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Screening with life music. Photo: Jacek Łagowski

Poland <-> Ísland. Seriously? 0

Polish-Icelandic artistic project “Ultima Thule – at the end of the world”

Weronika Trojańska 

On medieval-age maps, Ultima Thule was the label used to denote any distant place located beyond known borders – a distant unknown region, the extreme limit of travel and discovery. “Ultima Thule – at the end of the world” is also the title of a Polish–Icelandic art project promoting cultural diversity through the exchange of film screenings, music and meetings – all by means of audio-visual events.

The project is being carried out by The National Film Archive in Warsaw and The Reykjavik Film Academy. Inaugurated in Reykjavik in November 2015 with a review of the heritage of Polish cinematography, the festival moved from Gdańsk (February 12 – 24, 2016) to Poznań (February 25 – March 8, 2016), and then to Warsaw (March 9 – 20, 2016). I had the opportunity to participate in some events held at the New Palace Cinema in the Castle Cultural Centre in Poznań, and I also got the chance to get to know Iceland a little better.

Opening ceremony in Poznań

Over the last few years, Polish audiences have seen such films as “101 Reykjavik” and “Noi Albinoi”, and recently – “Hrass í Oss” and “Fúsi”, all of which make for a nice introduction to the unique atmosphere and outstanding message coming from the young and developing world of Icelandic cinema. It is no wonder that the central role in “Ultima Thule – at the end of the world” has been given to the film festival, around which other events (concerts, lectures, and masterclasses) take place. The aim of the film review is to make Icelanders and Poles better understand each other through films that describe their respective cultures. Its program consists of more than twenty Icelandic movies, including those made by directors such as: Árni Ásgeirsson, Ragnar Bragason, Róbert I. Douglas, Ólafur de Fleur Jóhannesson, Rúnar Rúnarsson, and Marteinn Thorsson, among others.

Everything began with a love for Iceland. A personal touch is very present in the project, and not only because of the fact that its scale is not pompous and overwhelming like in most cases of big cultural events or film reviews. Here, the personal feeling is more because of the general atmosphere, which remains warm and friendly in spite of the coldness invoked from showing images and weather conditions as they are outside of the theater. The selection of movies seems very personal as well, as if they have been chosen by someone who would like to share his or her favorite films with others. Indeed, the choice of films was made on a basis other than just “the best Icelandic movies” or “new Icelandic cinema”. Instead, the selection process was approached with the question of emotions in mind (which is particularly interesting as both the Polish and Icelandic nations are believed to be not all that effusive in terms of showing their feelings). What makes us laugh? What are we afraid of? What are the things that we miss?

The “Ultima Thule”-team took upon the task of looking for the answers to these questions in movies – in an effort to try and create mutual portraits of Poles and Icelanders. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about both cultures, and thus gain a better understanding of each other – not least because Poles are the largest national minority on the small Scandinavian island. On the project's website, the informative section explains: “Ultima Thule – at the end of the world” is an investigative search for the cultural diversity found in Nordic Iceland, situated between America and Europe, and Slavic Poland, located in Mid-Central Europe. It asks: “Is it possible to find equivalents in these two heterogeneous worlds?” Well, is it?

After seeing a bunch of Icelandic movies and participating in a couple of events, I would say that it seems that there are more similarities than I initially would have thought. One of them, and which is often present for me, is a gloomy tone and an overwhelming feeling of longing. What is most interesting about this is that the foundations for these convergences are totally different for each country. In the case of Icelanders, this peculiar melancholia is mostly a result of the hermetic isolation of being on an island; in Poland, it is a consequence of a traumatic history and a dissatisfaction with post-socialist reality. Both countries often portray dysfunctions in their respective states, as in “XL” (2013), a movie by Marteinn Throrsson. The film depicts a dreadful world as a commentary on the social elites of Iceland, a world to which the main character – who is an alcoholic, sex-addicted politician – belongs. Ólafur de Fleur Jóhannesson presents a similar downfall in his detective movie “City State”/“Borgríki” (2011), the agenda of which contains corruption, revenge, prostitution and gang warfare. Both Iceland and Poland often try to turn these kinds of images into a joke, although we, Poles, appear more reserved and absurd, while the black humor of Icelandic pictures seems to be closer to that of the Czechs' nonsensical comicality. Icelanders definitely have a more distanced approach to issues such as religion (Guðnẏ Halldórsdóttir’s “Under the Glacier”/”Kristnihald undir Jökli” (1989) is a good example), and the traditional model of a family is not always a priority. 

