Until such time as someone establishes a chance to watch movies on the moon, the Reykjavik Intl. Film Festival looks to be the next best thing. Though the Icelandic capital boasts all the amenities of a modern European city, the surrounding countryside — renown for its spectacular emerald green cliffs, jet-black volcanic soil and massive shelves of ice — suggests the surface of another planet.
It’s no wonder so many Hollywood productions have recognized Iceland’s otherworldly potential: “Game of Thrones,” of course, but also ranging from Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” to the upcoming “Star Wars Episode VII.” Iceland is truly one of those places everyone should see before dying, and RIFF is as good an excuse as any to get there for those in any way associated with the film industry.
This year, I made the trek as a member of the festival jury, a strategy that carried a heavier in-theater commitment (12 movies within the span of just a few days) than most of the other guests, who divide their time between screening rooms and various events designed to showcase the country’s incredible natural resources. The highlight, open to all attendees, was a nine-hour bus tour that leaves from Reykjavik, designed to showcase possible screening locations.
Tourists, when they come, typically make Reykjavik their base, renting cars or buying one-day guided excursions to see the country’s most stunning features. Embracing the same spirit, the festival partners with local shingle Saga Film to showcase some of the lava fields, waterfalls and glaciers that Iceland has to offer — sights whose appearance vary according to the humidity, weather and volcanic activity. These days, locals are nervous about the possibility of a full-scale eruption and what that could mean for the country’s largest glacier, Vatnajokull, if the ice were to melt and flood the surrounding area.
Meanwhile, from where I sat — in the dark of the city’s Bio Paradis theater, watching a dynamic selection of first and second features from around the world — there was still ample opportunity to educate myself about both Iceland and its relatively young film industry, which is barely three decades old. Festival-arranged dinners provided a chance to mingle with up-and-coming local talents Benedikt Erlingsson (last year’s Oscar submission, “Of Horses and Men”) and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson (“Paris of the North,” representing the country now on the fest circuit), while other events featured on the industry’s respected veterans (including a thirtieth anniversary screening of Hrafn Gunnlaugsson’s “The Raven Flies” and a visit to the studios where Baltasar Kormakur is shooting his upcoming “Viking Sagas,” an epic likely to employ nearly every Icelandic actor.
The festival opened with the locally set American indie “Land Ho!” co-directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, in which two colorful retirees — one American, the other from Australia — visit Iceland on a whim, tooling around the country, off-roading in a rented Hummer and relaxing in its geothermal spas, like a couple of sexagenarian slackers. This featherweight road movie could just as easily have been called “Geezers and Geysers,” and while hardly substantial, the pic (which Sony Pictures Classics acquired at Sundance and released in the U.S. back in July) serves as a decent introduction to the country’s unique charms.
While RIFF founder and fest director Hronn Marinosdottir is a strong supporter of Icelandic cinema, creating various opportunities for local helmers to mingle with out-of-town guests, in tapping Venice Days programmer Giorgio Gosetti to oversee the lineup, she has ensured that the 12 films in the main competition represent a wide range of genres, styles and voices.
RIFF isn’t limited by the same premiere-demanding game that obsesses other Euro fests chasing maximum press exposure. Instead, RIFF embraces the best of other festivals, content to be the first Nordic venue many of its offerings have played, including Richard Linklater’s (by now well-traveled) “Boyhood,” Venice winner “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” and Cannes breakout “Force Majeure” — one of three films by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund featured.
I arrived midway through the fest, just in time to catch Icelandic president Olafur Ragnar Grimsson honoring RIFF guest of honor Mike Leigh at his house, a laid-back event that immediately demystified the country. There’s simply no equivalent, not in the United States nor in any other country, where someone of Barack Obama’s stature invites festival VIPS to crowd inside the White House while he toasts a filmmaker and jokes about the merits of eating puffin — which subsequently became the gustatory obsession of everyone in attendance, including Leigh. (n.b. It turns out that puffin, with its dense red meat, tastes nothing like chicken, but more like pheasant and other flying game.)
Iceland is a land of first experiences (in addition to puffin, festival guests ate minke whale, horse steak, roasted sheep’s head and pickled shark), so it stands to reason that the program would offer an eclectic and occasionally challenging mix of pics.
Among the dozen competition films we watched, there were regional dramas (Palestinian-made “Villa Touma” and Albanian “Bota,” both prizewinners), an experimental film (the partly Iceland-shot, performance art-like feature “The Lack”), two American neo-noirs (Coen brothers homage “Two Step” and special mention winner “Before I Disappear,” with its ripe, Raymond Chandler-esque dialogue) and the crowd-pleasing Italian comedy to which we awarded the Golden Puffin (Sydney Sibilia’s “I Can Quit Whenever I Want”). All told, during the 11 days of the Reykjavik Intl. Film Festival, a ticket to Iceland becomes a passport to the world.