2015 has easily been the year of Icelandic cinema. The small island country of 320,000 people has had a remarkable number of success stories over the past twelve months. Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men took out the Nordic Council Film Prize at the end of 2014, and this year we have seen Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams win the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival, Dagur Kári’s Virgin Mountain winning three awards at Tribeca (Best Narrative, Best Screenplay and Best Actor), and Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest opening the Venice Film Festival. Icelandic cinema has been making its way all over the international festival scene, and the small nation has become a staple of world cinema.
Historically speaking, Icelandic film production has been rather limited. The first critically acclaimed film to be made was Ágúst Guðmundsson’s Land and Sons (1980). The film is based on a novel by Indriði G. Thorsteinsson, which is set in a remote valley in the north of Iceland in 1937. Sheep disease is crippling farming and young people are hurrying to the centres of urban expansion. This film not only marks the beginning of contemporary Icelandic cinema, but also indicates many of the popular trends and themes that most frequently appear in Icelandic films: the relationship between man and nature, the clash of two values and lifestyles, rural and urban, loneliness, alienation, and the desire to escape.
Commercial cinema started to grow with the main representative being Hrafn Gunnlagsson. His 1984 film When the Raven Flies (the first of the Viking/Cod Westerns Trilogy) was a great success at least nationally. Set in the Middle Ages, the film tells the story of the revenge of Gestur, an Irishman who as a child witnessed the murder of his parents by Norwegian Vikings. Gestur follows their trail to Iceland and incites their mutual distrust and hatred. The real breakthrough came from Children of Nature (1991), directed by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, an Oscar nominee and the first Icelandic winner at many of the most prestigious international film festivals. The film is kind of a modern myth, a moving story about being stuck in between – living close to nature and modernisation, between past and future, between life and death – as it follows an old man living by himself who gives up farming and ends up in an old peoples home.
The contemporary Icelandic cinema we are seeing with the new generation of filmmakers covers similar subjects, but they also portray Iceland as a claustrophobic island that they can’t escape. At the time of its release, Baltasar Kormákur’s 101 Reykjavik (2000) broke many taboos of the Icelandic culture. A story of a strange love triangle between a mother, her son and their lover created controversy among Icelanders. However, the film is more significant as it was one of the first Icelandic films to portray life of young people in the big city. The film moved away from endless landscapes and concentrated on the intimate lives of its main characters. Yet despite the attempt to break from established clichés, it still talks about the inseparable bond between Icelanders and their place of birth, and about the closed society they form.
At its time, Noi the Albino was one of the handful of Icelandic films to have travelled around the world, receiving praise from critics. The film takes place during the winter and follows the teenager Noi as he lives throughout daily routines and dreams of a summery paradise. The hero is an outsider and loner, and the small village represents the desire to beginning a new and different life. Noi the Albino succeeded overseas as a film that was both distinctly Icelandic and universal. The films successful negotiation of the tensions between the local and global contributed to the films status as an Icelandic classic, and its place within Icelandic film highlights the problems this small nation faces.
Another contemporary Icelandic film that highlights problems in the small nation is Jar City. Regarded as one of the Nordic Noir films, Jar City follows the murder of a petty criminal and suspected pedophile. His murder sparks a search for a long-gone hoodlum and an investigation into a rape case from more than thirty years ago. Parallel to Inspector Erlendur’s life, a separate story shows a man, Orn, grieving for his young daughter and investigating her death from a rare brain condition. He appears to work in some secrete lab, and this reflects on Iceland’s controversial programme to form a DNA database: as a uniquely isolated community they want to make sure that future couples aren’t incest, and this becomes a theme that Kormákur manages to fit in.
The contemporary Icelandic films released over the past twelve months attempt to break this image of Iceland as an idealistic wonderland, and instead portray the various flaws but in a humanistic way. They ask uncomfortably questions about their country, explore complex social and family relations, and observe not only the beauty of nature but also its destructive side. They form a critical voice in Iceland that shows other dimensions. But not only that, they tell Icelandic stories to the world and many agree that is the key behind their success.
Cinema Scandinavia is a bi-monthly Nordic film and television magazine with a focus on writing for international audiences. Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia.