11. Arts and Media
An Outline of the History of Cinema
Icelandic cinema is a young area of art. Iceland’s first movie theatre was opened in Reykjavík in 1906. Yet a very long time passed before Icelanders themselves produced films. The first steps in movie production in the country were taken by foreigners, who for the most part came in order to film the landscape. Likewise, it was a team of foreigners from the Nordisk Film Kompagni in Copenhagen who came to the country in 1919 to make the first Icelandic feature film, Saga Borgarættarinnar, based on the novel by the Icelandic author Gunnar Gunnarsson.
The Danes continued to make movies in Iceland, sometimes in collaboration with Icelanders, but the first Icelandic sound and colour movie was made by Loftur Guðmundsson in 1948. It was called Milli fjalls og fjöru (Between Mountain and Shore). The movie is a love story about Ingólfur, a poor farmer’s son, and the daughter of a rich merchant.
Out of the older generation of movie figures, the director to have had the most influence on the young is probably Óskar Gíslason. His best known movie is the children’s story, Síðasti bærinn í dalnum (1950). Other pioneers of Icelandic cinema were Asgeir Long and Ósvaldur Knudsen. Ósvaldur was an early leader in documentary film making, concentrating mainly on movies about volcanoes. Tourists visiting Reykjavík during the summer vacations can see his movies at daily screenings held at a little cinema near to Hotel Holt.
At the beginning of the decade, a number of films based on novels were made, for example one by Indriði G. Þorsteinsson: the Dane Erik Balling directed 79 af stöðinni (1962, Girl Gogo), but it was not until after 1980 that Icelandic cinema really began to grow.
At the close of the 1970s, many young artists who had finished studies abroad returned home and injected new life into the arts. This came at the same time as the Icelandic film fund was established (1979), which sees to the allocation of funding to film makers.
In the last thirty years, there has been strong growth in Icelandic film making. An increase in international cooperation in cinema and investment of foreign capital have enabled Icelanders to take on film production.
The world community was first alerted to Icelandic cinema when the films Land og synir (Land and Sons), directed by Ágúst Guðmundsson, and Óðal feðranna (Father’s Estate), directed by Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, were screened at foreign film festivals in the early 1990s. Land og synir broke all attendance records in Iceland, with 110,000 tickets sold even though the ticket price was higher than to other films (understandable given that it was not every day that an Icelandic film was shown in the nation’s cinemas). Land og synir and Óðal feðranna both depict the conflict between town and country during a period of rapid increase in urban dwelling. With them, a new era in Icelandic cinema began and the last two decades have made up a very productive period.
There has been a definite trend amongst directors to look for material in the past or to deal, in a bittersweet way with their childhood experiences. As such, Atómstöðin (1984, The Atom Station), based on the novel of the same title by the Nobel Laureate Halldór Kiljan Laxness, was something of a novelty in Icelandic cinema. It concerned a political controversy which has generated enormous debate, namely the American military presence in Iceland. The film’s director was Þorsteinn Jónsson.
The most famous Icelandic directors are Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, Friðrik Þór Friðriksson and Baltasar Kormákur.
Hrafn became known for his Viking movies, the films Hrafninn flýgur (1984, When the Raven Flies) and Í skugga hrafnsins (1988, In the Shadow of the Raven).
Amongst the best known of Friðrik Þór’s films are Börn náttúrunnar (1991, Children of Nature (an Oscar nominee for best foreign film in 1992), Englar alheimsins (2000, Angels of the Universe), the documentary Sólskinsdrengurinn (2008, The Sunshine Boy, A mother's Courage) and his newest film Mamma Gógó (2010).
Baltasar Kormákur has directed and produced many movies such as 101 Reykjavik 2001, A little trip to heaven, 2006, which is a thriller starring Julia Stiles and Forest Whitaker, Grafarþögn (2010, Silence of the grave), based on Arnaldur Indriðason's novel with the same title and Contraband (2012) a thriller starring Mark Wahlberg and Kate Beckinsale based on the film Reykjavík-Rotterdam written by Óskar Jónasson and Arnaldur Indriðason.
In the new age of Icelandic cinema, one can see many promising buds. With financial help from the Icelandic Film Fund and a greater number of subsidies, more collaborations with overseas parties, plans by foreign film companies for projects in Iceland, and the many young, up and coming, film directors are indications of a bright future for Icelandic cinema.
Peter Cowie has written about Icelandic films: Icelandic Films (1995) and Icelandic Films 1980-2000 (2001).