After studying Project Management at the University of Iceland, co-founding and managing an employment resource center for young people as well as a therapeutic center for young drug addicts from 1997 to 2006 and serving as Vice City Councilor at the Reykjavik City Council from 2002 to 2010, Marzibil Snæfríðar Sæmundardóttir decided it was time to change careers and made the pivot from politics and social welfare to film. In 2011, she became a Board Member of WIFT Island – a position she has held for seven years while mostly freelancing in filmmaking. She also worked as a project manager for a few years at the Northern Wave Film Festival. In 2010, she founded her production company, arCus.films, graduated, three years later, from the Icelandic Film School where she now teaches scriptwriting and mentors new generations of Icelandic filmmakers, and finally became the director of the Stockfish Film Festival in 2015. Marzibil has a few short films to her name – “Freyja” (2011), “Jón Jónsson” (2013), “The Unicorn” (2014) – all highly acclaimed on the short film festival circuit. She will be filming her new short film in September.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Stockfish Film Festival.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Marzibil Snæfríðar Sæmundardóttir: I’ve always loved films and I’m a film festival buff. I love intimate festivals in the countryside. I was doing that way before I started studying filmmaking and knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. But I spent eight years doing other things that overlapped with eight other years doing other things including politics where I was in the Reykjavik welfare committee and running simultaneously a drug rehab center for young addicts and then, I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore. I thought: “Why didn’t I do the art thing I always wanted to do?” When I knew I was going to stop doing politics, I took a coaching seminar and it was mainly to help me find out what I really wanted to do. I knew it was Art related. I knew I wanted to be able to have influence. I knew I wanted to write. I knew it had to be project-based and I knew I wanted to meet a lot of people. This is filmmaking in its essence. So I went to film school in 2009, when I was thirty-five years old.
Can you talk about your work as director of the Stockfish Film Festival and how do you combine it with your filmmaking career?
M.S.S.: This is my fourth year as director of the Stockfish Film Festival. It’s a five-months paid job, but I work all year round. In-between, I get time to write and I also teach a little at the Icelandic Film School, so I combine these three things together and it’s starting to work out now. Being a writer-director in Iceland and having a passion for that is the hardest way to get money in the film industry. My projects always take a lot of time to be written, so being a film festival buff and managing Stockfish has helped me do something I love and have an income and then, during the other seven months of the year, I can focus on my writing and eventually filming my work.
Are you working on a feature film right now?
M.S.S.: Yes. Actually, I recently got the first scriptwriting grant from the Icelandic Film Center to write a feature and I am really excited about that! That’s what I am going to do in spring. It’s a really low-budget film, but it has three layers and it’s going to be a challenge to write it in full. I’m going back to the Icelandic roots of hidden people and ghosts. The story is kind of basic – the hero’s journey is about how the character changes while on a mission to find what he/she is seeking. The base is really Icelandic and the story is a suspense supernatural drama/thriller that is mostly taking place in one location, a farm.
Is that what inspires you and what you have the need to talk about in your films?
M.S.: I always want to take things beyond reality. That’s kind of who I am. I want people to know there’s more than meets the eye and more than meets the ear. We can take this reality and take it into many other dimensions or levels and that’s what I want to do in my films so that people maybe start to sense that there is something more there. I always go to magic realism or something of the sort.
What can you say about the concept of Stockfish besides the coziness, friendliness and the nurturing of the Icelandic film community?
M.S.S: I actually have a lot of passion for this festival. We’ve had very little money to do it for years and people who were in this position before me quit. I love helping people make good connections, network and get opportunities – people who already are in the industry and people who are starting out in the industry. I know connections are everything and I love connecting people. We are working for the Icelandic filmmakers, of course, and I love to see their work progress because of some connection they made at Stockfish and I’ve seen that a lot of times. I would want that when I make my films. I would want people to help me because I know this is really hard, so I want to do everything to help other filmmakers. But I am also a “randomist” and there is no such thing as a coincidence, so the people who are here, there’s a reason why they are here.
