Erlendur Sveinsson lítur yfir ferilinn

Erlendur Sveinsson.

Erlendur Sveinsson á merkan feril að baki, bæði sem höfundur margra heimildamynda, en ekki síður sem baráttumaður fyrir varðveislu kvikmyndaarfs. Í upphafi ársins lét hann af störfum sem forstöðumaður Kvikmyndasafns Íslands og í nýjasta hefti Journal of Film Preservation sem FIAF, heimssamtök kvikmyndasafna, gefur út má finna grein eftir Erlend þar sem hann fer yfir langan feril sinn hjá Kvikmyndasafninu, en segja má að hann hafi verið meira og minna viðloðandi safnið allt frá stofnun þess 1978.

Grein Erlendar (sem er á ensku) birtist hér með góðfúslegu leyfi hans.

Erlendur Sveinsson joined Kvikmyndasafn Íslands (The National Film Archive of Iceland) as a board member when it was founded in 1978. In 1980 he became its director and only staff member (though in a 50% position) until 1986 when a new film law lead to structural changes. Between 1986 and 2002 he ran his own film production company, and wrote, directed, produced, and edited documentaries. He rejoined the Kvikmyndasafn in 2002, still only half time. In 2012 he was appointed director, a position he held until his retirement in January 2019.

I believe it is a common experience for those who are facing the end of their life´s occupation that they begin to reflect, in depth, on times past. Decades of recollections flicker through our memories, or what is left of them, and even leave touches of nostalgia in our souls as we try to hold onto the images in our minds. Did you reach your goal? Did your work bring you happiness? Did fate manipulate the script of your life? Will you leave your post satisfied? These reflections become even more intense and vivid when your life’s occupation has been filled with passion and idealism, a situation well-known to film archivists. The Alpha and Omega of these moving mental images are the Beginning and End of our life´s occupation. The first and last chapters are always special, and, like a movie script, often more in focus than what happened in between. When I had to leave the National Film Archive of Iceland at the end of the month I became 70 (December 2018), only too conscious of how it was ending, I started to recall how it all began.


It was 40 years earlier, in May 1978, six months before I turned thirty, that The National Film Archive of Iceland (Kvikmyndasafn Íslands) was legally constituted, in connection with the establishment of a National Film Fund. Looking back, I realise that mythological Norns must have woven together the threads that made me the first and only staff member, as well as the director of the new Archive. I had studied film history and film aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen between 1968 and 1969, I had been a film editor at Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV, the national broadcasting service) from 1969 to 1976, introduced film classics on television, established my own film company in 1977, and making television programmes about film, filmmaking, the visual language of film, and film history. Among these were programmes that advocated the founding of an Icelandic film archive. I had collected information about old, and sometimes lost, Icelandic films, and foreign films shot in Iceland, with support from the Ministry of Culture. I unearthed the oldest film depicting Icelanders (made in 1906), wrote regular articles about films and film-related material for weekend editions of newspapers, and was appointed by the filmmakers’ association to be on the first board of the yet-to be-founded institution. I started working for the board informally, and when it came time to hire a staff member, there seemed to be no other candidate but myself. It was only a 50% post, and stayed so until February 1986, when I left the Archive for the first time.


Year one (1979) was dedicated to establishing modest premises, and to continuing to gather information about Icelandic films, particularly those that that might be held by archives abroad. I participated in the FIAF Summer School in East Germany in 1979, under the direction of Wolfgang Klaue, the head of the Staatliches Filmarchiv der DDR, who was my first mentor regarding everything related to film archives. Ib Monty, the director of the Danish Film Museum, came to have a similar position.

I left the Summer School with new knowledge, and precious gifts from the Staatliches Filmarchiv der DDR in the form of copies of films shot in Iceland in the 1930s, mostly by German filmmakers. Inspired by the Summer School experience and with encouragement from Klaue – then FIAF President – I applied for and obtained associate membership of the Federation in 1980. That same year I went to Denmark to look for Icelandic films (which I found), and to meet Ib Monty who promised to help me. I invited the directors of the Nordic film archives to Iceland in 1981, not only for their annual meeting, but also to participate in celebrations initiated and organised by the Archive, in co-operation with the two oldest cinemas in the country, to celebrate 75 years of regular film screenings in Iceland. I intended this to be a momentous event that would draw attention to the newly-established Archive. As 1906 was also the year that Denmark’s Nordisk Films Kompagni was established, I also invited its director Ove Sevel to take part in the festivities. All the guests brought us precious gifts, there were live-music screenings of silent films relating to Iceland, and we published a book. Around this time, I was hoping to take over and restore a 75-year-old cinema in the heart of Reykjavík. FIAF sent letters of support to Reykjavík’s mayor, but it was all in vain. Sadly, the cinema, perhaps one of the oldest, intact silent-film theatres left in the world, was torn down in the summer of 1984.

