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Northern Lights: The 14th Reykjavík International Film Festival

Under an Arctic Sky

Under an Arctic Sky

By Randy Malamud.

I didn’t see the Aurora Borealis during my October visit to the Reykjavík International Film Festival, probably because I spent every night at the movies, but I did have some spectacular views of them on screen.

“The energy of the planet comes from the north,” says a surfer in Under an Arctic Sky who traveled from California to Iceland seeking coasts that have never been surfed before. He wants to ride the waves beneath the Northern Lights, and – spoiler! – just when it looks like this improbable adventure has tanked, he pulls it off, generating a tremendous closing shot.

The energy of the north was the connecting theme in the films I sought out at RIFF. The vibe embodied (as one might expect) a “cold” energy – deliberate, subdued, but laced with moments of intensity; remote but engaging; quiet but majestic. Set amid a foreboding environment, it is infused with an air of dissipation, evanescence, embodying the encroaching dangers that accompany global warming on the front lines of ecosystemic crisis. (Was I overreading? I don’t think so: I polled other festivalgoers who confirmed that they saw the same immanent sense of loss – perhaps intentional, perhaps subliminal – lurking in many of these films’ landscapes.)

Faces Places

Faces Places

While RIFF offered many current festival hits strutting awards from Locarno, Toronto, and Cannes, I passed up the usual suspects – with one exception. I couldn’t resist an unlikely buddy-film, Faces Places (even prettier in French: Visages Villages), Agnès Varda’s collaboration with guerilla scaffolder JR. The eminent 89-year-old’s filmography may well end here, as the film reveals she is losing her sight. But despite this prospect, Varda romps through the French countryside on a picaresque photo-shoot with the 30-something hipster who never takes off his cool shades. They spew jouissance as they sniff out interesting subjects: wonderful but at the same time completely average people whose gigantically blown-up portraits they plaster on barns, factories, trains, water towers, stacks of shipping containers. Just because.

Aside from Faces Places, I was naturally drawn to Nordic films, which made up one-third of the program in Reykjavík’s low-key but infinitely enchanting cosmopolitan enclave. There isn’t a single definitive “Nordic voice,” but we see recurring and interlacing themes, dialogues, counterpoints. These films often foreground the land. The frozen terrain, strikingly bright or dark and exuberantly rocky, reflects dramatic geological upheavals from eons past, conveying a sense that that ancient energy endures. Elementally simplistic settings – sky, mountains, glaciers, plains – can be tough places for living, and for filmmaking. For characters like a pathbreaking gay artist, an ambitious tennis prodigy, and a rebellious teenage Sámi girl, a stark Nordic milieu atmospherically accentuates the difficulties of prospering.

I saw several films about the Sámi, whose challenges are substantial. Better known to the world as Laplanders (and emblematic of transnational Nordic culture, as they have lived in Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Norway), they are indigenous: their presence goes back millennia.

As modernity brought these nomads into contact with the mainstream, they suffered all the conventional degradations of colonialism: abrogation of their lands; mockery and abuse in popular culture and from government agents; eugenic crusades to demonstrate their inferiority. Determined to erase their unique culture, dominant societies “rescued” young children from these communities and transformed them into “regular” Swedes or Finns.

Sámi culture flourishes in Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest, a documentary comprised of recordings and videos collected over several decades beginning in the 1930s by Swiss author/adventurer Robert Crottet. As Europe hurtled toward war, he got as far away as he could. Traveling north “to the place where Europe ended,” Crottet encountered Finland’s Sámi Skolt community and developed close ties with Kaisa Gauriloff’s family. Becoming a surrogate mother, Kaisa hosted him regularly until her death at the age of 96 in 1980. Crottet collected stories documenting her family’s, and her community’s, heartbreaking struggles. All ten of her children died (infant mortality, fires, war, drowning), leaving her to raise her grandchildren. Lapland was devastated by Russian-German battles during WW2; impoverished and displaced, the Sámi were eventually resettled, but ineptly, attenuating their intimate relationship with their native land and their only source of wealth, their reindeer herds.

