Nordic International Film Festival: Interview with festival director John Matton

The Nordic International Film Festival is a New York City film festival that celebrates Nordic and international films, primarily independent films and works from established filmmakers.

NIFF focuses on finding diverse independent films with strong characters and storylines, and encourage all filmmakers to submit their films, regardless of ethnicity, religion or worldview.

We spoke to the festival director, John Matton, about the films on display this year.  

Cinema Scandinava: Can you please tell me about how NIFF came to be?

John Matton: Linnea Larsdotter and I attended many festivals during our own festival run for a feature length independent film we produced and we were intrigued by how well some festivals took care of their filmmakers but was simultaneously surprised regarding our home town’s (New York) lack of commitment and effort put towards filmmakers at festivals. Some festivals screening in the basement of a bar were charging $20 tickets. We realised that this is something we can do better and also an opportunity to build a better community for independent filmmakers who may not make it to the very big festivals such as Tribeca or NYFF in New York. That our focus would be Nordic films was a clear vision we had from the start, being involved with the film screenings at Scandinavia House and working with venues at Scandinavia House for many years, we knew we’d wanted to utilize that beautiful facility and auditorium.

CS: When selecting Nordic films, what themes stand out for you?

JM: The first year we looked at specific themes of subtle humour and beautiful fine polished directing. This year we have looked a lot at the theme ‘women in film’; intriguing female characters, female directors and female producers. There’s a melancholy in Nordic productions that is hard to find elsewhere, and the humour tends to be very self-deprecating, which is something I gravitate towards. Relationships, with yourself, others and the world around you, seems to mean something different in the north.

CS: In what ways do you believe Nordic films appeal to American audiences?

JM: Overall Nordic film stands out from the international categories every year at our festival. It’s a different pace usually, it’s a lot of silence and moments that linger. It’s usually very well executed and I believe it’s appealing because it’s different, the environments are different, usually the directing style, the acting, it’s a fresh take on topics.

CS: One of your panels is on co-producing with the Nordic countries. It seems that is becoming more popular to do, especially with the film incentives in Iceland and Norway. How do you believe the US and the Nordics can create excellent films together?

JM: Yes we are excited to have members from the Sweden Film Commission at our panels providing information regarding co-funding and co-producing in Scandinavia. I feel like many high end production companies and directors from the USA have opened their eyes towards Scandinavia and the Nordic region and are filming to utilise the beautiful landscapes. What I want to see more is lower budget independent film gaining access to these possibilities as well and now with bi-costal production companies, cheap flights, I believe this is more doable than ever but I want to help this movement even more. Utilising the extreme talent from the acting pool in the USA is something I believe we can learn a lot from in Scandinavia and a mix here would benefit us all.

CS: You’re screening a number of Icelandic films. Icelandic film is doing incredibly well internationally – in what ways do you believe the Icelandic films you’ve selected highlight Icelandic cinema?

JM: I hope as many people as possible can come out and see these amazing films. It truly gives a portrait of Iceland just by the landscapes and the language alone, they showcase both Reykjavik the capital and the whole landscape, and the mood is captured so well. We really found three gems amongst our hundred submissions this year and these three films all represent Icelandic cinema so well. It’s hard to describe, it needs to be seen, these two narratives and this documentary are so very different from many things I’ve seen.

CS: Can you tell me more about the opening film Autumn Fall? Why did you select that as the opening film?

We have three Nordic Narrative Features in our official selection this year that we are all very proud of. It was not an easy choice and we took help from the programmer at Scandinavia House to program the opening night film together amongst these three films we’ve chosen for our official selection (in competition). They are all premieres but what lead us to Autumn Fall was the audience appeal. It speaks to a wide audience of all ages and it has such good pace.

CS: I find it quite interesting (as an Australian) that you have an Australian film in the line-up! Despite the fact it’s shot in Australia, it has Finnish travellers. How do you think this film is Nordic?

JM: We love that we have an Australian film in our line-up. I’m very impressed by the director of this film, Hotel Coolgardie. Our documentary feature and short category are both technically international sections where we look at documentaries from all over the world, we are glad that we found a Nordic theme in both of them and that the subject in this documentary are from Finland. It’s such a unique portrait this film, we had such strong line up of documentaries this year and it took weeks amongst us and our programmers to narrow it down to these four documentaries (two narrative and two short). Last year we had Nordic themes too but in this category but it’s not a requirement. We simply select the best documentaries, and if they happen to have a Nordic connection, that’s just another push for Nordic cinema.

CS: You have several shorts screening. Can you tell us about a selection of them and why you selected them for the festival?

JM: One short film block is the Nordic block and are all submitted in that category, meeting the requirements to compete in the Nordic Category. The other Short film block is our International short film block where we this year have films from France, Bahrain and Colombia.

CS: One of the shorts you’ve selected is from the Faroe Islands, which seldom releases film. How does this short, Tread with No Fear, represent the tiny country?

It’s a beautiful film and we were so happy that this year again we good such great quality film from Faroe Island that we could include it in our line-up. I’m not sure if this represents the country in its choice of setup or story, but it truly represents that great talent and good filmmakers that strive from this beautiful country. Last year we had a film, Falling Angels, that was exactly what anyone would think is Faroe Islands.

CS: In your opinion, what makes Nordic films so special?

JM: To me I’ve seen a lot of my Nordic films during my upbringing in Sweden and the raw honest drama and try life moments that we portray is very unique. We do not spend as much budget on action films or other genres but our drama genre is what make me love Nordic Films, the portrayal of human mistakes and moments that does not feel ‘film’ but simply feels like real life.

The Nordic International Film Festival runs between the 28th and 30th of October.


Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.