The American Indie Filmmaker’s Guide to Iceland
The old man is describing how impressed he was with Geyser. “A cum shot to the sky,” he says, in his throaty good-old-boy accent. “Like the Devil’s exploding.”
In ‘Land Ho!’, which opens the eleventh annual Reykjavík International Film Festival on September 25, Iceland is the backdrop for unlikely couplings. The film is codirected by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz, two American filmmakers known for ambling, engaging indies featuring plenty of regional specificity, low-key drama, and off-kilter performers.
In the film, ex-brothers-in-law Mitch (Earl Lynn Nelson, the above-quoted) and Colin (Paul Eenhorn) take a trip to Iceland to “get their groove back.” Mitch is divorced, Colin is widowed; both are around retirement age. The story beats are familiar, but the characterizations have enough depth to make them emotionally satisfying: there’s a balance of movie-enlivening indulgence and reflective distance in the rein the film gives Earl’s dirty-uncle act. (In fact, Earl, a surgeon like Mitch in real life, is Martha Stephens’s very own dirty cousin.)
These characters’ arcs, leading them towards acceptance of loneliness, and an embrace of such companionship as is to be found, are set against a trip that takes them, in an absurdly large rental Hummer, from Reykjavík to the Golden Circle, along the South Coast and into the Highlands, before being capped off with cameos from a couple more Lonely Planet must-sees.
The magnificent landscape, shot on well-graded hi-res digital, is played up as the incongruous backdrop for the two old goats’ shenanigans: repeating in bafflement their waiter’s descriptions of the courses at Dill, bickering about their marriages on sheep-grazing land, or dancing on the black sand beaches of Vík. The filmmakers fashion a low-fi riff on `80s-style road-movie buddy comedies–Mitch and Colin are very much more the kind of guys who go to the movies than the kind of guys who are in them. Driving through a lava field, they compare the physiques of their favourite actresses; at Gullfoss, Mitch yells to Colin, over the roar and the mist, “Have you seen ‘Last of the Mohicans’?”
Iceland is a foreign country
But, of course, you should really save your ‘Last of the Mohicans’ references for Seljalandsfoss, where you can walk around to the cave behind the waterfall, Daniel Day-Lewis style. And it will be interesting to see how ‘Land Ho!’ plays to an audience of moviegoers who know more about this country than the people on screen do.
The film depicts a vacation, after all. Mitch and Colin interact largely with service professionals, and other Anglo vacationers. In the smoking bay at Dolly, they do have a brief conversation with one Icelander, who greets them with a drawn-out, drunken “Americaaaaaaaaans!” (He’s played by local rapper Emmsjé Gauti.) In an inside joke for other former visitors, Mitch curses emphatically after Colin reads him the alcohol content of his supermarket beer.
‘Land Ho!’ was shot like a vacation, too. Stephens, Katz and their crew stayed in an Airbnb rental downtown (they have professed a fondness for Noodle Station), and what we see on-screen during the out-of-city portion of the film represents the production logistics, minus a couple extra rental cars and hostel beds. The editing takes some slight liberties with the geography of Iceland, but nothing so egregious as the recent Icelandic film ‘VonarstrÒti’, which was largely shot on Tjarnargata. Like their protagonists, the filmmakers were on a fixed schedule and finite budget, and had to stick to an itinerary. (Though they did make the film out of sequence, shooting the Highland scenes first in late September 2013, before the F-roads closed and to take advantage of the longer days, before heading to the city in early October.)
That said, ‘Land Ho!’ was a professional production, with an Icelandic coproducer to navigate the country’s foreign production incentives, and an Icelandic locations manager to see to permits for filming in protected areas. But the contrast between this film and other American movies shot in Iceland is striking. The crew of ‘Land Ho!’ for part of their shoot shared a Landmannalaugar hotel with the B-unit from Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’, who got all the nicer rooms. Iceland is Iceland in ‘Land Ho!’, unlike in ‘Interstellar’, in which Vatnajökull stands in for deep space–or in ‘Oblivion’ (Iceland as postapocalyptic New York), ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’, et cetera.
And yet this film, about tourists and made by tourists, takes a tourist’s-eye-view of Iceland as well–the germ of the idea for it came as Stephens was researching a possible pleasure trip. Iceland is Iceland, sure, but it is still treated as an otherworldly place. Which it is, of course, to the characters, and the filmmakers. In interviews, this perspective is something Stephens and Katz have been quite frank about. The country is the ironic counterpoint to Mitch and Colin’s habits; it is the fountain of youth, as in the natural hot springs that Colin rejuvenates himself in; or, as in many shots of landscape or the honeycomb windows of Harpa, it is a source of straightforward wonder.
Some critics have complained that the film doesn’t really attempt to understand Iceland. But ‘Land Ho!’ doesn’t insult anyone by pretending that it does; and if this is a problem, it’s a problem partly of Iceland’s own making. The film’s Iceland, with its sprinklings of Nordic quirk over a landscape of unfathomable inhuman volcanic grandeur, is pretty much the distilled essence of Iceland Export, the national brand that has been aggressively marketed during the build-up of the current post-crash tourism bubble.
For that reason, it’s a great choice to open RIFF. The film festival is a two-way gateway: it does its part for the integration of Iceland in the global film community, while at the same time its programming brings a wide swath of world cinema to local audiences. ‘Land Ho!’ allows Icelanders to see their own downtown haunts and national landmarks through foreign eyes.
What To Expect At RIFF
The Reykjavík International Film Festival features over 100 titles from all over the world. Highlights include the following:
In the feature competition, a dozen emerging filmmakers vie for the Golden Puffin, while the Golden Egg is up for grabs in the shorts competition.
Mike Leigh, the English director known for his working-class spirit and unique collaborations with actors, is a Guest of Honour; he’ll bring his period biopic ‘Mr. Turner’, along with a mini-retrospective of his work. Rising Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund will also appear with his festival fave ‘Force Majeure’.
A sampling of other recent critical favourites leads up to the Closing Night film, Richard Linklater’s twelve-years-in-the-making ‘Boyhood’.
The documentary selection covers everything from Mahmoud Darwish to Jarvis Cocker, from art forgery to global migration, with many ecological and socially conscious docs grouped in the A Different Tomorrow section.
For special events, the fest goes walkabout in Kópavogur: a “cinema-concert” pairs the metal band Sólstafir with Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s 1984 Viking epic ‘When the Raven Flies’; ‘Dumb and Dumber’ screens at a makeshift drive-in at Smárabíó; and RIFF continues its tradition of films screened in geothermal swimming pools.
For complete information, check out en.riff.is.