Q&A with Laufey Guðjónsdóttir, Director of the Icelandic Film Centre
Published on April 18th, 2012 | by Ryan Wells1
With Images from the Edge: Classic & Contemporary Icelandic Cinema, Film Society of Lincoln Center brings the national cinema of Iceland to New York for an eight-day series. Sure, Tribeca Film Festival also gets into full swing during this same time; however, this is a mighty, didactic, and very rich series on a cinema that’s rarely seen or discussed in the context of world cinema. Consider this your primer. To get more background on the series itself and Icelandic cinema, Cinespect spoke with Laufey Guðjónsdóttir, Director of the Icelandic Film Centre. Our conversation is as follows.
So tell us how the concept of this series came about.
I met with Richard Peña a few years ago and we started talking about bringing Icelandic films to the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Richard is a great programmer―and seems to know everything about films everywhere―so he knew a lot about Icelandic films already. He visited us in Iceland in a very cold spring of last year and we showed him more or less every film that has been made in the country. At quite an early stage the idea come up to have about half of the program of new or recent films and the other half more classic-focused, thus introducing the development and the history of Icelandic cinema.
You must be thrilled Icelandic cinema is getting the close-up it definitely deserves. How did you narrow it down to those that were selected for the series?
Yes, we are thrilled to have this close-up here in New York at the Lincoln Center. It’s a great venue and there is so much expertise within the Film Society. It was hard to make the selection and narrow it down, but again, that was Richard’s pain! I think the selection is very interesting; all the films shown are key works in the history of Icelandic cinema.
Explain the cinema in Iceland a bit. Is there a distinct flavor one gets, or themes or styles that appear throughout its history?
It is hard to tell, but in Iceland there is a very strong literature tradition, ever since the Sagas of Icelanders were written about a thousand years ago; we have a rich history of storytellers, poets, writers, etc. In a way, that influenced the first and early films made in the country very much, both in style and subjects. They often dealt with life in old times or transition to modern urban life. Most of the younger film directors of today have returned to Iceland after studies abroad, and they are totally free of the “burden” of literature and life in the countryside. They have developed their own visual styles and storytelling as well as the technical expertise. Their technique has grown substantially for the past three decades and is now among the best in the world on every level.
Do Icelandic film buffs really get behind a lot of the local filmmakers, or does a lot of cinema that gets consumed and studied get imported from abroad?
Yes, they’re definitely supportive. Of course, as everywhere it depends on the films, their subjects, etc., but generally speaking they are enthusiastic and interested in following the films and the talent, domestically speaking. In Iceland as in most western countries, most of the releases are American films. We are a very small nation and produce only a few films a year, so the statistics are often rather low when comparing the share of national films to those imported, but still the national films are extremely important for the general public.
Two films that are being in shown in the series―“Between Mountain and Shore” and “Last Farm in the Valley”―are classics of Icelandic cinema, and mark the switch into sound from silent. This was in the late 1940s when they premiered. Tell us about how their debuts affected the national cinema. Was it long overdue considering that other countries were making sound features decades before, or were moviegoers content with silent cinema?
Actually, these were the only films made! Filmmaking was almost impossible in Iceland before 1978, when the Icelandic Film Fund was founded by the Government to support the film production financially. The films you mention were among the very, very few narrative films made in the country before that time. So back then it was not even about a sound or a silent feature; the audience had a great appetite for Icelandic films, and both of these were huge hits at the time.
Explain a bit the work you do at the Icelandic Film Centre.
The Icelandic Film Centre is an independent body financed by the government of Iceland. We provide producers in Iceland with financial support for productions of feature films, documentaries, TV, fiction, and shorts. This is vital due to a very small market in a country of only 300,000 inhabitants that only speak in our own language. We also promote Icelandic films abroad and support film cultural activities in the country such as festivals, seminars, workshops, etc. We are a very small team trying our best to cover it all.
How do you see Icelandic cinema getting a wider audience across the globe in the future?
I think the digital world will help a lot and the new ways and methods of distribution that come with it. There have been some obstacles, and one of the biggest is to digitize older films; this is quite expensive and often difficult. Still, the most important thing, as always, is the content―good stories. I think and hope we have plenty as well as the energy to tell them in a convincing way.
On a side note, anything you’re looking forward to checking out while you’re in NYC (film or otherwise)?
Well, there is so much going on here in New York as always, and hard to choose. I am going to spend quite a lot of time at the Lincoln Center cinemas, especially the Walter Reade. I’ll try to check out exhibitions like Cindy Sherman at the MoMA, visit some galleries, see friends and so forth. There is never enough time!