A film enthusiast since she was eight years old thanks to her older brother, Ása Baldursdóttir has four University degrees. She first studied History and Art Theory, “a very good background for anyone who is trying to crack the code of being a storyteller or just analyzing Film in general” – according to her. She then received a Master’s Degree in Journalism and another one in Culture and Communication and later studied Photography. At University, she started a film club in order to show Icelandic films to foreign students. At the time, while working at the University, she also decided to take the archive of the institution’s cinema and start a new screening schedule to showcase the archive’s cinematic treasures. She then worked in the programming department of the Reykjavík International Film Festival and moved to Bíó Paradís in 2013. Bíó Paradís was founded in 2010 by the professional societies of filmmakers of Iceland and is the only art-house cinema in Iceland as well as the only one with a Bechdel Test in place!
Tara Karajica caught up with Ása Baldursdóttir at this year’s Stockfish Film Festival, which she is also programming.
Can you talk about Bíó Paradís and its film education work?
Ása Baldursdóttir: We organize the first and only Reykjavík International Children’s Film Festival. I started it with my colleague, Hrönn Sveinsdóttir, the director of the cinema. We dub films and get support from the European Union. We apply for Media Selective and Distribution grants for that and we also work with the Nordisk Film and TV Fund. Our children and youth have this language barrier; we are not included in the Scandinavian culture of languages because at some point Sweden, Norway and Denmark can understand each other, but we are a little bit excluded because Icelandic is more like old Norse. This is why access to material for kids is limited as we have to either dub it or when they are older – seven or eight – at least have subtitles. So the costs of just having a festival are higher. What we did with the unions of filmmakers from the start is organize film literacy classes for all school ages, with an authorized film theorist, the one and only in the country who is licensed to teach each age group, from kindergarten all the way to university. Her name is Oddný Sen. She is one of the best because she has also created educational programs that she has been putting into practice for the past eight years. Now, we have a generation growing up here that has been watching films in this cinema with a purpose; not just watching them, but also having discussions afterwards with themes and film theory tasks. This is just amazing because, I think, in many educational systems – and this is a global thing – you have a teacher and a TV in a classroom and it’s never on this level: a Dolby digital screening with a great sound system and a licensed teacher…
What is the film culture in Iceland like?
A.B.: Islanders have been very Americanized with their film culture. We received the most Marshall Assistance after World War II and the American culture was very prominent here for decades and decades. Iceland got its independence in 1944. Before that, we were a Danish colony. Islanders started making their own films for real in 1981-1982, so we are a very young filmmaking nation. We have never had a Film School with a University Degree in Iceland. We have an independent school that graduates people with diplomas, but that is not on a Bachelor’s level. There is no State Film School like in many other countries. The first film festival that was founded here in Iceland was in 1978 by the acclaimed film director Friðrik þór Friðriksson who was also a pioneer in that sense.
What you can you say about the boom that the Iceland film industry is currently experiencing?
A.B.: We are now experiencing the blossoming of Icelandic filmmaking because the films that we are making here are receiving a lot of international awards. For example, we just had our local Oscars, the Eddas, and the host said: “Did you know, last year Icelandic films received seventy-nine international awards?” He took into account short and feature films. But I just have to mention that Icelandic films that are being made here on average count are three to four each year, so this success ratio is really high. We are even our own genre; people abroad are like: “Oh, Icelandic Film.” They know about us!
Can you talk about the Stockfish Film Festival?
A.B.: Friðrik þór Friðriksson started making films at the beginning of the ‘80s, and he named this festival the Reykjavík Film Festival. This festival made a pause, if you will, and its last year was in 2001. And then, another festival was founded in 2004, run by Hrönn Marinósdóttir and called Reykjavík International Film Festival. So when the Union of National Filmmakers decided to revive the old festival, they could not use the old name. The reason behind that is that it is just too similar to the other, and people get so confused. We decided to rename the festival Stockfish Film Festival, which is a really good name, because we are referring to the oldest commodity that Iceland is exporting – its oldest and best export – which is stockfish.