The movie concludes with Kaisa’s “yoiking” – hypnotic Sámi chants that tell their stories. I worried at first that this documentary might fall into the mold of an ethnographer “discovering” noble savages and fetishizing their simple innocence. But Kaisa’s own great-granddaughter, Katja Gauriloff, directed the film, ensuring her family’s perspective is included here.

Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest

Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest

Another of Kaisa’s descendants, Heidi Gauriloff, featured in an autobiographical short about reviving lost traditions, especially the intricate sewing. Kaisa’s Enchanted Forest celebrates the old matriarch as a preserver, a conduit, of the culture that kept the Sámi spirit alive, and that mission endures through both Heidi and Katja Gauriloff’s work today. A recent resurgence of interest in Sámi culture, accompanied by some efforts to restore political autonomy, may be just in time to preserve at least a part of their world before it disappears.

Kaisa primed me for the feature film Sámi Blood, Amanda Kernell’s first full-length production, which I’ll unreservedly call my must-see discovery. (Hrönn Marinósdóttir, RIFF’s founder and organizer, told me that what she most cherishes about this festival is providing a platform for new directors.)

Kernell’s story, which integrates some of her own grandmother’s memories, features outstanding performances by two Sámi actors, a teenager and an old woman who play the same character, past and present. The film opens as the elderly Christina (Maj-Doris Rimpi) travels to her sister’s funeral. Having long ago rejected her upbringing, Christina reinvented herself as a “cultured” Southern Swede. Her visit north is brief and painful: traveling with her son and granddaughter who are curious about the family from whom they were cut off, Christina refuses to illuminate them. “They lie, they steal,” she says dismissively. “They smell.” When funeral guests greet her in Sámi, she says in Swedish, “I don’t understand.” (Her brother-in-law replies, in Sámi: “Yes you do.”)

This framing narrative was originally a free-standing short film, Northern Great Mountain, that depicts Christina only in the present. It was fascinating to see that short, the genesis of the feature film, after I had seen Sámi Blood, and to think about how this kind of film may be effectively constructed as two distinct productions: first the frame, and then the backstory.

Christina took that name to hide her Sámi heritage. She was born Elle-Marja, and the intense actress who plays the teenage character, Lene Cecilia Sparrok, is as brilliant at depicting the early life of this character as Rimpi is playing the older iteration. (Lene’s real-life sister Mia plays Elle-Marja’s sister, Njenna, adding to the film’s air of authenticity.)

Elle-Marja leaves the mountain range where her family lives in a lavvu (tent) to attend a boarding school designed to strip away their heritage. Local teens mock the distinctively-dressed Sámi. In school they must learn Swedish: they are beaten if they speak their native tongue. A team of eugenicists from Uppsala (an actual organization: the State Institute for Racial Biology, formed in 1922), comes to measure students’ skulls and noses. “Your hair isn’t at all bristly,” one remarks with surprise; in an especially traumatic scene, these “scientists” forcibly undress students to take nude photographs.

Unsurprisingly, Elle-Marja learns to hate her heritage and herself. She decides to try passing as Swedish, which isn’t difficult for a child as clever as she is. It was fascinating to see how similar these oppressed indigenous people look to the others who were oppressing them: there were some barely-discernable physical distinctions, but basically, they all looked white, very white, and I had never before seen such bigotry directed at a community that was not comprised of people of color. Nordic societies are often regarded as especially homogeneous, making it all the more difficult for outliers, “others.” Inviting audiences to reflect upon their historical prejudices, films like Sámi Blood represent a cultural act of atonement.

