Iceland in focus at the Motovun Film Festival

Motovun Film Festival (which took place this year between 24th and 29th July) is a small international film festival in Croatia, set in a unique atmosphere of the picturesque medieval town of Motovun, which itself is situated on the top of a hill in the centre of the Istrian peninsula, offering amazing views of the surrounding valleys and vineyards. Although the tiny town of Motovun has the population of only 531, every year during the festival it becomes packed with thousands of film enthusiasts, the majority of which are students and backpackers who camp in tents in the valley at the foot of the town. Although the program’s main focus is on small and independent productions from all over the world, it usually offers a balanced combination of some obscure titles with limited distribution possibilities and some already critically acclaimed festival hits. Apart from the program, the festival boasts its informal character and atmosphere.

This year the festival celebrated its 20th anniversary and one of the side programs was dedicated to Iceland, which was the partner country of the festival this year. Apart from the nine Icelandic films shown in this side program, we got to see some Nordic films in the main program as well, namely Guðmundsson’s Heartstone (2016) and Östlund’s The Square (2017), while Eva Sigurdardóttir’s short film Cut (2017) was screened in the shorts section.

White Whales (1987)

The side program dedicated to Iceland featured nine films and offered a general overview of Icelandic cinema, from some classics and cult films to contemporary festival successes. We got to see Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s debut fiction feature White Whales (1987), which follows two rural whalers who, after the end of the hunting season, try to find new jobs and a sense of purpose in the capital in which they don’t seem to fit in. With a nod to the poetics of Aki Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch, the film introduces some of the themes that still dominate Icelandic cinema, such as the clash between the rural and the urban and the alienation of an individual.

Another Friðriksson’s film which was screened was Rock in Reykjavík (1982), a music documentary which focuses on the underground punk scene in Reykjavik in the early 1980s. The film combines concert footage and interviews with the musicians, offering a rare view of the then emerging independent music scene which Reykjavik became internationally famous for years later. Although the film doesn’t provide much critical insight or analysis, it has an important place in Icelandic music and film history and it still serves as an inspiration to young Icelandic musicians to form their first bands. The film also gained cultural significance with time, since some of the featured artists later became internationally recognized, most notably Björk, who in the film can be seen performing as a teenager.

Reykjavik is also the focus of Baltasar Kormakur’s debut 101 Reykjavik (2000), an off-beat comedy about a 30-something slacker living in downtown Reykjavik, based on Hallgrímur Helgason’s popular novel of the same name. Being one of the first Icelandic films to get international distribution, at the time of its release the film served as a sort of an introduction of Reykjavik to foreign viewers and it helped in creating Reykjavik’s image of an eccentric cosmopolitan far north capital with a bustling nightlife.

Volcano (2011)

Moving on to more recent films, Rúnar Rúnarsson’s feature debut Volcano (2011) tells the story of Hannes, a recently retired janitor and a former fisherman. Originally from the Vestmannaeyjar, Hannes and his family, together with the entire population of the islands, were forced to flee their homes in 1973 because of the volcanic eruption. They settled in Reykjavik, where they quickly found work, but Hannes never seemed to completely adjust to city life and grew resentful with time, and after retiring he felt even more lost. After his wife suddenly becomes sick, he finds a new purpose in life by taking care of her. Rúnarsson’s sophomore feature Sparrows (2015) also deals with a character that feels lost and isolated and is unable to adjust to his new surroundings; only now the character in question is a teenage boy Ari who has to leave his home in the capital to live with his father in a small fishing village in the north of Iceland. Both films are coming-of-age stories in a way, although, in the former one, the coming-of-age occurs in a much later period of life.

Rams (2015)

Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams (2015) and Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men (2013) depict the strong relationship Icelanders have with nature and animals. Rams is a quiet drama which focuses on the relationship (or the lack of it) between two brothers who raise sheep and live on adjacent farms but haven’t spoken to each other in forty years. Of Horses and Men, as its title suggests, depicts the relationship between humans and horses in rural Iceland, in the form of a series of vignettes. Both films rely on elements of black humour, although the latter one is slightly darker in tone.

Finally, Petur Einarsson’s Ransacked (2016) is a documentary about Icelandic financial crash. Einarsson, a former banker himself, tells an emotional story of one family who lost everything because of the crash and who then decided to take the bank to court. The film premiered at Reykjavik International Film Festival last year and won the best documentary award at the Foyle Film Festival in Northern Ireland.

Although the program as a whole offered a general overview of Icelandic cinema from the 1980s onwards and covered most of the topics usually prominent in Icelandic films, it would be more interesting if it didn’t focus so much on rather new hit films such as Sparrows, Rams, Of Horses and Men and Volcano. Most of the audience is already well familiar with those films, since they were screened not only at major film festivals in Croatia but were also in regular theatre distribution not so long ago.