film, Days of Gray, was shown here with live accompaniment from the band, a concert event that sold out the large Gamla Bio theater.
Other special events included a food/cinema pairing at the Hotel Borg’s celebrated restaurant and a screening of local director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson‘s 1980 debut Father’s Estate in the living room of the filmmaker’s notoriously junk-strewn home.
Plans to screen some films inside a nearby cave were scuttled by weather, but not all schedule changes resulted from acts of God. Ticket buyers were frustrated by an unusual number of discrepancies between the published film program and actual screenings; others balked at distinctly uncinematic viewing conditions at the Nordic House venue. Locals who’ve attended the fest for years said these hiccups weren’t unique to this year’s outing. One cancelation couldn’t be blamed on anyone in Reykjavik: Thanks to the government shutdown in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Embassy had to call off a planned filmmakers’ luncheon.
Despite the bickering back on Capitol Hill, there were plenty of opportunities for filmmakers and cinephiles to meet here. In fact, it was hard not to make friends in a town that, though much more populous than Park City or Telluride, has a city center that is walkable from end to end in ten minutes. Organizers threw attendees together on panels and at parties, but more freewheeling conversations were to be found, unscheduled (and punctuated by Bjork sightings), at a handful of local bars — including Kaffibarinn, immortalized in Icelander Baltasar Kormakur‘s film 101 Reykjavik.
Kormakur wasn’t on hand for the fest, but he chimed in on one of the week’s biggest discussions: When Iceland’s government proposed to cut funding for local film productions by about 40 percent, the 2 Guns director told The Hollywood Reporter such measures would make it “almost impossible to build any future” for homegrown cinema.
Reps for the Icelandic Film Centre were more optimistic at a dinner they held for RIFF visitors, noting that the last time funding was cut (in 2009, after the financial crisis), the industry had no hard figures about film production’s impact on the local economy.
Now they have reams of stats to show politicians. And a film festival that, capitalizing on local geography and a tight-knit community, is making Iceland feel like a film scene worth nurturing.
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