Winter Brothers

Winter Brothers

The most prominent Icelandic film was festival opener Winter Brothers: a Danish co-production claimed for the home team because director Hlynur Palmason is a native son. Quietly minimalist and darkly dystopian, it was nevertheless surprisingly watchable. For much of the film I had little sense of what was happening, and when a plot finally emerged it was not very elaborate: the brothers brew cheap moonshine, which poisons one of their coworkers. But the bleak Nordic mood engages us despite ourselves. The brothers work for a mining company, and the “costume design” is especially memorable: constantly coated with a thick limestone clay, their bodies convey a weird, primeval, earthy resonance. Palmason plays with light and darkness, making this color film often seem confined to a binary black and white spectrum. The actors (Simon Sears, Elliott Crosset Hove) radiate a pervasive and overwhelming futility. I don’t normally enjoy such unremitting angst, but this artfully nuanced and emotional depiction made for an appealing film.

The two Nordic films with the biggest buzz, and the best potential for wide distribution, were Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland and Janus Metz’s Borg vs. McEnroe. Both lived up to their billing, though Tom struck me as a bit less compelling than expected, and Borg a bit more. A double-feature of these two films would offer keen insight into Nordic masculinity. Both the pioneering homoerotic artist and the acclaimed tennis superstar channeled their resistance to the narrow, Nordic path into uniquely productive careers.

Touko Laaksonen took the pseudonym “Tom” to avoid “bringing shame” (in their words) on his family; a California publisher of his early drawings added “of Finland.” Touko comfortably embraced his sexual identity as a young man, finding some safe communities when he served in the army in WW2 and afterwards in Helsinki. But these fragile gay enclaves could easily become unsafe; pursuing romance and sex was sometimes achievable, but sometimes resulted in awful violence.

Tom of Finland

Tom of Finland

Tom drew raw, beefcake men in leather or uniforms, with bulging crotches, engaging in unfettered, unapologetic lust. Cops feature prominently in Tom’s cast of characters: his art subversively co-opted the men who violently enforced heteronormativity (in real life) into the orgies of his artistic imagination.

These drawings were, at first, dangerous – German police arrested him for decadence when he brought them to Berlin in the 1950s – but as the world became more enlightened about gay culture, his work became celebrated and iconic. Life imitated art: as Tom’s popularity grew, especially in New York and California, his drawings provided the fashion template for large leather crowds, “Tom’s men,” modeled on his images.

It’s a winning story about how a brave, determined artist sustained his vision, both personally and aesthetically, to refuse being closeted. Finland recently issued postage stamps featuring his drawings, to show how proudly they now honor him, and after the Festival screening Finland’s Icelandic ambassador lauded Tom, who died in 1991, as a hero who fought for individual freedoms.

But the Q & A session was uncomfortable. Questioners asked Pekka Strang, who played Tom, what kind of preparation he had done for the role to learn about Finland’s gay culture. These questions suggested Strang was not gay – a quick Google check confirmed he is married to a woman – and audience members challenged a straight man playing this quintessentially queer character. Strang responded: “I looked at the script, and at everything that happened to Tom, as what happens to a human being, not what happens to people representing a certain sexuality. That was my interpretation of the role.” The audience did not like that, and neither did I. “This is our story,” one man said angrily.

If Strang’s casting isn’t exactly equivalent to blackface (or is it?), still, I liked the film a little less after this contretemps. While Tom of Finland effectively depicted this little-known account of the man behind the famous images, it struck me that there was something missing here: raunch! While Tom’s throbbingly lascivious art was the springboard of this story, there was little hard-core eros on screen. Tom’s drawings were depicted, though I wondered, perhaps not prominently enough? I think Karukoski dropped the ball here, but despite these qualms my final verdict is: go see it – it’s an important piece of historical reclamation, and still a good story.

Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroe – in Swedish release, interestingly, just Borg – depicts one of the classic athletic match-ups, Wimbledon’s 1980 men’s finals (and it cannot be overemphasized how brilliantly Shia LaBeouf and Sverrir Gudnason replicate the actual characters). Borg, the favorite, had won four straight championships, and the fifth – which, I think everyone knows, he gets – would be historic. McEnroe is the underdog, the upstart, the foul-mouthed cad: an embarrassment to the sport’s refined ethos.

