Located in the North Atlantic, due east of Greenland, Iceland is a country atop many a travel bum’s wish list. Just the mere mention of the word brings a twinkle to the eye and a wistful look to the visage. It’s one of the most visited countries, per capita, in the world, with just over three visitors per resident each year. Mention Iceland to virtually anyone who hasn’t been there and you’re likely to get a fevered stream of reasons why they want to go. How such a tiny country (Iceland boasts a whopping 330,000 citizens) inspired such passion is really only evident once you’ve been there, but in brief: Volcanoes and glaciers, other-worldly landscapes, friendly people, virtually no violent crime (there are only about 200 people in prison in Iceland), exceptional food, a vibrant and growing entertainment industry, perhaps the driest sense of humor there is, the closest this planet has to gender equality … and, if you’re me, you’re super likely to run into Bjork.
The Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF) is a rarity among events of its type. There are over a thousand film festivals around the world. Big ones, little ones, urban ones, rural ones, fantastic ones and unbelievably crummy and shady ones. Some are mainly for the film industry and some are attended by thousands of the general public. They are in big cities and small towns in almost every country on Earth, but relatively few have the combination of quality films and an extraordinary setting that makes attending them worthy of a trip all by itself. I’ve been to almost 175 editions of 40 different festivals in 12 countries, and I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the festivals that fit that description. Thanks to an invitation to serve on the jury for their main competition, The Golden Puffin, I got a refresher in why Iceland is one of those.
RIFF is creatively and expertly programmed by a multinational group that consists of festival founder and director Hrönn Marinósdóttir (Iceland), main programmer Giorgio Gosetti (Italy), documentary programmer Gabor Pertic (Canada) and shorts programmer Ana Catalá (Spain). It’s also one of the smoothest run festivals I have ever attended, and besides Gosetti and Pertic, is entirely run by women. Furthermore, six of the nine films that won awards or honorable mentions where directed or co-directed by women. (Perhaps the tide is turning. Given the news of the past few weeks, one can only hope.)
The New Visions program, for which the Golden Puffin is awarded, is a risky proposition. Rarely is a festival’s main competition restricted to first- or second-time filmmakers, and the risk of slogging though a raft of amateurish films is high. The bottom line is, for every Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, 1989), David Gordon Green (George Washington, 2000) or Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy, 2008) there are dozens of other filmmakers whose early work is … less than stellar. This year’s crop at RIFF was better than most, and in general, I was impressed. (As an aside, unless explicitly stated, all opinions herein are mine and not necessarily those of my fellow jurors.)
Chloé Zhao’s The Rider is an extraordinary piece of work and was our choice for the Golden Puffin. It is a deeply moving and incisive look at American masculinity from a point of view rarely seen, that of a non-American born woman. Zhao, in only her second feature outing, has crafted a gentle and elegiac story of a rodeo rider coming to grips with his situation after an accident strips him of his ability to do the very things that defined him as a person and as a man. To make this work even more astonishing, it was shot with a largely non-professional group of actors, each playing some version of themselves. Lead Brady Jandreau gives one of the most honest and affecting performances you’re likely to see in a film this year. The film will be released soon in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics, so do yourself a favor and keep an eye out.
God’s Own Country, set for U.S. release in late October, is one of the most lauded films on the festival circuit this year, having won awards at several major festivals, including Berlin, Edinburgh and Sundance. The story of a young gay man working on a family farm in Yorkshire, England, is touching, exceedingly well acted and takes place in a setting the likes of which was, until relatively recently, not often seen in queer cinema. Lee gets some exceptional performances from Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, Ian Hart and especially Gemma Jones, and it was easily my second favorite film of the week. It gets a U.S. release later this month.
(It is also worth noting that the director of photography on both The Rider and Francis Lee’s RIFF entry God’s Own Country was Joshua James Richards. Now I have an extremely talented DP to watch out for.)
