Fifteen years ago, Hrönn Marinosdóttir started the Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF) as a University project. She decided she would research what it would take for the capital of Iceland to host a major film festival as the subject for her Master’s thesis. Three weeks after graduation, she began to work to make her thesis a reality. Eighteen films were screened at the first edition of RIFF in 2004. Before going back to University for her M.A., Hrönn was a journalist at the “Morgunbladid Newspaper” in Iceland from 1994 to 2003 and a news correspondent in Berlin, Germany, for various Icelandic newspapers and news agencies from 1992 to 1994. During those two years, Hrönn also studied Political Science in Berlin. In 1992, she graduated in Political Science from the University of Iceland. Today, she runs the Reykjavik International Film Festival and has been simultaneously giving lectures on Cinema and film-related subjects at the University of Iceland and other schools.
Tara Karajica talks to Hrönn Marinosdóttir about RIFF’s beginnings, the festival and its program, Iceland as a film country, as well as her career.
For your M.A. Thesis at the Reykjavik University, you decided to research what it would take for Reykjavik to host a major international film festival and three weeks after graduation, you began working on it. Can you talk about that?
Hrönn Marinosdóttir: This idea came about, sort of like a coincidence, in a way. But, on the other hand, you never know what is supposed to happen. I come from a cinema background; my family used to run a cinema when I lived in Spain and when I came back home, a friend and I organized a very popular Spanish Film Festival. I was a journalist and I attended the Berlinale a few times and saw what is possible to do in cities regarding film festivals. I was very inspired, so lots of pieces came together. I decided to take a break from journalism and started my MBA. There, I was lucky enough to have very good teachers who know a lot about business, so I got a lot of help from them and my fellow students. At the time, there was no big film festival in Reykjavik, so I used my studies and did a big research about the Icelandic environment and the city and found out it is actually a good place to have festivals like RIFF. I also did a big research about different festivals like Telluride and Berlinale and compared them to what we could do here in Reykjavik. I had my third baby in October 2004, and the first edition of the festival took place that same year in November; it was small, with around eighteen films devoted to Icelandic filmmakers working abroad. We had an Icelandic/Canadian focus with Sturla Gunnarsson and Guy Maddin. Together with a group of filmmakers, that year, we got grants from the Ministry of Culture and the city of Reykjavik to start this event. All went very well, so we decided to continue.
You have seen your thesis through to an extent that you could never have imagined when you began this journey, right? How did you exceed your expectations? What were the best surprises? The biggest challenges? The little victories?
H.M.: That is true! It’s been an unbelievable journey and I would never have made it without the great support from the staff, volunteers and interns from all over the world. Our budget is quite small, but with the support from sponsors and the Media grant, for example, we have managed to create a wonderful event with a special character that suits the city of Reyjkavik very well. I was also fortunate early on to get Helga Stephenson of Canadian and Icelandic origins and former director of TIFF as my mentor, and she pointed Dimitri Eipides out to me, and we hired him as program director in 2005. He was so motivated to create a very special event in Reykjavik. We owe him a lot. Eipides worked for Toronto and Thessaloniki as well. In 2010, Giorgio Gosetti, also a well-known programmer, took his position and our cooperation is fantastic. So in Reykjavik, we have new films, a focus on new talent in our New Vision section and more. The big challenge is to run it without steady support. And I had no idea it would involve politics. In 2010, when RIFF became really successful, I found out that some other people – a little group of filmmakers – wanted to run the festival in my place as I do not come from that background. So it has not always been easy. It’s a challenge, but the beauty is that it works so well now when all the stake holders, the City, the Ministry of Culture, the companies and others work together for the same goal to create a unique film event in Reykjavik that is a good way to promote Iceland as a film country and is the reason for international filmmakers to come to Reykjavik and get to know the country and possibilities here. Also, for the Icelandic public to see new films from all over the world and to sometimes push boundaries. For the Icelandic film industry, it is also very important to meet people from the industry abroad and see the latest films and get inspired. It takes many years to build events like this. And I am not so sure I would do it again if I had known all the challenges, but today I am very proud and happy. As a woman, I guess, I stepped on a few toes here in Iceland, but all is good today…
How has the festival evolved since its inception?