Nineteen eighty-three was a prosperous year: we discovered more “lost” films and got good television coverage and widespread acknowledgement. The annual Cultural Film Award, generally given for outstanding filmmaking, was given to me for my work for the Film Archive and film culture.


In 1985, Icelandic film legislation was altered. The biggest change was that the Archive was merged with the Icelandic Film Fund. Influenced by views and ideas from the Summer School, and from Klaue and Monty, I was against this development. As the new organisation would focus on film funding, I decided to resign rather than join it. In the next few months, however, I almost managed to take over an historic cinema in Hafnarfjörður, the third oldest in the country, as a new home for the Archive, and might have succeeded if I had not been on my way out. Some years later this cinema was also torn down.

Despite not being a staff member between 1986 and 2002 I was always available, whenever needed, including as a source of information on films and film history. When the second director of the Film Fund and the Archive began work, I started to develop a relational database for the Archive which was still in use when I left again in 2018. I also helped the director, who knew nothing about film archives but was willing to learn from me, to send a large quantity of nitrate prints and negatives, including material on Perütz and other unusual stocks for copying at Printer Effects in Sweden. It was decided that the originals should not be returned to the Archive, and the whole collection apparently disappeared.


A decade after I left, in 1996, I realised that it might be possible for the Film Archive to move to Hafnarfjörður, take over Bæjarbíó, the second historic cinema there (built in 1945), and set up new premises in an abandoned fish factory nearby. This became a reality 1997, and the Archive moved from Reykjavík to Hafnarfjörður, with a sixteen-year contract agreed between the Ministry of Culture and Hafnarfjörður’s municipal authorities.

In 2002, when the Archive had regained its autonomy, I returned to work there, but as a regular staff member. I undertook all kinds of activities, including preparing Archive screenings at Bæjarbíó, and, in collaboration with others, writing and designing the accompanying booklet.

Celebrations for the Archive’s 30th anniversary incorporated an ambitious screening programme, with among others, Victor Sjöström´s Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru / The Outlaw and his Wife (1918), with intertitles in Icelandic, and a new music score by the Icelandic composer Atli Heimir Sveinsson, performed live at the Bæjarbíó. We published a book of the whole year’s screening programme, including articles on the Archive’s thirty-year history and other material. Other screening highlights took place in the winter of 2013-2014 to celebrate the donation of a huge Russian film collection, which we called “A Russian Winter in Hafnarfjörður”. This same winter was, unfortunately, when the municipal authorities decided not to renew our sixteen-year contract. The archive lost the cinema in the spring of 2014, despite my using every effort to keep it. In 2012, I had become director of the Archive for the second time, though since the 2008 recession, we had been unable to participate in FIAF Congresses or the annual meetings of the Nordic archives. I was able to reinstate these activities again – in 2016, we hosted the Nordic archives meeting for the first time since 2004 – and also applied for full FIAF membership. This was formally granted at the 2017 Los Angeles Congress.

THE 1918-2018 THEME

Two thousand and eighteen, my last year in office, was a year of celebration on a broad scale: among other events, the Icelandic nation, along with several other countries such as Estonia, the Czech Republic, and Latvia, celebrated 100 years of sovereignty, while it was also the centenary of film master Ingmar Bergman. For me, personally, it was also a significant year as I celebrated my 70th birthday and consequently retired; the National Film Archive of Iceland celebrated its 40th anniversary, which meant that I had started to work for it 40 years ago.

The 2018 celebration theme led me to Tallinn that November, on the initiative of Eva Näripea, director of the Estonian Film Archive. When Näripea and I met at the 2018 Prague Congress, she told me of her idea to mark the sovereignty centenaries by organising, at Tallinn’s PÖFF festival, a special programme of historically significant films from those countries. She invited me to present films from Iceland, and to give a lecture on the National Film Archive at Eesti Kunstiakadeemia, the Estonian Academy of Arts. I chose Morðsaga (Murder Story) by Reynir Oddsson, a feature film which launched modern filmmaking in Iceland in 1977, one year before the National Film Archive of Iceland was established. This film was also the first real restoration accomplished by the Archive (although scanned abroad). Murder Story was screened together with two shorts from 1906, one about the visit of the Icelandic Parliament to the Danish Parliament, a stepping-stone on the way to Iceland’s sovereignty, and an historically important film as well. This, the oldest-known film from Iceland, was premiered when regular film screenings started there in November 1906. The other short film, from the same year, contains the oldest-known moving images of Icelanders filmed in their mother country. It shows a fire brigade exercise, and a big crowd gathering to watch not only the exercise itself, but also the filming of the event.