After spending so many hours with Icelandic film characters, I would say that they have quite complex personalities. Many of them are often unable to enter adulthood (like in Róbert I. Douglas’s “The Icelandic Dream”/”Íslenski draumurinn”, in which the fascinated-with-football Toti, despite being over thirty years old, cannot cope with everyday reality), leading to complicated relationships and broken families (Ragnar Bragason’s “Parents”/"Foreldrar”,  Reynir Oddsson's “Murder Story”/Morðsaga”, and “Life in a Fishbowl”/”Vonarstræti”, by Baldvin Zophoniasson), or stints in detention centers (Halldórsdóttir’s “Quiet Storm”/”Veðramót”). Despite the gloominess of daily life, they often live in their own imaginary worlds. Like Kali – a boy from Ari Kristinsson’s movie “No Network”/”Duggholufólkið” (2007) – who gets most of his life experience from screens: television shows, movies and computers; or the above-mentioned Toti. Toti has a utopian dream of creating a powerful business based on cigarettes smuggled from Bulgaria, and his wholehearted devotion to a fictitious football team overshadows the problems he has in relationships with his girlfriend and daughter, the latter being brought up only by her mother.

These movies show contemporary myths, ones in which tales about Vikings and elves have been displaced by modern-day problems and occurrences. I have never been to Iceland (as probably most Poles have not), and I know it only through images and stories. Iceland is commonly associated with its breathtaking nature – volcanoes, geysers and the aurora borealis. We all know the stories about Vikings, the tales of elves and, obviously – Björk – Iceland's most celebrated musician. But how does this really refer to everyday life in Iceland? When trying to understand Icelandic culture, it is important to understand the national psychology. “The psyche of Iceland is about wanting to be acknowledged”, said writer Andri Snær Magnason[1]. “It isn’t superior, it wasn’t Viking mentality, it was to be recognized as on par with anything abroad”.

One of the focal points of the event in Poznań turned out to be a showing of the award-winning “Volcano”/”Eldfjall” (2011), by Rúnar Rúnarsson, and the post-screening discussion with the director. The movie is undoubtedly very emotional. Hannes retires from his job as a janitor and is now confronted with the family  that he had neglected over the years. When his wife becomes ill, he tries to reconcile with his children and atone for his cold bearing in the past. The plot raises not only the issue of generational conflict, which is often present in Icelandic art, but most of all, it talks about the important and difficult issue of euthanasia. Rúnarsson’s feature-length debut approaches this subject without didacticism, and in a context that is naturalistic but also poetic.

Some people may see some similarities to “Amour”, the last movie by Michel Haneke (although Rúnnar Rúnarsson’s movie was made before Haneke’s production). Both strike affecting chords for anyone who has dealt with a partner or an elderly parent’s illness and the painful decisions that arise from it. Someone in the audience even asked a question about the similarity of the two films, to which Rúnarsson commented: “Please ask him”. I remember watching “Amour” in a small cinema. The movie theater was mostly occupied by elderly couples. Some of them spent the majority of the film's running-time crying; the rest just left. In contrast, the attitude of the older viewers of “Volcano” seemed more exceptional – they responded to the movie with great enthusiasm: “It’s a masterpiece! Thank you!”.

Screening with life music. Photo: Jacek Łagowski

Overall, I was quite surprised by the movies that I saw in terms of their lack of scenic landscapes – something that is so significant for us, and strongly associated with the Nordic countries. Many of the scenes take place in the suburbs of Reykjavik, often in blocks of flats in which the main characters live (the post-socialistic equivalent is also very characteristic of the scenery used in Polish cinematography), or else the action takes place on the sea (on a fishing boat, to be precise). It seems like the place of nature has been taken over by music, which plays a very significant role in Icelandic culture. Its presence often turns out to be as vivid as the existence of the main characters. Much has been also written about how Iceland’s landscape infuses its music. Therefore, “Ultima Thule” could not do without a music program, one which included “inter alia”, a project by Efter/Sóley/Asikids (initiated by the Danish group Efterklang): children from Polish music schools were invited to play accompaniments to video clips recorded by the Icelandic artist Sóley. 

The last day of the festival in Poznań belonged to the musical feast offered up by SHOFAR (Mikołaj Trzaska, Raphael Rogiński and Macio Moretti), who with live, improvised music accompanied the first known Icelandic documentary filmed about the country – “Ísland í lifandi myndum” (1925). This silent moving picture, made by photographer Loftur Guðmundsson, focuses on herring fishing and the commercial life of the docks. There was no doubt that the performance by the trio of Polish musicians was outstanding, even making the endless scenes of fishing and fish-gutting beautiful to behold. 

During his masterclass, Rúnar Rúnarsson said that the power of a good movie lies in the moment when you forget that you are watching a film. “Ultima Thule – at the end of the world” gives its audience a virtual trip to Iceland, a mental journey that delivers emotions which immediately go deep inside one's self – right down to the soul, and proves that Icelandic culture (and cinema, in particular) can be both seductive and addictive. Prof. Tadeusz Konwicki, Head of The National Film Archive in Warsaw, said: “The end of the world is relative – it depends on the point of view. It may actually become the beginning of understanding…”.