H.M.: From around eighteen films in 2004. In 2005, we started with the same sections we have today, a focus on new talent, but we also invite auteurs to come, and every year, we award film directors. This year, it is Claire Denis and last year, it was Sergei Loznitsa and Mads Mikkelsen. We have a special section with films on the environment and social issues. For many, the festival has become a standard in the fall, so on the last Thursday in September and for eleven days, they join RIFF, which is great because the attendance has increased a lot. We have new films from Toronto and Venice, many Nordic premiers… We have an industry program and a Talent Lab workshop for forty young international filmmakers.
What turned out to be the best thing about the Reykjavik International Film Festival?
H.M.: I think the city is a good place for a film festival and at RIFF, you get to see a rather small program on the international scale, but we select films very carefully, so there is something for everyone. Also, since the city is small, you get to meet everyone, so filmmakers feel very welcome and close to the audience when they come to RIFF. Icelanders are also very curious people and eager to see and experience new things.
Your work as a journalist certainly helps you in the way you run the festival and look for films as your senses are fine-tuned to what people want to see, what they should and what is relevant and what not in terms of the programming. Can you comment on that?
H.M.: That is true. We select films that we believe in and that are of good quality, so the audience has started to trust our taste. I also know the society quite well and have a feeling about what is of interest. What I love the most is when we manage to screen films that make a difference and help the discussion in society, films about the life that we live and how we can even improve it. It’s good if festivals can really take part in discussions and improve things. We have many talks at RIFF in order to help a discussion. For instance, the film Push is a good example, but there are other, too.
In that sense, what is the selection process like? What do you look for when selecting films for RIFF?
H.M.: We look for films that have quality and that we believe will not be a waste of time for the audience. Films with different stories and experiences. Films that can sometimes make your brain work even harder. Films with a lot of entertainment and artistic value and that sometimes show us, like in the New Vision section, new ways of working with this medium. I sometimes feel that RIFF is a medium – you go to a screening and you find something new and people’s experience with each film is different. At RIFF, we love finding new talent and also presenting those that are true auteurs. Our previous guests of honor were, among others, Jim Jarmusch, Susanne Bier, David Cronenberg, Mike Leigh, Milos Forman, Darren Aronofsky, Werner Herzog, Peter Greenaway, Lone Scherfig, Abbas Kiarostami…
Do you operate by quotas in your selection? Are you mindful of the presence of female filmmakers in your selection?
H.M.: We are very mindful. Last year as well as this, it is almost equal.
What can you say about this year’s selection? What should we look out for?
H.M.: Just dive in! Be surprised! Austria is in focus with a great selection of new Austrian films like for example Little Joe by Jessica Hausner who came to RIFF as an “Emerging Master” a few years ago. There is also a great selection of docs as well as almost eighteen Icelandic films, including our opening film, End of Sentence.
You are bestowing Claire Denis with your Creative Excellence Award in Filmmaking this year. Can you elaborate on that choice?
H.M.: She is one of today’s great auteurs. Her films are about society and different perspectives. We have been wanting to present her to the Icelandic audience for a long time, so it’s a great honor to finally have her here. The President of Iceland will award her with our Creative Excellence Award in Filmmaking.
Katja Adomeit is this year’s “Emerging Master” at RIFF and you will be hosting a Masterclass with Claire Denis and a seminar with casting director Nancy Bishop. Comments?
H.M.: I met Katja in Cannes. She has a very strong vision and an unbelievable work experience, and she is so young! She is a filmmaker that certainly believes so much in her projects that nothing seems to be able to sop her! Nancy is teaching Icelandic actors how to go about for the big work. She is a casting director and gives the actors good tips on how to present themselves. The world is one big place where we can work and play together.
