Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir ræddi við Reykjavik Grapevine síðasta haust um mynd sína Svaninn, sem og íslensku kvikmyndasenuna. Hér eru brot úr viðtalinu sem snúa að því síðarnefnda.
While Icelandic writers and painters can apply for a national grant that provides a so-called “artist salary,” filmmakers cannot, even though the process of researching and writing a screenplay can take years. Artists of any calibre can apply for the grant and if they are successful they receive around €2,850 a month for a year. Instead, according to Ása, the Icelandic Film Fund grants barely cover any living expenses, especially for artists with children. That means that, inevitably, filmmakers need to develop a second way to make money and survive, which might go from teaching to becoming tour guides (as is the case with many popular actors and musicians), often sacrificing time for their creative endeavours.
The support given to art by the Scandinavian countries is almost proverbial. Yet, according to Ása, the amount of money spent in a country like Denmark makes the Icelandic funding look like peanuts. “People are always talking about Danish cinema, about how good it is and that the standards have become so high,” says Ása. “But that’s also because the Danish government has put a lot of money into the industry there, as well as into the Danish Film School. In other words, there was a choice made in Denmark to support filmmaking. Something similar would need to happen here if we want film to become a more integral part of our artistic identity.”
Putting a pricetag on art
Artistically speaking, Iceland is wide awake. The involvement of young people in any form of artistic endeavour is astonishing for anyone who hasn’t lived in this country their whole life. It’s enough to look at the vitality of the music scene or the interdisciplinary collaborations between artists from all backgrounds. Whether one favours a more classical approach or prefers experimentation, the space given to art in our daily life is of great importance, both for those who perform and for those on the other side of the stage.
While the value of art in itself does not need to be justified in a vis-a-vis conversation, it might have to be reconsidered at a bureaucratic level. Nevertheless, Ása is optimistic. Considering how much investment goes into Icelandic music—albeit mostly private—and the booming success of the young filmmaking scene, she has no doubt that things will soon improve.
“The Swan” was funded mostly by the Icelandic Film Fund, but also by German and Estonian institutions—a much appreciated aid, but one that forced Ása to hire a certain percentage of the crew from those countries. Undoubtedly, international cooperation is positive: “But in the long run, if production companies in Iceland are always forced to outsource certain key crew, the local talent here loses so many work opportunities, as well as the opportunity to hone their craft,” she clarifies.
A lack of role models
Besides the lack of funds, Ása admits she has it pretty good. New projects are lining up for her, both in Iceland and the US, where she lived for five years when she was a child, long before her Ivy League comeback. Despite her recent success, the realisation that she wanted to be a director didn’t come easily to Ása. For a while she had been preparing to go to drama school straight after her graduation, but she realised acting wasn’t quite for her once she began auditioning for plays in Canada. “Maybe it was partly due to lack of role models,” she says. “There weren’t many female directors working in Iceland, and just not as many films made in general.”
Ása has later found inspiration in the work of foreign female directors such as Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, and Lucrecia Martel, and while she deeply admires their aesthetics, it’s the tenacity with which these women pursued their careers in a male-dominated world that truly made an impression.
Just another boys’ club?
It has often been said about the Icelandic hip hop scene that, while ripe with fresh talents, it’s more gender biased than other industries. Similarly, the filmmaking scene has been a boys’ club for a very long time, according to Ása. “I certainly didn’t feel like I had easy access when I was starting out,” she explains. “My feeling is that I gradually forged my own way into this industry here in Iceland—and I’m still doing so—but increasingly counting both men and women as my peers and collaborators.”ÁSa
Perhaps it’s precisely this lack of female editors, directors and producers that spurred the few women who are currently making films in Iceland to show a sense of camaraderie and solidarity to one another. “They’ve formed a community of their own, and I’ve found a truly invaluable support amongst many of them,” she adds. “But I also want to add that I feel very lucky to be starting my career now and not twenty years ago. Thanks to the decades of battles fought by my foremothers in this industry more money is being put into films made by women. I’m very aware that my generation of female filmmakers is reaping the benefits of this long battle.”