Harvesting the film crops of the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands film industry is almost non-existent. Despite its lack of presence both locally and internationally, there have always been artists creating films in the small country. We take a closer look at these extraordinary works of art.

When Faroese cinema was in its infancy

Despite the popular belief that when it comes to self-expression through different art forms, the talented inhabitants of the Faroe Islands have so far mostly dedicated themselves to writing and publishing literary works, it seems that during the last couple of years the seemingly modest cinematic production of the islands has witnessed an unexpected boom in the shape of young and gifted directors who revolutionized Faroese film art in a heartbeat while incorporating a great deal of their cultural heritage and rich folklore traditions into their work.

After the first Faroese movie theatre opened in 1910, yet long before the film history of the remote archipelago started its rough journey and local filmmakers found their voice, foreign artists – mostly from Denmark, Norway and Germany – set foot on Faroese soil, using the lace-shaped sea waves and merciless cliffs, the untamed beauty of the emerald pastures craving for attention as a background for their productions. As a result, the first magnificent works and collaborations were born, starting with Swedish Sten Nordenskiöld’s silent semi-documentary Farornas Ö (Island of Hazards), shot on the bird cliffs of Skúgvoy in 1929 and premièred in Stockholm the following year.

Fascinated with cultural history, director Jákup Andreas Arge captured local farmers harvesting the corn fields of Húsavík in the sixties. Some of his material describing everyday life in late 1960’s provided an excellent base for documentaries on Danish television.

In the 1970’s a memorable collaboration saw the light of day when a production company, Tór Film ventured to film cultural aspects of the Faroese Islands and portray the lives of such iconic Faroese writers William Heinesen, Christian Matras and Heðin Brú (Tríggir varðar, 1977).

Emphasising the remoteness and unmatched charm of some of the villages on the islands, in 1990 Ulla Boje Rasmussen created amazing portraits about Gásadalur under the title 1700 meter fra fremtiden (1700 metres far from future), and then about Mykines in 1992. In the following years, she also documented the political negotiations between the Faroe Islands and Denmark in Færøerne.dk (DK 2003). In 1998 an Icelandic drama film – Dansinn (The dance) – was produced by Ágúst Guðmundsson, based on Faroese writer, William Heinesen’s book (Her skal danses).

As a genuine milestone in Faroese television, Sjónvarp Føroya has produced two fictional productions: Eir í Ólavstovu’s Alfred (1986) and Øssur Winthereig’s Stjórin er á floti (1987). Under the enigmatic name Magma, Marianna Mørkøre and Rannvá Káradóttir, have created surrealistic short dance projects.     

Heystblómur (Autumn flower) and the first buds of the archipelago’s film art 

Interestingly, the first products of the “recorded” history of Faroese film art began in the mid-seventies, with a Spanish filmmaker – Miguel Marín Hidalgo – who decided to settle down on the Faroe Islands and stay there for a few years. His body of work included three unforgettable, professional “amateur” films of extraordinary beauty that already featured Faroese actors, cast members, and invited viewers to get a glimpse of the rich Faroese legends as well as peculiar tales of modern life. Roaming in a world where nature and civilization are forever intertwined, attempting to see through the islanders’ eyes, Hidalgo embraced the idea of combining classical music and lyricism with a characteristic local flavour depicting the inhabitants’ everyday life and issues on the islands. While in hauntingly gorgeous and touching Heystblómur (1976) the universal theme of a love between a schoolgirl and her teacher gets embedded in the marvellous surroundings of the island country, Páll Fangi (1977) tells us about a popular Faroese character. Rannvá (1975) guides its audience through a novel by Dagmar Joensen-Næs (1895-1983) who penned his work in the 40’s. Inspired by the magical valley of Fagradal, the emotionally charged story is based on a narrative from Skúvoy, about a young girl who got in trouble after a trip to Tórshavn, where the Commander got an eye for her. Rannvá’s fate is sealed though as she gives birth to a child in an era when getting pregnant outside marriage is punished by death. At the end of the trial, her penalty isolates her from the world by forcing her to spend the rest of her life in a cottage in the breathtakingly beautiful valley.      

