Forget spectacular waterfalls and hot springs, never mind the eye-catching glaciers in the distance, and ignore the otherworldly northern lights dancing across the midnight sky - because every year as the Icelandic summer is being packed up and put away for another nine months, a different type of phenomenon rolls into town and steals the show.
In October, the Reykjavík International Film Festival celebrated its 13th edition with eleven days of jam-packed, near non-stop cinema. RIFF, as the festival is referred to, is now, without a doubt, the highlight of the year for movie enthusiasts in Iceland - and deservedly so. In this latest edition, over 120 feature films, short films and documentaries were screened. With the abundance of cinema on display, the simple act of selecting which movie to see is a more challenging decision than ever before!
What’s up Doc?
But for all that, the festival’s true hallmark is not the quantity, but quality of films on display. Perhaps nowhere was that more evident than in this year’s selection of documentaries, which ranged tremendously in everything from subject to origin to length, but shared the common trait of being fascinating.
Certainly, the stand-out documentaries could hardly have been more diverse. Some were tragic and relevant such as Chasing Asylum, an exposé of the harrowing reality for the masses of displaced men, women and children seeking to escape a background of war and poverty, only to be confronted by inhumane detention policies on Australia’s borders. The film, most of which is secretly recorded unseen footage from inside the squalid detention camps, is a heart-breaking portrayal of the migrant crisis affecting the world today and a wake-up call for those looking the other way when faced with the barbarity which can occur if we refuse to help those who need it the most.
Other highlights were more lighthearted, such as Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie, a lively depiction of the Church of Scientology, where former senior officials from the infamous organization team up with Theroux to record dramatic reconstructions of outrageous incidents they witnessed as members. This hugely enjoyable documentary opens a window into the inner circle of this most absurd religion, while generating bursts of laughter from its audience.
Fans of the hit series Making A Murderer may want to keep an eye out for the gripping story told in The Promise, which documents events surrounding the murder of Nancy and Derek Haysome in 1985 and the conviction of their daughter Elizabeth and her boyfriend Jens Soering for the gruesome murders. The film interviews the authorities in charge of the couple’s arrest and prosecution, as well as talking to the bright and likeable Jens Soering from his maximum security prison, shedding light on this extraordinary and questionable murder conviction.
Icelandic Entries Shine
This year’s edition of RIFF also brought forth a few exceptional Icelandic documentary entries which gained much attention over the course of the festival. Kristín Ólafsdóttir and Hrund Gunnsteinsdóttir’s wonderful Innsæi - The Sea Within, which holds a mirror to our frantic society and searches for new ways of thinking in today’s world of distraction and stress, was sold out throughout the festival. An achievement which was also matched by Ransacked by Pétur Einarsson, a former banker whose film examines the Icelandic banking sector’s spectacular collapse and gives a moving illustration of the straight-forward, honest people who pay the ultimate price.
An unexpected gem of the festival, which mustn’t go unmentioned was the screening of the Icelandic Short Documentaries, a collection of five brief, yet spellbinding, films which each capture an authentic glimpse of the country. Be it brothers entering their teenage years in a near desolate village in the north of Iceland in Brother, a peek into the country’s fabled and exclusive hot tub society in The Hot Tub, a beautiful homage to an older generation in Homebound, a surfer’s perpetual battle with the North Atlantic Wind in The Accord, or the adventures of sheep and shepherds on the journey home from one of the country’s most unforgiving terrains in A Thousand Autumns. These superb short films will unquestionably live long in the memory of all who see them!
RIFF’s Swan Song?
As is customary after another fantastic festival, the only downside has been the traditional putting away of programs, marking of next year’s calendar and twelve long months of sitting patiently until 2017’s edition. In the weeks since RIFF’s conclusion, however, festival director Hrönn Marinósdóttir has publicly spoken about how, despite the festival’s popularity, it is becoming harder and harder to run each year due to a lack of funding. RIFF is an independent festival, which relies on volunteers and is run without profit. Yet, without greater sponsorship, this festival, which has fast become a cornerstone of Icelandic culture, may have shown its last screening. If that is the case, Iceland will have lost one of its great treasures.