Doc and Awe: IceDocs film festival review

The film festival industry may be oversaturated, but there's room for more when the curation is as sharp as that in IceDocs, a new documentary festival in Akranes, Iceland. We report back from what is hopefully the first of many editions

Feature by Patrick Gamble | 26 Jul 2019
  • Honeyland

“Right now, this festival is a small seed, but hopefully in 100 years it’ll grow into a huge oak,” announced festival organiser Ingibjörg Halldórsdóttir during the closing ceremony of the inaugural edition of IceDocs. Despite being only 40 minutes away from Reykjavík, Ingibjörg’s hometown of Akranes has largely missed out on the tourist boom that has fuelled the Icelandic economy. But hopefully that’s about to change, as this former fishing town in Western Iceland is now home to the country’s first-ever documentary film festival. 

Creating an annual, multi-day arts event from scratch is no easy task, but Icedocs was clearly a labour of love for Ingibjörg and co-founders Heiðar Mar Björnsson and Hallur Örn Árnason. “I was a bit lost after leaving Reykjavik International Film Festival,” Ingibjörg tells us when asked why she decided to take on the daunting task of starting her own festival. “Almost every conversation I have starts with me saying ‘I just saw this amazing documentary!’

"When I met Hallur, we were both in a cinema watching a documentary and there was nowhere near as many people there as we would have liked. At times it was challenging, but thankfully there are three of us. Whenever I started to think that maybe this was a crazy idea the other two were quick to shut me down.”

With a population of roughly 7500 people, Akranes might be small, but Ingibjörg’s ambitions are huge. Taking inspiration from other nonfiction festivals like Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX and MakeDox in Skopje, IceDocs offered guests and local audiences the opportunity to experience over 40 films that celebrate the diversity and versatility of documentary filmmaking. “We knew it would take time for locals and sponsors to understand what we’re trying to do in Akranes, but I believe we are on the right track. I hope IceDocs can become a festival where guests can meet other like-minded people.”

Geared towards bringing industry guests and locals together through a mutual love of non-fiction filmmaking, the success of this year’s programme was reflected in the Audience Award and jury prize for Best Feature being awarded to the same film; Joost Vandebrug’s Bruce Lee and the Outlaw (★★★★☆). Shot over seven years, the film chronicles the life of Nicu, a Romanian orphan brought up in the subterranean tunnels of Bucharest. Like many of these street kids, who were abandoned after the collapse of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime, he was adopted by Bruce Lee, the city’s notorious ‘King of the Underworld’, spending his days begging for money and huffing noxious substances from a plastic bag.

Better known for his photography work, Vandebrug uses his camera to shed light on the social injustices children like Nicu experience. However, the strength of this poetic portrait of life on (and below) the streets of Bucharest is the relationship that develops between director and subject. As Nicu’s situation worsens, Vandebrug’s inability to switch off his feelings become palpable, and the film expands into a fascinating exploration into the ethics of intervention in documentary filmmaking.

One of the unspoken joys of festivals is the unexpected repetition of a theme or motif across otherwise unconnected films. It would have been easy for IceDocs to programme uplifting, audience-friendly documentaries, but instead they shirked the prescriptions of global festival tastes and curated a selection of films that reflected the thematic obsessions of Iceland’s national cinema. From Fridrik Thór Fridriksson’s Children of Nature to more contemporary films like Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams and Benedikt Erlingsson’s Horses and Men, Icelandic cinema has often explored the relationship between landscape, cultivation and the island’s capricious weather. 

“We found in this first edition that this closeness to nature is something we can explore a bit more,” Ingibjörg tells us when asked about the festival’s role in promoting local cinema. “Both Heiðar and Hallur are filmmakers and through spending time with them I’ve learnt how tough it is to make films in Iceland. I hope within the next five years we'll see more local involvement in the festival and will be able to support local filmmakers wanting to work on larger projects.”

The festival’s focus on how ecology informs our worldview was best observed in Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s visually poetic debut Honeyland (★★★★☆). A film attuned to the wonders of nature and the power of traditions, Honeyland provides a humanist snapshot of the cost of unsustainable growth by chronicling the life of a beekeeper living in the hills of Macedonia. Observing how her harmonious life is disturbed by the arrival of a family whose pursuit of wealth ends up having a detrimental effect on the area, the film tragically captures a forgotten way of life that has all but vanished.

The way topographies dictate storytelling was another theme that unified the films in this year’s competition strand. For example, Russian director Ksenia Elyan originally intended her feature-length debut, How Big is the Galaxy? (★★★★☆), to tell the story of a teacher moving to the extreme north of Siberia to home-school seven-year-old Zakhar Zharkov and his older brother Prokopy. These two boys belong to the Dolgan community, and would normally have been sent to a boarding school. However, due to a new initiative, they can now stay with their parents so they don’t become estranged from their culture and nomadic traditions. When Elyan encountered their everyday way of life: herding reindeer, ice fishing and the preparing of carcasses on the icy tundra, the focus on the documentary changed – transforming into an evocative (and often humorous) depiction of the cosmic interplay between tradition and place. 

Another film concerned with braving the harshest of elements was Mladen Kovacevic’s 4 years in 10 minutes (★★★★☆), an experimental film about Dragan Jacimovic, the first Serbian to climb Mount Everest. Although weaved together from DV camera footage Jacimovic shot during his ascent, this gripping essay film is far more concerned with plumbing the depths of the human psyche than understanding what it takes to conquer the world’s highest peak. Text from Jacimovic’s diary provides a window into his mind, underpinning his triumph against altitude sickness, frostbite and the extreme weather with the futility of his achievements and the surprising emptiness of success.

Animus Animalis (★★★☆☆), Aiste Zegulyte’s plunge into the peculiar world of taxidermy, was a beautifully rendered meditation on the distinction between reality and artificiality that aims to subvert society’s anthropocentric gaze. Observing the process of killing, skinning and eviscerating animals, only to painstakingly restore them to their original beauty, Zegulyte adopts a non-judgemental approach, creating a hauntingly hypnotic study of the complicated, and often absurd, relationship between animals and humans. 

Non-fiction filmmaking comes in all shapes and sizes, and beyond the competition strand, IceDocs also screened short and medium-length features. Johannes Gierlinger’s Remapping the Origins (★★★★☆), a fascinating essay film about the Polish city of Białystock and the difficulty of dealing with history and memory in a pluralistic space, was pipped to the Medium Length prize by Christian Einshøj’s Haunted (★★☆☆☆). Einshøj’s documentary about his mother’s encounter with a spiritual apparition asks if ghosts are a presence from the past or a manifestation of something lost but not forgotten. Unfortunately, the questions the film poses are far more interesting than how they’re asked in this impenetrably personal film.

The prize for Best Short Film was less contentious and went to Corina Schwingruber Ilic’s All Inclusive (★★★★★), an anthropological study of late-capitalist excess and the commoditisation of luxury. Depicting life on-board a cruise liner, the film is a surreal and absurdly funny depiction of society’s insatiable appetite for everyday happiness. 

Recognising the value of curation when programming in the face of a complacent and oversubscribed film festival industry, IceDocs should be commended for rising to the task of organising a festival that acknowledges and embraces the changing tides of documentary filmmaking. Improbably, this tiny festival held in the land of fire and ice has proven itself an enterprising example of how to turn your hometown into a hotbed of nonfiction filmmaking. “The main aim was for it to be fun,” Ingibjörg tells us. “If guests and staff are happy then it’s mission accomplished.”

The first IceDocs took place in Akranes, Iceland, 17-21 Jul