We expect a study in contrasts: Baseline player vs. net-rusher; calm, predictable, self-controlled Swede vs. incontinently blustery American; IceBorg vs. SuperBrat. What Metz delivers is more interesting. We come to see that the two players are actually more alike than different, emphasized with copious parallel scenes: the two players as boys (Borg’s actual son Leo plays teenaged Björn); at home with their parents; at practice sessions; nervously waiting in their London hotel rooms. Both were keenly shaped (and perhaps, broken) by the pressure-cooker world of the teen prodigy. Both had dysfunctional, un-nurturing families, and other anxieties that they tried to transcend by gaining control on the court and through the vindication of athletic triumph.

Both were obsessive compulsive: Borg reconfigured this aspect of his personality into a meticulous, almost mechanical, game (also full of quirky superstitions), a discipline that McEnroe seems to have envied. And McEnroe’s compulsion manifested itself in the rude outbursts which Borg, oddly, seems to have envied himself, seeing in McEnroe’s release of nervous energy of catharsis that he himself could have used. Borg bottled up his anxieties, which led to painful panic attacks. As a child, the film shows, Borg used to be as big an ass as McEnroe still was, but his very-Swedish coach (brilliantly played by Stellan Skarsgård) made him clean up his act, changing the volcanic personality into an iceberg.

At the Wimbledon championship, where crowds expected McEnroe’s trademark bad-boy vulgarity, he ended up behaving remarkably well – out of respect for Borg, he later said. The intensely long, evenly-matched, back-and-forth tennis sequences also serve to indicate how similar the two men were.

Faroese director Sakaris Stora’s first feature film, Dreams by the Sea, is a tight, dramatic, compelling, Nordic-moody story of two teenage girls trying to plot out their own unique lives in these stunning islands that they nevertheless need to escape from (as Tom needed to flee Finland, and Elle-Marja her Sámi world). The film was compact and simple but eloquent: “Making my films in one of the world’s smallest countries, it’s important for me to keep things small and intimate,” Stora told me. He made the film in his own island village, he said, because “I like to go to sleep in my own bed after we’re done working for the day.”

There was so much more going on at RIFF: short films were shown on public buses throughout the week; a wonderful retrospective of Finland’s exuberantly sardonic Aki Kaurismäki reminded me of Pinter, Fellini, Lynch, and Wes Anderson all rolled into one; a masterclass with Werner Herzog revealed him to be as egocentric as you might imagine, though I suppose he has earned it; I met a Canadian writer who sat next to Björk at a restaurant. A reception hosted by Iceland’s president Guðni Jóhannesson at his residence, Bessastaðir, lingered on through the evening until he had chatted with everyone; a historian by training, he pitched us some ideas he had for a documentary about the founding of Iceland.

Marinósdóttir, who runs RIFF, designed a festival proposal as a graduate school thesis project: what it would take for Reykjavík to host a major international film festival? Upon graduation, she just did it, and has been doing it ever since 2004. She wanted to give Icelanders a chance to see world films that otherwise might not show here; she has since expanded her ambitions, hoping that the Festival will help facilitate full access for regional filmmakers to the global industry. “Just in the middle between Europe and America,” she says, “RIFF can be a meeting place where filmmakers from both places can meet.” While she is certainly not solely responsible, she can fairly share in the acclaim for Iceland’s recent cinematic outburst: films (Out of Thin Air, Ransacked, Of Horses and Men, Rams) and television shows (Trapped), along with a thriving locations industry (Interstellar, Game of Thrones, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Noah, Justice League, Rogue One, Batman Begins). Enchanting both local audiences and visiting cinephiles, RIFF demonstrates how the energy that accrues around a vital film festival sparks a transformative cultural and economic impact on its host community. Well done, Reykvíkingar!

Randy Malamud is Regents’ Professor of English at Georgia State University and the author of 9 books including The Importance of Elsewhere: The Globalist Humanist Tourist, forthcoming from Intellect.

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