Wandering through the centre of Reykjavik on an early autumn’s day in this year of crisis, I notice two things in particular. Firstly, given a decade or more of real estate bubble, the inner city doesn’t look particularly gentrified. Quaint little wooden houses newly renovated in bright colours and impressive, monumental public buildings sit next door to dilapidated hovels looking as if they last saw a paintbrush between the world wars. The second thing that strikes me is the ubiquitous presence of art. An abundance of public sculptures and museums share the limited space with private galleries, art cafés, junk art exhibitions in the ‘Schengen free zones’ of muddy private gardens and, not least, the everywhere present high class wall paintings (part of a project aimed at organising and controlling the spread of graffiti). All in all it gives Reykjavik (population circa 200,000) an air of the world’s smallest major city. How the vibrant art scene and the lack of gentrification may be connected I learn from an article in The Reykjavìk Grapevine, the city’s proportionately slimmer, English language, equivalent of New York’s Village Voice. Apparently, when poor artists and students in other countries, together with the working class, where pushed out of the inner cities once housing prices reached fantasy levels, here the Icelandic banks where quite happy to loan them the money to buy their previously rented homes (Cameron 2005). The result is that Reykjavik radiates a sense of creativity and liveliness that remind me of descriptions of bohemian Greenwich Village before the yuppies and Reaganism struck.
Today Iceland has been described as a nation of subprime loans, where the current value of real estate is rarely more than a fraction of its owners’ burden of debt, that is, furthermore, to be serviced by dramatically falling real incomes. But not too long ago, Iceland – together with that other small Euro-Atlantic state, Ireland – seemed to sever its ties to geo-physical reality and soar up towards the weightless heaven of neoliberal globalisation, or at least that was the euphoric story told by mainstream media. A gang of Icelandic finance capitalists where on their way to conquering Europe helped and abetted by forever lower corporate taxes, deregulation and laws that even in these days can be described as amazingly generous towards the big players of the financial markets (for one thing, Icelandic borrowers must not only pay interest but also compensate lenders for inflation). Icelandic banks had an abundance of capital on their hands in the form of savings from private, public and corporate clients from around Europe, not least from the UK and Holland, attracted by extremely high interest rates, the paying of which demanded a never-ending bubble of debt-driven consumption and speculation.
If the cleptocratic frenzy of the 1990s and 2000s had a positive aspect in Iceland it came in the form of a cultural renaissance, as the arts attracted both public and private sponsorship. Iceland had long led the world in the number of published books per capita. Now, in a short time, Iceland attained the same position in the domain of film production, with an average of five feature films produced every year by a nation counting some 300,000 inhabitants. With the help of generous subsidies, and plenty of unspoilt nature, the island also attracted a significant number of foreign productions. Among the films partly shot in Iceland are Batman Begins (2005) and Clint Eastwood’s epic war films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006).
As the sixth yearly edition of the Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF) takes place during the final days of September, the rebellious mood that eventually resulted in the replacement of a centre-right coalition with a centre-left one, seems to have given place to an atmosphere of waiting, subdued anger, incredulity, battle fatigue and, sometimes, optimism despite everything. If Dutch and British politicians were to have their way and the debts of the Icelandic banks are fully socialized, the country may face foreign debt exceeding that of Germany after the Versailles Treaty. A look at the news section of the website of the Icelandic film commission, Film in Iceland, is revealing. Up until November 2008 there is a steady stream of press releases about lowered corporate taxes and other incentives for foreign investors, then, suddenly, there appears a short note on new ‘rules restricting cross-border movement on capital’ and then almost a year of silence (Film in Iceland). And as I attend a press conference arranged by Iceland’s film institute, the Icelandic Film Centre, no less than thirteen Icelandic full-length feature and documentary films to be released in the near future are presented, but we also learn that next year’s budget for the institute has been halved. Here, more than perhaps anywhere else, it is felt that the ultimate social and cultural effects of the crisis are still to come.