From Ottarsdóttir to Heygum – the ripening period

The first feature-length Faroese film was shot by director and poet Katrin Ottarsdóttir (1957- ); her unique pioneer work started in 1989 when she appeared on a Nordic Film Festival in the new Nordic House, presenting Atlantic Rhapsody, a movie that featured hundreds of actors and non-professionals in 52 mosaic-like scenes from the world’s smallest capital, Tórshavn. What is truly exciting about this no-budget documentary is not only its unique place in the distant archipelago’s budding film history but also its carefully crafted narrative that makes its viewers race through a single day filled with both banal daily situations and highly dramatic occurrences, sprinkled with a slightly ironic tone and outlook on the island’s society and its inhabitants’ lives. At the end of each scene, its actual protagonist guides the audience into another one, with completely different people, locations and events.

Ten years later, multiple award winner Ottarsdóttir’s authentically Faroese road movie, Bye Bye Bluebird goes a step further by stitching a special local kind of prodigal son-thread into the evergreen story of two young hippie-looking vagrants returning home after several years of travelling through the world. Cunningly balancing on a tight rope between comedy and drama, the film drives its heroines through the country in a fancy, shady little car while showcasing its natural pearls in the frame of a partly realistic, partly surreal round-trip. On the surface it may appear that the only goal of the two loud-mouthed, seemingly irresponsible, clown-like women is to endlessly tease the guileless citizens of their home town by throwing around various languages from French to Danish which would of course provide them with a cosmopolitan air, soon we are dragged into their realities and forced to follow their emotional highs and lows, their human selves immersing in an extensive search for their identities and reconciliation with their families, roots and traditions left behind a long time ago. It is impossible not to take note of the autobiographical elements in the colourful characters of Barba and Rannvá (played by Sigri Mitra Gaïni and Hildigunn Eyðfinsdóttir, who is the daughter of the writer-director and an actress in several of her films). Katrin Ottarsóttir was notably one of the first Faroese artists to study film-making in Copenhagen in the early eighties, and in some way the drifter-protagonist wearing a snakeskin jacket – homage à Tennessee Williams – may be viewed as a portrait of the artist as a young woman.           

An enormous strength of the Faroese film art lies in the talent and skills of its filmmakers who are – despite their small number – able to paint the world from an extremely broad palette of shades, dealing with all the possible topics and genres, including documentary, comedy, satire, drama and even mockumentary (as in the case of Karrybollarnir by Johan Rimestad, a short film about a fictional Faroese rock band and their rise to fame).

Following this multifaceted tradition Ottarsóttir’s films embrace a great variety of themes and segments of life on her native island. One of the most successful achievements of her creative endeavours is a 1995 movie, entitled Maðurin ið slapp at fara (The man who was allowed to leave), with Sverri Egholm and Adelborg Linklett in the main roles. Again, the author and director explores a quite universal subject while placing it into Faroese context. Her work is an unusual, partly comical love story of an elderly couple who after spending forty years together arrive to a point in their lives when their marriage is suddenly put to test in the shape of a young, archetypical stranger invading the peaceful and so far undisturbed days. Although the husband finally makes a decision to return to his long-time love and companion, the necklace woven of carefully composed images gets tied up with unfortunate and tragic events.

Adding a new colour to the cinematic production of the Faroe Islands, a new tide of movies tend to examine the mental and emotional effects isolation may bring upon people. As the title itself refers to it, Ludo (2015) is an intense psychological drama filled with a strange but not uncommon loop of mind games people play with each other from time to time. Set in the far-away village of Sandur, the story is centred around an unhealthy trio of a severely disordered mother, a warm-hearted but passive father and love thirsty teenage daughter as they wade through a day and a night in their lives and dysfunctional relations. Pickled in an inherently sinister energy field, the movie is enriched with incredibly powerful, almost haunting images of barren rocks and spring green meadows serving as locations for the excursions of father and daughter, of black crows and choking birds through which dark tension, repressed anger are manifested. Walking on eggshells around each other, the characters are constantly fighting an invisible, circular psychological battle with each other – the colours and shapes of all their ever-present fears, wishes, frustrations and superstitions get embodied inside the dark and claustrophobic quarters of their lonely house.    