What is in store for Stockfish? What are your plans for the festival?
M.S.S.: To stay the same regarding its heart, but to have more money to empower it further. The only thing we need is more money and I think that’s going to happen for the next edition – I hope it does – but I don’t want to expand or grow bigger. The intimacy is everything and for the foreign guests who come here to have such closeness, to network and to meet Icelandic filmmakers and get to know each other, that’s the most important thing. Our industry events are very important for Icelandic filmmakers. We have master classes, panels, workshops etc. where professionals from all over the world educate with their knowledge. Other important things include having this small number of high-quality films and being in this art-house cinema, Bíó Paradís. Icelandic fiilm guests need to have the opportunity to see the best festival films.
Can you talk about the film festival scene in Iceland and Stockfish’s part in it?
M.S.S.: Like I told you before, I’m a film festival buff and up until a few years ago I had been attending all the film festivals, especially in the countryside in Iceland. I would take a road trip with my friends to attend film festivals like Northern Wave in Snæfellsbær and Skjaldborg documentary film festival in the Westfjords. I just love the atmosphere – watching good films in really magical surroundings. These festivals are really different, but being with other filmmakers in this community in such a closed atmosphere, I just loved it! I don’t like really big festivals so much, so maybe that’s why I am not emphasizing on making Stockfish bigger, just increasing its quality. I showed three of my short films at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, which was great. But regarding Stockfish’s place on the film festival scene in Iceland, all I can say is that it is getting more important every year and it’s one of a kind.
Icelandic cinema is experiencing a boom especially abroad. What was Stockfish’s input in that in the last few years?
M.S.S.: A big one! Because our foreign industry guests such as the press or the festival directors and programmers come and meet our filmmakers, especially at the works-in-progress sessions and at dinners. They make connections and they know what’s coming from Iceland and they write about it or they program it and they think: “Oh, I saw this film in works-in-progress at Stockfish. I really want to see this film. Can I get a screener? I really want to see how it turned out.” One year, we had a delegation from Estonia and after that, two Icelandic films that needed to finish funding, got it from the Estonian Film Center and they shot some locations there and got a part of the crew from Estonia. Two feature films were completed because of connections at Stockfish and I love it. This is what Stockfish is all about!
Can you talk about the Nordic Female Filmmakers Meeting Point? How did that come about and what made you decide to make it an annual event?
M.S.S.: It was such a success last year! It was actually my idea to have it last year because a good friend of mine, Dögg Mosesdóttir who I was on the WIFT Iceland board with, was talking about female filmmakers and how they need to collaborate more and how we need to understand each other more and work more together. For instance, we almost don’t have a female D.o.P. in Iceland. The thought was to have the female D.o.Ps, editors, directors, producers, actresses – everyone – meet, talk and collaborate and preferably work together after that. I’ve seen that after both editions of the Nordic Female Filmmakers Meeting Point! They love having met each other, sharing wisdom and seeing the work!
What is your opinion on the current situation of women in film? What is it like in Iceland?
M.S.: I actually don’t know. I was really inspired by the panel. I am going to become more aggressive! But I am forty-four years old. If I send something to the Icelandic Film Center and it doesn’t go through, then I’d do it again and again and again! I am doing it now, but I didn’t do it before! It’s been nine years since I graduated. I am doing it now. I don’t know what changed. I think it’s me. Actually, I was inspired by Annika Hellström when she said that sometimes when she was doing things and got insecure, she would just think about how guys would do it and they would be just really assertive! And they do it! I tell myself: “Stop being such a perfectionist, just do it and be assertive about it; just want it and get it!” And I decided to do that! Maybe that’s why I am starting to do something of my own projects finally! And in terms of the situation, it’s getting better. I’m also a teacher at the Icelandic Film School and the quality is improving. I have a lot of women in my classes, so I am so happy with that – even in the technical fields, like cinematography, editing, etc. I can see that the future is brighter because there are real talents out there!
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Stockfish Film Festival.