When you select films, can you exclude your personal taste? If so, to what extent?
H.M.: It is always about taste and for me, personally, when I choose films, I can see very quickly if it is a film that I think should be shown here.
Shorts also hold a prominent place in RIFF’s program. How do you see the short form today? Why is it important for you to screen short films at RIFF?
H.M.: Filmmakers often make their first steps in shorts. For example, Elfar Adalsteins, the director of our opening film won RIFF a few years back with Seven Boats. It is good to have a platform for experience and young filmmakers and see how this medium is developing.
How would you define RIFF and its artistic direction? Has it evolved over time?
H.M.: The focus on new directors and pushing boundaries has remained the same since the beginning, but at the same time, we show films that have been really successful at different festivals. We want to be an eye- opener, screen European films so that we as Europeans can see ourselves mirrored in them. We want to be a place for discussion and promote Iceland and Reykjavik as a film country and a film city.
How do you make sure that the program is appealing to both filmmakers and the audience?
H.M.: You have to trust your taste and that of the other programmers.
What is the audience’s response to RIFF and its films?
H.M.: The numbers are good, around 20.000, which is almost ten percent of the nation! The audience love the festival! We have a young audience, but also the number of people of all ages is also increasing.
How have its Industry Days program and the Reykjavik Talent Lab contributed to solidifying the festival’s place on the film festival circuit?
H.M.: It’s good to come and see what is happening here. We are building a huge film studio on the outskirts of Reykjavik, in Gufunes, with Baltasar Kormákur and his team. The Industry Days and Talent Lab are a venue for people from here and but also from outside to meet and discuss things, see a bit of the locations we offer when filmmakers come to shoot in Reykjavik and see the “work-in-progress” session that is organized by the Icelandic Film Centre with Laufey Guðjónsdóttir. What is new this year, is the RIFF talks, similar to the TED talks, where filmmakers and film figures talk about their passions and what drives them. Six very different talks. Happening this Friday, 4 October.
Do you work with other film festivals around the world?
H.M.: Yes, a lot. Every year, we cooperate and send Icelandic films or go ourselves to many different festivals. Scanorama in the fall, as well as the Nordic Film Days Lübeck and the Nordjeelik Festival in The Netherlands, and earlier this year, for example, La Rochelle International Film Festival and the ShorTS International Film Festival in Trieste.
RIFF’s focus is also to bring films to Iceland that would otherwise not make it to screens there and put and keep Iceland on the map for its film opportunities. Can you elaborate on that? How is the current Icelandic film scene, according to you, since it has experienced a boom a few years ago? And what is RIFF’s contribution to it?
H.M.: We help connect, inspire and promote. Films from Iceland are at their peak. The success they have had this year is really amazing and it seems to be a never-ending story. Last night, we presented the nominees for the LUX Prize and Benedikt Erlingsson was in the audience – he won the prize last year.
What is Iceland’s film festival scene like? Do you work together or are you rivals?
H.M.: It’s all good. It’s not a big film festival scene, though, but it’s a good one.
How has working in your family’s cinema shaped your passion for film? How did you end up in film after being a journalist?
H.M.: Sort of like a coincidence in a way! one thing led to another! You just trust that what happens is supposed to happen!
There has been a lot of talk about women in film in the past two years. What do you think of the situation of women in film today? How is it in Iceland?
H.M.: It has improved in Iceland, but it’s still a work in progress. The discussion has certainly helped a lot and people are more aware that we need different stories.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker? And your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
H.M.: My opinion is always changing, so this year I choose Claire Denis and Katja Adomeit as my favorite ones.
What does the future hold for RIFF?
H.M.: I think it is bright. I think there will always be a need and a place for a festival like RIFF. We humans need to stand up from our sofas and meet other people, hear and see different stories and talk about it with other film enthusiasts. To them, RIFF and similar festivals are what the World Cup is to soccer fans. You wait for it the whole year and then you celebrate with your friends and colleagues!