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“I Don’t Think Cinema Will Ever Die”: Hrönn Marinósdóttir, festival director of the Reykjavik International Film Festival

Hrönn Marinósdóttir, who is the festival director at the Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF), visited Hungary for the first time to be the head of the jury at the Titanic International Film Festival (Titanic) back in April 2016. We sat down to talk about the Hungarian film festival, the European cinema circuit, Icelandic films, and the RIFF that takes place in autumn.

Nordic film festivals are heaven for Nordic film lovers, and it’s a known fact that Nordic film festivals co-operate with one another, so I’m wondering if you follow the events of the Central and Eastern European festival circuit?

I have been to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival and the Thessaloniki International Film Festival for a few times, and I’ve also visited a few events in the Baltic countries, for example the European Film Forum Scanorama in Vilnius.

Are many European films screened in Iceland?

Unfortunately, Eastern European films are usually presented only at festivals. In 2007, for instance, a Hungarian film entitled Iska’s Journey received the Golden Puffin. Hungarian film directors Béla Tarr and Bence Fliegauf were also guests at the RIFF.

How much did you know about the Titanic International Film festival before arriving in Budapest?

I did know that the festival has presented quite a few Icelandic films, and I know that Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur has also been a jury member here once.

You’re the head of the jury this year. How do you feel about being in Hungary and working in this jury?

I love the city’s atmosphere, and the festival in particular. It’s been nice working with these two Hungarian film directors, Gábor Reisz and Ujj Mészáros Károly, whom I have never met before. It’s been a really good experience for me.

Was it easy to decide on the winner for best picture?

I don’t find it easy to be in a jury because so many factors can influence the decision-making process. What is more, there was a strong selection of films, and choosing one film out of nine is never so easy. Therefore, we had a long discussion, but, in the end, we came to a conclusion: one film was awarded and a film received a special mention.

It’s a fact that Icelanders read a lot. Does cinema also enjoy such popularity?

Iceland is considered a country of cinemagoers, however, we are facing the same problems that many other countries are facing: more people prefer to watch films in their homes, for instance. Having said that, cinema culture is strong in Iceland. We used to have art house cinemas, like the ones one can find in Budapest (e.g. Uránia, Toldi, Cirko), but not anymore, multiplexes are prevalent now. Still, I don’t think cinema will ever die; cinema creates room for social encounters. It’s greatly important, especially for young people. They can meet and discuss what is on their mind. Moreover, if you compare cinema tickets to concert tickets, you will see that going to the cinema is still the cheapest way of entertainment in Iceland.

The RIFF takes place in the autumn. Please introduce us the festival.

We started the RIFF to showcase films made in Europe and other parts of the world, films that are never released in Iceland. The festival is quite big compared to the Titanic. We present more films, around 90, I think, but our motivation is the same. 70-80 per cent of the films screened at the festival are European. We screen documentaries, feature films and a lot of short films. We also offer special events to attend. Every year we organise a screening in a swimming pool; people can wear swimming suits and watch a film, and sometimes we invite people to go to see a film in a cave. We have set up a competition section that is devoted to young directors, too. We arrange a great variety of workshops at which we work with schools. In addition to that, we have a talent lab.

How do you co-operate with other film festivals?

Sometimes we take Icelandic films to other festivals, sometimes we arrange workshops with other festivals. This year we’re going to organise a special film-making workshop for girls. We started this “tradition” last year because the girls attending secondary schools do not make any videos, only the boys do. We want to change that. Unfortunately, I don’t know the reason for that. Maybe the girls are shy or don’t feel funny enough, or don’t have the self-esteem to make films. We’ve also had a lot of discussion on the gender quota in film in Iceland. I’m not sure whether the government will set a rule that certain amount of money should go to female film-makers or not, however, it hopefully draws people’s attention to this issue.

Do you think female directors make different films?

Men and women are different, so the films are also different. Anyway, at the end of the day, it’s a tough job to make a film in Iceland, probably in Hungary, too. You need a lot of energy.

Nordic feature films are vastly known in Hungary, not documentaries, though. What kind of documentaries do you screen at the RIFF?

At the RIFF we try to screen films that reflect upon issues our society needs to face. We take part in the discussion on what kind of society we want, what kind of problems our society has. We aim at raising these questions presenting particular documentary and feature films that are dealing with a wide range of subjects. A special section is devoted to the environment – referring to the broad meaning of this word. It can be human rights, politics, culture, music etc. Documentaries with music theme are extremely popular. Now documentaries are just as popular as features and short films.

What can be the reasons for this?

This might be happening because TV news is very shallow these days, and, in a way, documentaries are replacing the news. People are thirsty for information and knowledge, and therefore they really appreciate these films.

You mentioned films from Central and Eastern Europe are usually presented at the RIFF. Do you have themes for the festival?

This year we focus on Poland, the theme is peace, and we’re going to have a discussion on the refugee problem. Yoko Ono will be in Iceland, too. She comes every year because we have an Imagine Peace Tower Lighting, which is an art work by Yoko Ono dedicated to the memory of John Lennon, and each year it is lit between his birthday and the date of his death. She’s coming at the end of the festival to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this tradition. It’s also the 30th anniversary of the Reykjavík Summit where U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev met. Something that had an impact on world peace happened there. We’re going to celebrate this as well.

Would you say Icelanders are interested in politics when it comes to cinema?

Absolutely! The most popular films usually are dealing with politics in one way or another.

People tend to say it’s better to live in a country where one does not need to care about politics because that means things are working. Nonetheless, in order to change the world, you should start with kids. Do you also offer a special children’s programme at the RIFF?

We screen children’s films at the festival. We educate them in a way and try to raise awareness, since film is such a strong medium. It’s important to showcase independent film productions; TV is definitely not the same. Festivals have an important role in the world.

You talked about female students not making films. Do you have film schools in Reykjavík?

We have one, which is quite small, but it is growing. They’ve received more money lately so their budget will be increased. One can study acting, film directing among others. However, it has to be mentioned that many Icelanders go to other Nordic schools, to the Danish film school, for example. Rúnar Rúnarsson (Sparrows) and Dagur Kári (Fúsi) both studied there.

Many Icelandic directors go to the USA to make films there as well…

It’s absolutely understandable. The Icelandic market is very small so, of course, it’s tempting for them to work on huge productions.

Not only Nordic films, but also Nordic TV shows are very popular all over the world. Is the Icelandic TV scene strong as well?

We have two series premiered last winter. One of them is entitled Trapped (Ófærð) and created by Baltasar Kormákur. It has been really successful. It simultaneously premiered in Iceland, France, Germany, England and many other countries. It’s a crime series. We have another series, its title is Case. Besides creating Icelandic productions, more and more crews are coming to shoot in Iceland as well.

Would you say that there is something called the Icelandic brand?

There is a wave, at least, the wave of very strong Icelandic films. But I don’t think film-makers contributing to this wave are conscious of it. Rams, Horses and Men, Sparrows, and Baltasar’s latest films have been very successful. This has increased our reputation a lot, and helped the country in many ways. I truly believe that a great selection of film-directors is now present in Iceland. A new generation is coming up at the moment. In our short film selection one can always find talented female directors as well. For example, Ísold Uggadóttir and Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir have started shooting their first feature film recently.

We can be really proud of the films released. Last year Icelandic films won over 100 awards abroad. Still, I cannot really explain why this is happening. I talked to people form Malta, which is also a small country, and they ask: How do you do that? They don’t understand how this is possible.

Festival dates

The Reykjavík International Film Festival takes place between the 29th of September and the 10th of         October

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.