As far as RIFF goes, festival director Hrönn Marinósdóttir remains optimistic. She feels that sponsors today realise that the event is more important than ever. It is easy to be sceptical towards the combination of social crisis and, more or less lavish, sponsorship of prestigious cultural events, but in the case of RIFF there are good reasons to hope that Marinósdóttir is right. RIFF is very much a festival aimed at introducing world cinema to the local public (and, incidentally, because of that an all the more fascinating experience for the foreign visitor). Here is little of red carpets and paparazzi and more of genuine meetings between filmmakers and audiences. The selection of films is broad and commendably courageous, resulting in an almost unique overview of international cinema beyond Hollywood. It is not that RIFF hasn’t had its share of big names through the years – this year’s guest of honour is Milos Forman – or that there is a lack of films of great artistic quality (whatever one’s definition of this), but one feels that the choices made by program director Dimitri Eipides are motivated also by something more; by a sense of the films’ social and historical urgency and the filmmakers’ heartfelt honesty in trying to come to terms with crucial aspects of reality. This results in a certain unevenness that, no doubt, some commentators may criticise. For me, it makes RIFF into more than just a mirror of contemporary world cinema. It makes it an event that participates in our urgent quest for making sense of our world in this historically critical conjunction.
More than a hundred films from thirty-five countries, including Kazakhstan and Peru, divided into fourteen categories, were screened at this year’s event. A third of the films were documentaries, chosen with a focus on ecological and human rights. The full programme, and all the prize winners, can be found at the official web page.
I chose to focus on documentaries and Icelandic films. Unintentionally, I also came to see almost only films by female directors and/or focusing on strong female protagonists. Given the high presence of women in leading positions within the Icelandic film and cultural institutions (women occupy the posts of director and chairman of RIFF, director and head of production & finance at the Film Centre, as well as the post of minister of culture in the current government), this seems fitting and perhaps not wholly accidental.
The Icelandic documentary Decoding Iceland, directed by Hördur A. Arnarson, was the one exception to the above. It tells the story of a company, deCODE genetics, which was set up in the 1990s in order to collect the complete genetic and genealogical data of all Icelanders. The small and homogeneous population of Iceland makes it ideal for studying the genetic origins of common diseases. Spurred on by the government, the company tried to run roughshod over all concerns of privacy and consent in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at gaining access to the medical records of the entire population. Hugely talked up by both its own representatives and leading politicians, but, like so many IT companies, never able to turn a profit, deCODE was also at the centre of a stock market bubble that cost many Icelanders their life savings. Looking back on this story today, the film remarks upon the fact that Icelanders, rather than learning from their history, again allowed their country to become a kind of ‘test tube nation’ with the extreme experiments in neoliberal banking. Watching this well-crafted film at the intimate 19th century theatre Idnó, on my first evening in Reykjavik, immediately brought home to me something about the nature of RIFF, as I noticed the murmurs of recognition and the whispered comments exchanged between the local members of the audience and, at one point in the film, recognised the very room we sat in as the venue for an embarrassing government press conference during the unfolding of the deCODE scandal.
A few days later I feel the same atmosphere, hear the same murmured reactions, as I sit in the same room watching another Icelandic documentary, Women in Red Stocking (directed by Halla Kristín Einarsdóttir). This is more standard television fare in the talking heads genre. But the story of feminism in Iceland from the 1970s to the present is no less interesting, although it follows a pattern familiar from other Western nations, with an early left wing phase followed by a right turn in the 1980s, as Iceland becomes the first nation to democratically elect a female head of state, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. I get a strong feeling that many of the women interviewed on screen still carry the scars inside from the struggle over the class issue in the 1970s and 80s, and I often wish that they had been given space to elaborate on their current thinking. Before the screening a young female reporter from RIFF’s web TV asked me how I thought that the current crisis would affect women’s social position. Perhaps the makers of Women in Red Stocking should have put that same question to the feminists on screen.