For my lecture about the National Film Archive at the Estonian Academy, I chose the title, “The National Film Archive of Iceland: The Extremes in a Small Film Archive’s 40-year Life Span (1978 – 2018)”. This turned out to be kind of a personal farewell to the institution I had worked for from its beginning, and for the existence of which I had fought even before that. These Extremes were represented by accounts of contrasts and battles – many of these were lost though there were some significant victories – for which I prepared ten film clips and a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation.


The most significant projects of my years in office were:

Preparations for future screening facilities on our premises
Negotiating an increase in staff salaries and redefining their duties
Developing our relational film database, FILMIA, and adjusting it for digitisation
The purchase of a 5.1k scanner and installation for the digitisation programme. This was the Archive’s 40th birthday gift.

The ScanStation 5.1. arrived in late November 2017 together with a 230TB Metastore server. The refurbished Lipsner film cleaning machine bought at the same time was expected to arrive in February 2018 but did not reach us until June. The installation of the scanning and transfer room was accomplished in the first half of 2018, and, in the autumn, the company sent us a specialist to check it and to teach the staff some basics. We added a colour-grading suite, and an adjoining booth to house the noisy server. This had its own cooling system and electricity, plus a setup for an LTO back-up system. Completing everything required additional investment in computers and Flanders colour-grading screens, and in their furniture. Furthermore, we also had to install analogue video and sound transfer facilities in the form of a new rack for all types of recording equipment, players for video and sound, and equipment for controlling the rack and enhancing the transfers to HD. A new staff member was hired to work on the scanning station, to scan, to colour grade, and to do other post-production jobs. There are now a minimum of two people working on the station. After a range of tests, the station started to function, and we were able to embark on an ambitious restoration project.

Erlendur prýðir forsíðu nýjasta heftis Journal of Film Preservation.


The original material for Í skugga hrafnsins / In the Shadow of the Raven (1988), the most expensive Icelandic film ever made, was considered lost when its director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson contacted the archive in the summer of 2018. He wanted to have it scanned in order to be able to make a new director’s cut, and to relaunch it on the video market in co-operation with the Archive. My search went from Iceland to Denmark, and finally to the Swedish Film Institute/Cinemateket, where there were some related items, but apparently not what we were looking for. Then, by a stroke of luck, everything was indeed found there though in a location not on their database. An agreement with the SFI and the film’s Swedish co-producer enabled the material to be sent to Iceland, on loan, for scanning and sound transfers. At the same time, we unexpectedly received two pallets from ShortCut in Copenhagen – though we thought they had already been fully searched – holding original Icelandic material.

At the Prague Congress, I talked to a delegate from Germany about a long-held wish of mine to obtain a copy of the first reel of the German version of a very important Danish film about Iceland, Billeder fra Island / Iceland, filmed in 1938-1939. I had discovered this version of the film while at the FIAF Summer School in 1979, but it lacked its first reel. Not long ago, I received confirmation that the first reel had been preserved – under its German title Island: Paradis des Nordens – but, unfortunately, I was unable to get the reel copied before I retired.

By the end of November 2018, I had been largely responsible for building up the Archive’s collection to a total of 115,400 items. These included more than 32,000 titles, almost 18,000 documents, and 2,750 museum artefacts. The cataloguing project which I had embarked on some years earlier had the aim of retrospectively updating our acquisitions data from the year 2000 back to the establishment of the Archive in 1978 and enhancing the content cataloguing. This important task, a co-operation between myself and a staff member who retired at the end of 2015, was almost finished by the end of 2018; it is now due to be completed later this year.


For four days a week, the scanner is used for material on the Archive’s own project list, while the fifth day is occupied with work for outside organisations.

