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RIFF: A Young Festival Focusing on Young Talent

The Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF) prides itself on being a low-key and unpretentious film festival without VIP treatments and long red carpets. The festival, which lasts 11 days and this year was from September 30 until October 10, is young and hip. Here, the focus is on young talent and up-and-coming directors compete for the festival’s main award: The Golden Puffin, which is given by an international jury. The main award is open only to directors’ first or second films and this is what makes RIFF unique in the festival circuit. We spoke to the festival founder and director Hrönn Marinósdóttir at Paradis Bio during the festival.

Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF) was founded in 2004. So, this is the 17th festival this year and thus it is a fairly young festival. How significant is the festival from your point of view not only to the country but to independent cinema, which you focus on?

The festival is quite significant, and we have been building our reputation these past 18 years. The film industry in Europe and many tourists know it because we are a unique event with a special program. It has a special flavor, and it is very well-respected. 


How have you managed this?

We have managed to have great programmers in our team because Iceland is so far away, it is not so easy to get access to films. In the beginning, we worked with Greek programming director Dimitri Eipides, whom we are actually honoring this year as he passed away last year. So, we have a program in his memory. His specialty was progressive young cinema and that was what we wanted to focus on, so he helped me build the festival. Now, we work with former Cannes film festival programmer Frédéric Boyer, who is also working with Tribeca in New York. So, I think we have managed to make the festival significant. We wanted to be a small event as Reykjavik is a small city and we want to have a relaxed festival with a bog profile known for screening excellent films.

You mentioned the focus on progressive young cinema, and you focus on young filmmakers with the New Visions category as its flagship. Why make this your specialty?

Reykjavik is a young trendy city and thus the focus on young, vibrant and progressive filmmakers is a perfect fit. It fits the cultural strategy of the city and it is very relaxed. An example of that is the event at the president’s residency for the award ceremony, where everybody is welcome. That is the atmosphere we want to create. It is very important to present to the young generation how film as a medium is developing and I think it is interesting to see the new visions and the new auteurs. It is important for us to introduce these filmmakers to our audience in Iceland and our guests from abroad because they are not screened that often here in Reykjavik.

What would you say you offer to your guests from abroad?

I think the relaxed atmosphere where we treat everybody as equals is special to us. We have no VIPs, and you are as welcome as a farmer (or) as a director for instance. We also offer special events as the swim-in, where people watch movies in the pool, which is very popular and a way to attract young audiences. We also have the cave-in and the drive-in. We also show short films in unusual places like hair salons. We have a cinema bus that goes to the hospital and screen for the mentally ill outside. We have an important job to make sure we bring good films to our people. We are also a nation that is known for our good films and it helps a lot to attract people and to promote Iceland as a film nation and Reykjavik as a film city.


Film directors Joachim Trier from Norway and Mia Hansen-Løve from France are being honored at the film festival with the 2021 RIFF Honorary Award for Creative Excellence. Why did you pick them this year?

They are two young filmmakers who are fantastic. We were very happy that they accepted the invitation because their work is excellent and so current. They are a perfect fit for us too and it was very easy for us to agree on giving them the awards.


Danish actress Trine Dyrholm is also an honorary guest. She is here with the film Queen of the North, which was partly shot in Iceland. Why Trine Dyrholm?

I always wanted Trine Dyrholm to come, but she has been busy. Now, she is here with Charlotte Sieling’s film, which is the closing film, and we are thrilled that she said yes to come. It is fantastic. She is one of the Nordic countries’ best actresses and even one of the best actresses in Europe. Also, she is a very open woman, who is eager to do a master class for the audience, so she is a perfect fit.

And Debbie Harry from Blondie is also an honorary guest. Why choose this iconic singer for the festival?

That was a suggestion from our program director, Frédéric Boyer, because the film Blondie: Vivir en la Habana premiered at Tibeca. And here she is. It adds flavor to the festival, and she is now traveling to Reykjanes and getting to know film locations, seeing the locations, and meeting nice people.


Iceland is such a small nation with only about 360,000 inhabitants. Yet, you are a fairly big film nation and great talent like director Baltasar Kormakur, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir and producer Sigurjón Sighvatsson to mention a few. Why is there so much talent here, you think?

There are many reasons. It is cultivated. Many years ago, we had a minister who decided that all children should learn to play an instrument. It was the law. So that set the tone. We are also good storytellers. In the old days, we went from farm to farm to tell each other stories. That has somehow developed into writing books and making films and the film business is a very tough business, but we have very good genes for making films. We have something special and that might be because we live on a small island and we have the freedom to do a lot of things.

And how about film studios and production companies?

There are quite a lot of film studios here and Baltasar Kormakur’s new film studio in Gufunes. It is like a village and the plan is to build houses there so people can also live there. He also received permission to build another production studio and that is the first one in Reykjavik. There is one in Garðabær called LazyTown Studios because that is where the popular TV series for children is shot. The creator of the show Magnús Scheving built this in 2003. But we don’t have that many studios and the best studio is the landscape itself.

Icelandic authorities provide a generous refund policy on production costs for foreign filmmakers who come to Iceland to shoot their films and there have been many international films and TV series shooting here. Game of Thrones, Prometheus and The Midnight Sky to mention a few. What does this mean to Iceland?

It helps the business here, because film workers keep busy and thus professional. They are working on international projects when there are no Icelandic projects in production. We thus have excellent production teams. We have built up a very professional film industry.

What are your five favorite films from the festival?

Last Film Show, Casablanca Beats, Laurent Garnier: Off the Record, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, Blind Ambition, The Scars of Ali Boulala, Wild Men, Come to Harm and Bruno Reidal: Confessions of a Murderer.

That was a lot more than five films. I guess that is a good sign.

Yes, sorry about that but it is very easy to find many films you like in our program.