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Like Strong West Winds, Icelandic Films Blow Successfully Through the Filmfest Hamburg
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

Although I have never been to Iceland, I have a hunch that its people are strong-minded survivors with a very dark sense of humor. They manage to carve out a life in one of the most isolated and hostile environments in Europe. Iceland is known for its volcanoes, glaciers, snowy mountains and high tundra which have a prominent influence in daily life of the people. These ideas come from watching, year after year, films like Rams (2016), Of Horses and Men (2013), Women At War (2018), and Parents (2006) showing Iceland’s uniqueness.

This quiet mysterious island country is like no other in the world. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump west of Hamburg, which in the recent years has managed to capture everyone’s imaginations. What makes this Nordic island unique is that it is the most sparsely populated country in Europe having an area of 103,000 square km with a population around 360,400 people whose forefathers were Norwegian, Scottish and Gaelic. This combination alone makes us think of trolls, Vikings and primitive mythologies. So it is not surprising that, in films describing life, there has always a strong silent partner playing a major role called Mother Nature. Iceland has many faces with all of them being rough, wild and giving us the sense that mankind is very, very small in comparison to Mother Nature in combination with a mythical tale.

This year’s film festival had three strong films HÉRADID(The County) by Grímur Hákonarson, BERGMÁL (Echo) by Grímur Hákonarson, and HVÍTUR, HAVÍTUR, DAGUR (A White, White Day) by Hlynur Pálmason, which demonstrated the innovation of these filmmakers. Writing intimate scripts in combination with a style of cinematography shows elements that are very specific to this region, which at the same time gives Iceland a stylistic trademark seen only in these films. My first film was HVÍTUR, HAVÍTUR, DAGUR (A White, White Day), a drama where former policeman Hlynur Palmaon’s (Ingvar Sigurdsson) gets wind that his wife may have had an affair years before she died in a tragic car accident. The scene opens on a white, billowy, cloudy day where visibility is increasingly getting worse; we watch a car driving down a road to nowhere and suddenly slides off and crashes down below. From that point the film fast forwards in time to a house slowly succumbing to the elements. We see wild horses appearing in the camera frame, and the next scene is a windy cold winter night. It is as though ghosts are waiting for us to uncover their secrets.

My second film HÉRADID(The County) by Grímur Hákonarson had a scene where Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) falls asleep in a big double bed while waiting for her husband to return home. This time the road seems steep, dark and cloudy; we see the husband driving the truck, slipping off the road, and crashing sideways into a stream in the middle of nowhere. By morning, she finds herself the full owner of a heavily indebted dairy farm. Also, she soon realizes that her husband’s accident was no accident, but a suicide due to his heavy involvement with the corrupt local co-op.

The film BERGMÁL (Echo) by Grímur Hákonarson doesn’t have any car crashes but does reveal a scene where a ground-searching team is looking for a missing child on a mountainside. In each one of these incidents the camera was used to produce a long shot. A common theme among these Icelandic filmmakers is their love of a long shot. A long shot, which is also called a wide shot, is used to show the entire object and is usually intended to place it in some relation to its surroundings in Iceland. We see cows staring at us, wild horses moving in and out of the frame, a bizarre house that slowly decays due to time and changing weather conditions or even nudity where people blend in with nature.

One of the most outstanding traits of Icelandic filmmakers is that ability to take ordinary incidents and create a bizarre scene. These films are chock-full of mundane, everyday events twisted to give/lend scenes a sense of black humor, where we can only laugh until our sides hurt. From spilled milk to spraying milk, to stealing holiday cheer to nude people jumping into an ice cold pool it takes us down a road we have not travelled before. The most memorable of these three films is BERGMÁL.  It is a compilation of short vignettes depicting events in various people’s lives around the Christmas season. Some are humorous, some tragic; some struggle with loneliness while others bring hope and naturally contain many scenes with the ever present character: Mother Nature. So, if you are feeling out of sorts, then I suggest you check out one of these films.  They will surely make you appreciate the life you lead as well as taking you into an unknown world across the Atlantic Ocean.