A modern type of narrative and attempt for communication with the audience is achieved in Lejlighedsminder (Memories from an apartment), an interactive cross-over work merging video art and theatre monologues incorporated in a unique film installation. Written and acted by Ottarsdóttir’s daughter, Hildigunn Eyðfinsdóttir, the short scenes are all screened simultaneously in five separate rooms of the same apartment which provide a soundscape that enables the audience to suddenly relive their most unpleasant and unwanted memories in a sea of conflicting sounds coming from other scenes of the film.

In the second half of the 2000s, a new set of young artists flooded the film-making arena of the Faroe Islands. Forced to confront the ticking bomb of their generation travelling away and seeking opportunities in other parts of the world, Sakaris Stórá, Anton Petersen and Heiðrik á Heygum have all been in search for the identity of young people on the Faroe Islands, struggling with general and at the same time country-specific problems of coming of age, stigma and love.

The young Faroese director Sakaris Stórá (1986-)won the first Faroese film prize, the Geytin award for his short film Summarnátt (Summer night). In 2013 he directed a new short film Vetrarmorgun (Winther morning), which is a modern tale about two girls in their early teens – played by Armgard G. Mortensen and Helena Hedinsdottir – whose friendship has led them to a turning point in their lives. His movie was awarded at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.   

Apart from directing quality music videos for Faroese artists such as Eivør or Orka (his work, Alda reyð, was shot in the mountains of the Faroe Islands, featuring mythological creatures called Huldufólk, (elves), and Sakaris (Brace Myself), Heiðrik á Heygum (1983- ) is responsible for the short films Sigarett (Cigarette, 2010), Skuld (Guilt, 2014) and Dalur (Valley, 2016). Skuld is a short masterpiece, a destiny play and a personal favourite with an astonishingly mature insight into the human mind, mixing everyday Faroese reality with some of the ancient legends of the islands. Set in the early sixties, curious film aficionados get to meet Andrea (Sofía Nolsøe) who works as a nurse for a dying woman (Rúna á Heygum). Initially, it appears that the youngish nurse is struggling with an extreme amount of grief that gradually overwhelms her, but as the action moves forward and strange noises begin to disturb her nightly rest, through a string of scary flashbacks, screaming colours and minimal amount of dialogue, it actually gets clear that she is in fact guilt-ridden due to her unexplained killing of a young boy on the sea shore in the past. As reality is slowly morphing into a more surrealistic landscape of fears, the borders of living and dead are washed away, and finally the monsters of her own psyche are closing in on her in the spirit of classical Japanese horror movies, Andrea’s demise becomes inevitable as she literally gets consumed by her guilt.

Finally, I would like to mention Mítt Rúm (2009) an award winning film piece which surprisingly taps into the very essence of Italian neorealism with its imagery and tone, as if writer-director-editor Heiðrik á Heygum had been born much ahead of his time. Although the work undoubtedly shows elements of a sci-fi short film, the futuristic atmosphere are brilliantly paired with a tangible retro feeling as the first black-and-white scenes are forming in the dark, bare view of the road and in the lonely space of the jail-like living room. An unhappy, unmotivated and friendless young boy (Sámal H.Hansen) is wading through the monotonous weekdays to the great sorrow of his loving single mother (Óluva Johannessen). One day, she presents her son with the newest version of that magically designed computer that is capable of giving him eternal friendship and love, and in this way isolating him at all times.

Along with a couple of other contemporary Faroese movies, this production was also made in the frame of Klippfisk, a workshop that since 2009 has provided ground for a whole pantheon of talented, young filmmakers of the Faroe Islands and will probably remain an inspiration for future generations as well, with special focus on preserving a part of their cultural-social heritage through works with the ability to transgress traditional genres.


Cinema of the Faroe Islands

www.invest.fo Faroese Film Art                

CategoriesIssue 13
Judit Hollos

Judit Katalin Hollos is a Hungarian teacher, writer, translator and freelance actress. She was educated at Budapest University, majoring in Swedish literature and language. Her articles, short stories, poems and translations have been featured in Hungarian and in English in anthologies and literary magazines both in Hungary and abroad.