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Island Songs: Seven Portraits of Icelandic Music, Community, and Creativity

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Island Songs: Seven Portraits of Icelandic Music, Community, and Creativity

The film Island Songs had its Icelandic premiere October 31st at Bíó Paradís. A collaboration between award-winning musician Ólafur Arnalds and director Baldvin Z (BBC 4’s Trapped and Life In a Fish Bowl), the film follows Ólafur as he travels around Iceland, collaborating with seven artists in seven different locations.

Interlacing live music videos, candid behind-the-scenes moments, and casual interviews, the film weaves together seven intimate portraits of contemporary Icelandic culture and community through the eyes of Icelanders themselves.

Ólafur’s long-time fans will see the film as a natural next step for the composer, who is known for releasing music in interesting ways. His album Found Songs is comprised of pieces composed and subsequently tweeted, each in a single day. For Living Room Songs, Ólafur invited musicians to his Reykjavík apartment over the course of a week, filming the recordings and releasing the videos via YouTube. Found Songs, Living Room Songs, and Island Songs have a neat symmetry: each is comprised of seven pieces of music. One does not have to be a die-hard fan of Ólafur, however, to appreciate the film: Iceland enthusiasts and even experts will appreciate its fresh perspective on local culture, shot with skill and beauty and infused with humour and a personal touch.

Both Ólafur and Baldvin were present for a Q&A at the premiere moderated by Paul Bridgewater. Questions focused on the making of the film; from choosing collaborators to the filming process and the challenge of editing the footage to form a cohesive whole.

The seven collaborators were chosen from a shortlist of about one hundred individuals based on their diversity, story, and location. Ólafur and Baldvin attempted to spread the collaborations as much as possible around the country while keeping in mind practical and aesthetic considerations for filming and recording. In typical Icelandic fashion, Ólafur discovers many personal connections to his collaborators, which according to the composer were not intentional so much as “happy accidents”.

When asked whether he always knew Baldvin Z would direct the videos and the film, Ólafur answered affirmatively. The musician has written music for two of Baldvin’s films (Life In a Fish Bowl and Jitters) and enjoyed the idea of turning the tables by having Baldvin make a film out of his music.

The process, however, was not easy. The production timeline was extremely short for a feature-length film: only six months from the birth of the idea to completion. In addition, it had certain constraints: each music video would be recorded in a single shot and released weekly on YouTube throughout the filming process, challenging Baldvin to make a single-shot video interesting seven times over.

The two collaborators claimed they did not clearly visualize the end product before or during production. Though they attempted to adjust their approach throughout the seven weeks of filming, it became increasingly difficult to do so. In fact, stated Baldvin, it was ultimately “really hard” to find a story within the footage. But “when we admitted we didn’t know what we were doing” and gave up preconceived notions of what the film should be, Baldvin said, it became easier.

Ólafur added that it helped to let go of the documentary approach and even remove some factual elements from the film, emphasizing that it “shouldn’t be about facts; it’s seven portraits”. Thus, the viewer learned about the story of each collaborator and location through the interviews, rather than any forced exposition.

The “story” of the film was determined in the editing room by Baldvin himself. Ólafur gave feedback throughout, which Baldvin stated was “really annoying[…] but usually right.” When asked what they will take away from the process of making the movie, Ólafur answered: “nobody knows what they’re doing and everyone is just doing their best”.

The final result of this meticulous yet flexible approach is a series of close-up, authentic portraits of Iceland which allow the viewer to experience its community, culture, and music without superimposed meaning.

The Iceland Airwaves music festival presents a special screening of Island Songs followed by a Q&A with the musician and director on Thursday, Nov. 2nd at 12 pm. The event is open to all wristband holders. The film will also be screened at Bíó Paradís in Reykjavík from Nov 1-5th at 6:00 pm.

Watch the trailer for the film below.

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