The blurred line between history and myth

(Skrifað 15.10.1996 fyrir dagskrárblað IDFA-hátíðarinnar í Amsterdam. Sem betur fer hefur heimildamyndin risið úr öskustónni hér á landi síðan þetta var skrifað. En það leit ekki vel út.)


With a few exceptions, Icelandic filmmakers seem to equate the documentary with the propaganda film, approaching their subjects in a venerable fashion, shunning criticism but favouring idolation or complacency. This state of affairs bears perhaps witness to the nation’s preference for myths over social analysis. If anything, the Icelandic documentary has more in common with the romantic aesthetic of the Leni Riefenstahl school of filmmaking (if lacking somewhat in the visionary conviction) than the prevailing trend of the European documentary as a tool for piercing social commentary.

Contributing factor could be that the Icelanders have long practised the art of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story, resulting in a rather blurred line between history and myth. It’s also important to recognize that the main source of documentary financing (apart from the thirty year old Icelandic State Television – RUV) has either been a public body/institution or a company of some sort, in most cases requiring a favourable documentation.

RUV: The desert of mediocrity
The history of documentary filmmaking at RUV is unfortunately a history of wasted opportunities. RUV’s main emphasis has been on travellogues and historical programmes, most of them projecting a self-congratulatory view of our past and environment. Watched over and successfully penetrated by conservative politics, RUV has been run with calculated indifference (or extensive ignorance) to the possibilities of the documentary.

Instead of building on the knowledge and sensibilities of the (albeit few) existing filmmakers, the station initially decided to ignore them and put documentary filmmaking in the hands of reporters. Time has seen little change in this modus operandi, leading to considerable trivialisation of the documentary form. Occasionally RUV has aired documentaries made by filmmakers, but many of them seem to follow the RUV tradition of either adulating portraits or unchallenging reportage. The result of this policy is painfully obvious thirty years later: no sense of achievement, developed aesthetics or chain of thought, with a few accidental flashes of brilliance in a desert of undulating mediocrity.

The Icelandic Film Fund has also not been particularly supportive of documentaries, adopting to concentrate its limited resources on feature films. Filmmakers attempts to get a larger slice or establish a special Documentary Fund have not been successful. To add insult to injury, the less than decade old Cultural Broadcasting Fund, originally conceived to encourage quality programming, has succeeded at best in extending the status quo, but mostly it’s been unable to carry out its brief effectively.

The spectacle of nature
Turning their cameras away from social issues and towards nature, Icelandic filmmakers tend to fare better. This has more to do with the spectacle of the subject itself than inventive filmmaking. Several interesting documentaries have been made on volcanic activities, for example Fire at Heimaey by Ósvaldur and Vilhjálmur Knudsen (Eldur í Heimaey, 1974) and Days of Destruction by Páll Steingrímsson and Ernst Kettler (Eldeyjan, 1973). Both the multiple award-winning films deal with the 1973 eruption in Vestmannaeyjar (a cluster of islands off the south coast), and contrast human drama with spectacular natural disaster as the inhabitants of the main island are forced to evacuate their home and leave it at the mercy of the advancing lava.

Appearing from time to time are enticing descriptions of landscape and wildlife and quite a number of documentaries have also dealt with the subject of fishing – the nation’s single largest source of revenue. Surprisingly few of them deal with the relationship between man and sea, with the majority delineating fishing methods or fishing history. The crowning achievement in this category would be The Fisheries Fortress by Erlendur Sveinsson, Sigurður Sverrir Pálsson and Thorarinn Guðnason (Verstöðin Ísland, 1992).

This four-hour/four part documentary deals with the history of seamanship and fishing in Iceland, describing the radical technical and economical changes the business has gone through up to the present. The last part of the documentary, Year at Sea (Ár í útgerð) follows a year in the life of a trawler’s and smaller fishing boat’s crew respectively, managing to give a vivid account of the present day predicament.

The personal approach
A bit off the beaten track of the “typical” Icelandic documentary, are the early works of film directors Friðrik Thor Friðriksson and Thorsteinn Jónsson.

The three documentaries Friðriksson made in the early eighties point to his interest in the potential of the creative documentary: portraying an isolated inventor with a touch of magical lyricism in The Blacksmith (Eldsmiðurinn, 1981); capturing the raw energy of the Reykjavík punk-rock scene of the early eighties in Rock in Reykjavík (Rokk í Reykjavík, 1982); and observing with a mixture of glee and affection a surreal Country & Western festival in the north of Iceland in Icelandic Cowboys (Kúrekar norðursins, 1984). One can also detect in these films some of the seeds of his subsequent work in feature films.

Director Jónsson graduated from the documentary department of the FAMU film school in Prague, at the beginning of the seventies. During the early seventies he made several documentaries for RUV, observing various aspects of everyday life: cultural consumption in a small fishing town in A Fish Beneath a Stone (Fiskur undir steini, 1974); living in a hippy commune in Vital Signs (Lífsmark, 1974); the life and times of an industrial worker/single mother in Daily Bread (Daglegt brauð, 1975); and portraying a carbage collector who spends his money on alcohol and books in Ash Wednesday (Öskudagur, 1975).

These highly personal films are a world apart from the usual RUV material and their appearance caused quite a stir in its day, with many viewers finding them painting their society in a grossly offensive and unfavourable light. It’s therefore unsurprising that RUV chose in 1975 to discontinue further excursions of this – or any – kind from Jónsson, who hasn’t worked for the station since. From the same year is his award-winning and independently made Farmer (Bóndi, 1975), a lyrical portrait of a lone farmer in an isolated fjord who faces the end of his farming days, just as a road is built through his home valley.

Both Friðriksson and Jónsson gave up documentary filmmaking due to lack of finance and turned to making feature films.

Against the odds
Most of the younger filmmakers do not seem interested in the documentary, making its future a matter of conjecture. One can hardly blame them, as enthusiasm can hardly been expected after decades of neglect and disregard for this powerful form of cinema. In the wasteland of complacent attitudes its future nevertheless rests with a new generation of Icelandic filmmakers who dare to make personal – and therefore political – films.

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