Women in Red Stocking was shown as part of a double-bill with the French documentary Umoja: The Village Where Men are Forbidden (directed by Jean-Marc Sinclair and Jean Crousillac). It is said that since 1970, about 1600 women in Northern Kenya have been raped by British soldiers form a nearby training camp. Feeling dishonoured, most of their husbands then beat and rejected them. In 1990, some of these women founded the village of Umoja, forbidden to men. However, the children that lives with their mothers in Umoja, including the sons, will eventually be free to choose themselves if they want to stay in the village as they become adults, which points to the, never clearly articulated, hope that Umoja one day can grow into a mixed society with a new, enlightened generation of men. But for now this is an insecure haven. Jealous men frequently attack the village. And tourism, which was the main source of income, dried up with the violence that followed the presidential election of December 2007. The theme of gender versus class is replayed in an African setting as Rebecca Lolosoli, founder of Umoja, remarks about the educated women of the continent that they don’t fight for their poorer sisters. And, when she travels to a conference in Nairobi, we are shown a poignant image of a choir of little girls from the slum of Kibera entertaining the expensively dressed, mainly male, participants. In the end, as the village enters into crisis, Lolosoli takes up national politics and is invited to lecture all around the world, leaving the question open as to whether she will eventually turn into one of the women she criticises and abandon the necessary grassroots organising or if she will remain deeply embedded in her local community.
The US locks up a larger proportion of its population in prison than probably any other nation at any time in history. Throughout the last three or four decades the prison population has grown in tandem with the inequality of neoliberal society and in total defiance of the mounting empirical evidence showing that prison does not work. Oklahoma is the state that leads the nation when it comes to the female incarceration rate. The documentary Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo (directed by Bradley Beesley), follows a handful of female prisoners as they prepare for and take part in the last existing prison rodeo. The Oklahoma State Penitentiary Rodeo, a relic of times past, first allowed women to take part in 2006. The women we get to know almost all come from a family background of poverty, broken homes and criminality. They have generally committed non-violent crimes, but end up doing one long stretch after another, with little support for integrating into society when they leave prison. For these women, literally risking life and limb riding wild-broncos and bulls with only rudimentary training in front of an audience including family and friends, is the one chance of escaping the demoralising daily routine of prison-life, of being seen in a positive light, applauded as heroes by their children. The film impressively succeeds in portraying these women as fully-rounded human beings caught up in an inhuman system, whilst implicitly questioning the degree of civilisation of a society that produces the kind of desperation that can lead anyone to yearn for participation in this gladiator-like spectacle. Towards the end we learn that budget cuts, due to the economic crisis, now threatens the female participation in future rodeos.
Prodigal Sons is another US documentary, directed by Kimberley Reed. Here the issue of gender is set in a more intimate, family context, with a twist in the end that would have seemed far too contrived had this been fiction. In an often painfully candid style Reed chronicles her attempts at reconciliation with her adopted brother as she returns to her small hometown in Montana for a high school reunion. Reed has gone through a sex-change operation some years previously and is now an established editor and writer in New York. Her brother, who had always felt himself as standing in the shadow of the good-looking, American football-playing, top student that Kimberley was as a male teenager, now suffers frightening rage attacks caused by a severe head injury he sustained in a car accident. In between these attacks he is seen as a loving family father eager to mend the relationship to his brother-turned-sister. As they discover that his real grandparents are in fact none other than Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, Kimberley hopes that this will help him come to terms with his background and rebuild his self-esteem. But after a brief period of intense fascination, the brother seems to lose interest and return to brooding over the family past.
In Oblivion, a Peruvian documentary directed by Heddy Honigmann, we meet the people of Lima, street artists, beggars, waiters, cleaners and small shop-keepers, as they talk about their lives and about the series of corrupt presidents that have ruled them over the last half century or so. The title, ‘oblivion’, has multiple connotations: Lima and Peru as forgotten by the outside world and international media (compare the outrage over one victim of the Iranian police with the almost complete disregard for the scores of victims killed by the Peruvian army as indigenous communities fought for their land rights in the summer of 2009); the little people as forgotten by their political leaders except during election periods; but also how the people go about their everyday lives oblivious to who happens to inhabit the presidential palace, as everything seems destined to remain as bad anyway. Oblivion combines a quietly flowing, poetical style with a clear structure, making watching it a beautiful learning process.
