The success of Valdimar Jóhannsson’s “Lamb”, in theaters on December 29, showcases the talent and creativity of a small country whose film industry is unlike any other. Report from Iceland.
It’s a film that comes from a small country. A land of unique, cold and rocky landscapes. Lamb by Valdimar Jóhannsson makes Iceland shine around the world. Carried by the Swedish Noomi Rapace, this astonishing drama tells the birth of a lamb with an abnormal appearance. His arrival will change the daily life of a couple of grieving breeders.
Awarded in Cannes, and in other festivals, the feature film does not go unnoticed. Become the biggest Icelandic success in the United States, he is selected to represent his country in the race for the Oscars. Through its unique career, this cinematographic curiosity allows a young and still little-known industry to continue its expansion.
On screen, the island often appears in big productions, especially American ones. It is not uncommon for Hollywood studios to come and put their cameras there to enjoy the volcanic setting. It is mainly thanks to these blockbusters that the region is attracting more and more tourists. Yet much of the public is completely ignorant of its film industry, starting with its huge impact on the country’s economy.
Iceland has less than 400,000 inhabitants. According to estimates, 3000 people work in the audiovisual sector. The number of productions is therefore reduced. On average, the country produces 4 films per year – compared to 240 in France. It’s not much, but that doesn’t prevent Icelanders from going to the movies. An ordinary citizen can go there 4 times a year. This is much more than the European average, although the weather certainly has something to do with it.
A microcosm of cinema
The sphere of Icelandic industry is so small that everyone knows each other. Technicians like actors and actresses often find the same teams. This micro-society is felt even in the films. “It happens that we know certain actors personally and it is difficult to forget them behind their characters., laughs the director Karna Sigurðardóttir. You can even recognize a cousin’s house in the background.”
This proximity has its qualities, in particular the absence of competition. Hilmir Snær Guðnason, starring in Lamb and actor for more than 30 years, explains that the relations between the artists are healthy. It’s like a big family. But the difficulties are the same as elsewhere, especially for actresses. “Like everywhere in the world, it’s always easier for men, he admits. When you get older, a bit like me, who is 52 years old, you can continue to do theater and cinema. For women, it’s a different story.”
Lasting in the profession is not always easy. Sometimes you have to know how to be more discreet so as not to monopolize the screens and tire the public. Hilmir Snær Guðnason recognizes that he turned to the theater after having chained the roles in the cinema. “Some were like, ‘You can’t use it over and over again’”, He adds. This is why many people in the industry practice several trades at the same time. A director can be a screenwriter, editor, decorator and actor all at the same time. Knowing how to do everything is almost a norm.
With few Icelandic films in theaters, viewers are mainly heading to American productions. They represent 96% of the market. The biggest success of the year 2021 is, unsurprisingly, the 25th installment of James Bond’s adventures, Dying Can Wait. It collected, in total, more than 67,000 entries.
In the midst of this Hollywood overpower, one cinema stands out: the Bíó Paradís – “cinema paradise” in French. It is located in Reykjavik, the capital, and remains the only arthouse establishment in the country. Supported by the State, it belongs to an association of filmmakers and its mission is to educate young people. Schoolchildren and students alike can discover classics and European films there thanks to the 3 rooms available.
In front of the entrance, a poster of the Palme d’Or Titane by Julia Ducournau is plastered on the facade. When we enter the enclosure of the building, it is a temple of cinephilia that unfolds before our eyes. Posters of the world’s greatest films cover the walls of a reception hall filled with armchairs. It is a place of culture, but also of entertainment. Every Friday, a themed evening is organized.
“We can arrange special sessions on Ingmar Bergman, like on BDSM cinema, says Hrönn Sveinsdóttir, the director. Without judgment, people come together and share their passion. If there were only one cinema left in this country, it would be this one.”The other objective of Bíó Paradís is to preserve the memory of Icelandic films. Major works from the region are often screened there.
In Iceland, all audiovisual projects are supported by the Icelandic Film Center. Founded in 2003, the institution plays a major role in the country’s industry. It is she who finances the films and ensures their promotion in the world. It is fully subsidized by the government and is owned by the Ministry of Cultural Education.
Over the years, the scenario proposals increase. “We get more than we can take, underlines Laufey Guðjónsdóttir, at the head of the Icelandic Film Center since its creation. We only support 50% of requests.“The selection criteria are numerous, but the director makes it a point of honor to highlight originality.
To attract foreign productions to the island, a reimbursement of 25% of filming costs is offered. A godsend for the big studios, but also for the Icelandic teams. They are often hired to lend a hand. “Without the locals, I think some films could not have been made here, specifies Laufey Guðjónsdóttir. To guide you you always need someone who knows the area.”
In contact with the big Hollywood machines, the technicians gain experience and improve their skills for their own productions. You just have to go to RVK Studios to find out. Based in the capital, this company was founded by Baltasar Kormákur, the country’s most influential director.
The studio, made up of two huge hangars, is one of the largest in Europe. It is here that important productions are filmed, such as films, series, but also video games. A stone’s throw away, the Kukl company is tasked with providing all the equipment, from cranes to cameras to lights. They participate in a lot of American projects, between 5 and 6 per year. A few meters away there is also TRICKSHOT. They take care of all stages of post-production: editing, calibration or even sound mixing.
The country also takes the top thanks to the special effects. The RVX company is located a few kilometers from the studios. The entrance doors are locked to preserve the confidentiality of current projects. Twenty-four employees work on visual effects for Icelandic and foreign productions. They notably made 240 shots of season 2 of The Witcher.
All of these companies form a miniature Hollywood. They illustrate the constant evolution of a sector which continues to gain in importance. When asked about the future, the director of the Icelandic Film Center, Laufey Guðjónsdóttir, is confident. “There are a lot of creative people here and so many more stories to tell, she rejoices. We have made progress in all areas.”Small in size, the Icelandic film industry is nonetheless solid and still holds many surprises.
Icelandic cinema in a few dates:
- 1921: Sons of the Soil by Gunnar Sommerfeldt, the first film shot in Iceland.
- 1949: Between Mountain and Shore by Loftur Guðmundsson, the first Icelandic talkie.
- 1979: creation of the Icelandic Film Fund which finances films from the country.
- 1980: Land and Sons by Ágúst Guðmundsson, the first film financed and shot in Iceland.
- 1992: Children of nature of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, Icelandic Oscar-nominated first film.
- 1999: creation of the Edda Awards, a ceremony which rewards cinema and television.
- 2003: creation of the Icelandic Film Center.
- 2021: Yes-People of Gísli Darri Halldórsson, Icelandic Oscar-nominated first short film.
- 2021: Release Lamb by Valdimar Jóhannsson.
10 Icelandic films to have:
Report by Thomas Desroches
Editing: Constance Mathews
Interview by Thomas Desroches, in Reykjavik, from October 28 to November 2, 2021.
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