Thirty-one-year-old Faroese filmmaker Sakaris Stora made his feature-length debut with Dreams by the Sea, a charming coming-of-age drama written by Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs about two teenaged girls discovering friendship among long summer nights on an isolated island in the North Atlantic. On the surface, Ester (Juliett Nattestad) and Ragna (Helena Heðinsdóttir) couldn’t be less alike, but it seems that Ester needs to do a little rebelling against her religious and controlling mother, while Ragna could use some time to simply be a teenager, saddled as she is with an irresponsible mother who parties too much, leaving Ragna to care for her little brother. Nattestad and Heðinsdóttir are wonderful and while the film doesn’t break any new ground, Stora and Kjelnæs have made a fine debut.
Aside from seeing new films and meeting filmmakers and actors from around the world, one of the major draws of top-tier film festivals is the chance to see films by some of the masters of their craft with said legend in attendance. This year’s RIFF had both Werner Herzog and Olivier Assayas as honored guests, doing Q&As at screenings of some of their classics and participating in master classes for festival attendees. While Herzog left before I arrived, Assayas hosted a screening of his classic 1996 film Irma Vep, and held a Q&A, touching on his influences for the film (Abel Ferrara’s Snake Eyes, for one) continuing the discussion into the lobby. There are simply very few events that offer the chance to meet and talk to the likes of Herzog and Assayas, unless you are a member of the press.
One of the most invigorating things about RIFF is the Talent Lab, a series of screenings, panels and talks given by veteran members of the film industry to an audience of film students from all over the world. Participants also compete for The Golden Egg, an award given to young and aspiring talents with a short film under 30 minutes. Going to film school is one thing, but being able to gather for a week in a far-away place, watch each other’s work and learn from those who have gone before is an invaluable element to an nascent filmmaker’s career. Film is a collaborative art, and enabling students to collaborate across international borders only makes the industry stronger. Each and every Talent Lab participant I encountered was blown away by their experience.
One of the benefits of serving on a festival jury (besides being whisked off to a far-away place) is that guests, filmmakers and perhaps a local bold-faced name or two all tend to travel in a pack, and it was due to this aspect that I found myself at a dinner with Bjork. Of course, anyone that knows how small Iceland is hopes to bump into Bjork at the corner pub, walking her dog or at the local pool (Icelancers love going for a soak), but a colleague of mine has attended RIFF eight times and has yet to meet her, while I ended up sitting back-to-back with her at a dinner. She told us stories about mixing her new album, and then brought us up the road to the tiny opening party for a local arts festival. (She used two female sound engineers/mixers—one from Egypt—which is pretty rare in the music biz and also how they got carried away and ended up with “35 versions of every song.” It drops next month.)
It was there that I realized that Iceland has virtually no culture of celebrity. Bjork rolled up, head to toe in turquoise with a turquoise jacket and platform heels and no one cared. I mean, her friends said hi and she introduced them to us, but she was simply their neighbor, not an Oscar-nominated, Cannes Best Actress winning, international superstar. It was refreshing, to say the least, and was an indication that in general, Icelanders don’t give a rat’s ass about things that aren’t important, like the cult of celebrity. They like her because they like her (or they don’t), but it has nothing to do with being famous. (This laissez faire attitude towards fame extends to politics, as we also met the president of Iceland at a reception at his home. He’s an historian and is, apparently, listed in the phone book.)
While an event that screens films from all over the world, gives attendees the chance interact with filmmakers and others in intimate settings and does so in a unique and friendly setting is not unique to RIFF, it is exceedingly rare and, I suspect, a big part of what brings planeloads of film fans to Reykjavik every year. One afternoon I was standing outside the tiny cinema in the Marina Hotel when I was approached by a man that said: “Yagong?” I didn’t catch what he was saying, so he repeated it: “Yagong?” I must have looked confused, so he slowed it down and said: “Are you going? To the screening?” Turns out he was an American from the New York area that had been coming to the festival for years. “I’ve seen 15 films in five days!” he said with a grin, as he ran off to what I assume was his 16th.
That RIFF inspires such fervor is a testament to the programming, lovely staff and locals, and, not incidentally, astoundingly good food and is why RIFF has jumped to the top of my list of events to recommend to film tourists, as well as tourists who simply like to watch films. Go to Iceland for the glaciers and watch a few films while you’re there, or go mainly for RIFF and take a day to visit the Game of Thrones set. Either way, you’ll be in for an amazing adventure.