However, the major revelation for me at RIFF was undoubtedly The Rebel, Louise Michel and its director, Sólveig Anspach. Louise Michel, anarchist and feminist, teacher and poet, was one of the women who fought for the Paris Commune in the spring of 1871, not only with her pen and her skills in organising and inspiring, but also with a gun in her hand. As the working and lower middle classes of Paris rose up following the disastrous war against Prussia launched by the emperor Louis Bonaparte, and ruled the city for a few short weeks, democratic and socialist reforms were enacted that were decades or more ahead of their time and in some cases far outdo contemporary versions of democracy. But when the bourgeois troops of Adolphe Thiers re-conquered the city, a bloodbath commenced as tens of thousands of Communards were summarily executed. The number of victims well exceeded those of the infamous ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution, possibly tenfold. Louise Michel escaped with her life and was instead among the 4,200 Communards deported to the French colony of New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific. As opposed to many of the other deportees, she remained true to the internationalism of the Commune even in a non-European context. She took a great interest in the culture of the indigenous, Kanak, population and sided with them as they rebelled in 1878. It is this period of exile that is the subject of Anspach’s film.
Anspach is no stranger to exile, of sorts. Her Romanian-German father and Icelandic mother met in France, married in the US and where then driven back to Europe by the onset of McCarthyism. Anspach, herself, grew up in Iceland, on the Westman Islands, where, as a child she experienced the temporary evacuation of her hometown due to a volcanic eruption in 1973. She went to film school in Paris in the late 1980s and has since worked extensively in both France and Iceland, making both documentary and fiction films. Her website can be found at www.solveig-anspach.com. It is well worth a visit for those who have yet to discover her work.
Though literally a world apart, something of the islander’s sensibility to the seascape seems to have followed Anspach from the northern Atlantic to the Pacific. Images of soft sunlight falling on the New Caledonian mountains remind me instantly of how the undulating grassy hills of Videy Island, in the bay outside of Reykjavik, looked as sun broke through the grey clouds. Much like Oblivion, Louise Michel is a film of great beauty that never for a second detracts from the serious story being told. On the contrary, the paradisiacal landscape serves as a contrast further emphasizing the ugly brutality of colonialism. Violence takes place off-screen, but the image of the dead bodies of Michel’s Kanak friends, as she finds them on the beach, makes it very real nonetheless. The Kanak bodies also come to symbolize her murdered Parisian comrades, killed by the very same enemy. Sylvie Testud, as Michel, truly brings the revolutionary to life, as if possessed by the same energy, courage, stubbornness, a certain occasional awkwardness and, most of all, the burning desire for justice. Her striking similarity to the few images of Michel is almost uncanny. Such likeness is by no means indispensable for biographical films. After all, in The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), Gael García Bernal brings a real life, human presence to his incarnation of Che Guevara precisely because he does not overly resemble the iconic, over-familiar, commercialised image of the Argentinean. But in the case of the far less over-exposed appearance of Michel it undoubtedly works to Testud’s advantage.
Leaving Reykjavik, with images of New Caledonia and the volcanic moonscapes and grassy hills of Iceland interwoven in my mind’s eye, I strongly hope that RIFF will continue to develop along its current path for many years to come, encouraging an Icelandic and international cinema that dares to look unflinchingly at our history and our crisis-ridden global reality, without ever losing its ultimate faith in humanity – somewhat in the spirit of Louise Michel.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.
Cameron, Bart (2005), ‘When You Own It, You Might Not Break It’, The Reykjavìk Grapevine, June 24.
Film in Iceland, official website, news section.