Stockfish is a platform to make real connections between our local filmmaking society and the foreign knowledge we bring here through our guests, our events, and everything that is on the program. I program the festival. These titles are handpicked and the artistic focus is diversity. But this is also an audience festival, so we are also serving the locals who live here. They can get the chance to see art-house titles and award-winning films from international film festivals. For example, this year, we have two Oscar-nominated films in the Best Foreign Language category of the Academy Awards, A Fantastic Woman by Sebastián Lelio and Loveless by Andrey Zvyagintsev. But the beauty of Stockfish is that this small field of filmmakers in Iceland participates; they come and they participate, which is exactly serving the manifesto of the festival – that we are showcasing us and our films with a works-in-progress program. We want filmmakers to come and meet you journalists or other international guests, and have these local and small conversations that we can build up on because, sometimes, at bigger festivals you just get lost at cocktails or you don’t have this intimate talk with someone because there are just so many people. Some festivals do arrange something very close-knit like we do, of course. But I’m just saying that Reykjavík is a small town and everything is on a smaller scale with us. And I think it’s important to remember the per capita. We are 330,000 in the whole country. We are around 120,000 in the Reykjavík area. It’s a very small field in that sense, but we are very big in our hearts.
So, basically, Stockfish wants to nurture its film community, right?
And it wants to stay like this? It doesn’t want to expand?
A.B.: Yes… No, expansion – we are just staying like this. Also, a fun fact is that many Icelandic filmmakers have studied at FAMU in Prague and we have established a close relationship with FAMU three years ago. So Midpoint has been working with us. This is a fantastic cooperation because our locals can apply with their scripts and an expert comes here. This, of course, is not open to the public, but it is bringing in knowledge and sharing it.
And it’s only aimed at Icelandic filmmakers?
A.B.: Of course. And this is really important. Even though people don’t consider this as a factor anymore, we are geographically isolated; we can’t just take a train. We have to take flights and it’s not as easy for us to pop up for a seminar in Copenhagen for instance; it’s just more effort. I’m not saying it’s not easy to travel – because it is today – but we are an island and we just want to serve our community because we start there, we start with the infrastructure. Maybe in twenty years we can have it open to everyone, but we have to take care of ourselves.
You work as a programmer for the cinema when you are not working for Stockfish. How do you combine the two?
A.B.: I combine them completely because what I do is that I travel to the biggest film festivals and watch films and I already know that I am programming two festivals, one cinema, and then also I have the distribution angle in mind. So when I watch content, I’m just having all angles open for me as a programmer because I am the only one here in Iceland who is doing this on such a broad scale.
You’re really the only programmer?
A.B.: I would say I am the only programmer who is doing cinema, festivals, film days, distribution, distribution that we sell to TV, distribution that we sell to VOD… For this kind of material, I’m the only one.
What other festivals do you program for?
A.B.: We have just this cinema, so what we do is, for example, the Reykjavík International Children’s Film Festival. We had Reykjavík Shorts and Docs for eleven years, but we decided to stop it because it was little bit underfunded and we included that sector in Stockfish. This is why, for example, we have a documentary speaker and we have documentaries in the program. For example, we screen the Nordic Film Prize nominees. There are a lot of innovative events that we program. Maybe they don’t happen annually or they are just one-off things. It’s really hard to pinpoint, but as of 2018, we have two big festivals that I program. Since my time here, I’ve been programming all sorts of things that you could call mini festivals or film days… The oldest one is the German Film Days and it’s one of the most popular annual film events in Iceland. So I can’t just categorize that, but the versatility of the programming is humongous.
How is your work as a programmer being received by the audience?
A.B.: Very well. We’ve been building our audiences. We’ve been trying to serve the community better. For instance, for the past two years, we’ve been doing very well with popular classic films that are nostalgic and we’ve been branding this the “Friday Night Party Screenings” and we’ve been doing a lot of social media work and asking people what they want to see. And if people are very interested in Titanic, we will just program it. It’s a social thing to do. Also, all layers of society come to the cinema, which is ultimately our purpose. Since last fall, I have been booking Polish films and this is very good because the Polish community is the biggest one in Iceland. We’ve had Polish Film Days from the start, but we are booking new Polish titles that are premiering now in Poland and screening them here maybe two or three days after their premiere there, so they are just brand new. The Polish community has been just so appreciative of this because they are a little bit starved of their own culture and they have a language barrier just like us. The reason behind their language barrier is the dubbing culture in Poland. At least, we have watched American and English films from the start, but we are not used to dubbing. We do it just for the children and it’s not the same level. So they are so happy that we can screen something in Polish. We are considering to have Polish subtitles on something that is foreign language in the future, just to serve the community. So we’ve been doing a lot of different kinds of things for the last years just to broaden up this cultural house that we are, not to just be an art-house, but also bring back the cinema experience and things that we can intertwine with our regular program.
We also distribute quite some titles every year just out of need. And I say out of need because our main purpose is not distribution – we are non profit – but because other distribution companies are not buying these titles.
So the role of Bíó Paradís is not only to screen films, but also to serve the community in more ways than one? How does it stand with the community it seeks to serve? Are people coming to see these films often? Are the screenings packed?
A.B.: Yes! We are slowly building our audiences throughout the years. It’s not packed. Not at all. But we are slowly but surely bringing different kinds of film cultures here in Iceland because we can’t just forget that before us there was nothing. It was 95%, 96%, 97% American Hollywood films, so when you have never had this culture and you start from the beginning, it’s, of course, a cultural hill to climb. Everyone knows this in the communities on the fringe. You know, in your country out in the countryside… We are that countryside. Do you know what I mean?
Of course I do! I’d say you have a big educational role.
A.B.: Of course! It’s like film literacy for all ages! I think, the main beauty of this all is the accessibility of diverse film cultures. That is Bíó Paradís!
What about the situation of women in the film industry, according to you? How is it in Iceland?
A.B.: I am so happy that in 2018, I can proudly say: “Three women have released their films since last fall.” They are all first-time feature directors. The first of them is Ása Hjörleifsdóttir with her film The Swan which premiered at the Toronto International Film festival last fall. The next one is Gudrún Ragnarsdóttir, who premiered her film, Summer Children, here. This was the first Icelandic feature film that premiered at Bíó Paradís ever – in October last year. And it was also amazing that Gudrún Ragnarsdóttir had two female producers working on that film. And then there is Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, And Breathe Normally, that premiered at Sundance in January 2018 for which she actually received the Best Director Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, and it’s just really, really good. I just came back from the Berlinale where Mara Solrun premiered her second feature that she financed by herself. It was not funded by the Icelandic Government, so it was also powerful to see a film that was chosen in the Berlinale’s “Generation 14plus” made by a female director who managed to find financing outside Iceland.
There have only been two women making films before and one of them, Kristín Jóhannesdóttir, is working on her second feature film, Alma. She made her first feature a long, long time ago. I am so looking forward to the future of women in filmmaking. The most awarded TV show at this year’s Edda Awards was Prisoners that is now on Netflix. The idea sprung from female actresses that were writing about female prisoners in Iceland. And I can count endless projects that are now in development that I know are either being produced by women or directed by women. I think that there are many who are waiting for answers.
But I can tell you the gap that was existing before is a problem and it should be addressed. The Reykjavík Grapevine, the only English-speaking medium on a regular basis here in Iceland, published an article on this and it is very interesting because its headline read: “Total of Icelandic Women in Movies Hits Lowest Number Since the 1970s.” I would say that this is a very good read because it’s referring to numbers, the gap and the statistics from 2010… That being said, there is something happening with women in film in Iceland that I’ve just told you about because I’m counting all these women… I can see visual changes and I hope it continues like this…
This interview was conducted at the 2018 Stockfish Film Festival.