In 2018, we made a contract with RÚV (the Icelandic national television station) to scan its entire film collection, now held at the Archive. In the same year, we also started working with two villages, Siglufjörður and Vestmannaeyjar, each then celebrating 100 years of municipal independence. Whenever scanning staff come across material showing these places, they copy it to an ever-growing timeline, register the elements thoroughly, and export digital files to the appropriate community offices.

There is now an ongoing project to make a ten-part television series on Icelandic film history, with emphasis on feature films, and I was interviewed for this series in my role as Archive director. We also have a wonderful agreement with Icelandic film pioneer Reynir Oddsson who, in 2018, gave the Archive all the material he still had at home, to rescan everything and handle all publishing rights. Although now in his nineties (he was born in 1936) and in failing health, Oddson, together with his wife, spends a lot of time on the Archive’s premises cataloguing his material.

In 2018, our own 2018 scanning projects followed a priority list I had made the year before, with the three most important being Síðasti bærinn í dalnum / The Last Farm in the Valley (1950), an Icelandic classic, Saga Borgarættarinnar /The Saga of the Borg Family (1920), a Danish/Icelandic feature, and Ísland í lifandi myndum / Iceland in Moving Pictures (1925), a documentary.

In December 2018, we screened The Last Farm in the Valley in Harpa, the biggest concert hall in Iceland, with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra playing live the original music. Since there was no properly preserved score, we hired a composer to transcribe the music. The film’s original soundtrack was a steel-wire magnetic recording which we used for the restoration, also making a mix without the music for the Symphony Orchestra screening. A print with a final, full-sound mix was finished early this year. The Harpa screening was a great success, as was the small exhibition of related artefacts (from the Archive collection) set up in the entrance hall. As it was the peak event of the year, a concert rehearsal photo was used as the Archive’s 2018 Christmas Card.

I originally conceived of our restoration of The History of the Borg Family being matched with a score compiled from existing music, but it has now been decided that a new score should be written for it. That is still in progress.


A project that should culminate in a theatrical screening in a cinema in 2019 is the Russian Derevensky detektiv / Village Detective (1969), directed by Ivan Lukinsky and starring Mikhail Zharov. Four reels of this film were caught by a lobster boat, fishing 20 miles off the west coast of Iceland. It was brought to the Archive where I was able to dry it out and have it put through our SD scanner. A colleague and I filmed the process and made Úr ríki undirdjúpanna (From the Undersea Kingdom) about the incident, news of which spread around the world. My idea was to finish this remarkable story by screening the film in a cinema with the documentary as an introduction to it. For this purpose, I made an agreement with Gosfilmofond to borrow their good print in order to make a 4K scan and to screen it on the Archive’s premises. They also sent me the dialogue list which enabled us to make subtitles which the translator finished just before the end of 2018. These are now being put in place.

This leads us to New York filmmaker Bill Morrisson who uses old and often damaged film materials in his creations, and frequently collaborates with composers. Morrisson became interested in the story, came to visit us at the Archive, filmed the reels, and interviewed me. He then went to Gosfilmofond where he interviewed Peter Bagrov, film historian and archivist and now head of the George Eastman Museum. I had met Bagrov at the Los Angeles Congress in 2017, and he had helped me with contacts at Gosfilmofond. In 2018, Morrisson and I came to the conclusion that it would be worth having the reels rescanned by specialists in New York who had experience with very damaged nitrate films; we sent them the reels and, with Gosfilmofond’s permission, our 4K scan of their print as well. The idea was that the renowned Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, who had previously worked with Morrison, would compose the music for this new production, but, sadly, he died unexpectedly in February 2018. Another project yet to be completed.


The 2018 theme resulted in an invitation from the Swedish Film Institute to host the Nordic Film Archives meeting again, but in fact they became the venue because of the Ingmar Bergman centenary. This time I took with me the Archive’s two most senior staff; they had served the Archive extremely well for many years and it seemed the right time to involve more delegates than myself in meetings abroad. All three of us were due to retire shortly, and, in addition, we were all to some extent Bergman’s contemporaries.

Several useful things came out of this meeting. Tina Anckarman, one of the Norwegian delegates, suggested that those “lost” Icelandic nitrate films might now be being preserved in Mo i Rana (something yet to be confirmed), while the Danes asked me to send them my documentation on Ib Monty, who had been interviewed for a programme I made for Icelandic television in 1978. The most memorable experience, though, was the “Bergman Safari”, a bus ride round Fårø, his magnificent island, with monitors showing scenes from his films filmed in places we drove through. There were stops at his personal cinema and his home, and on the spectacular shore that played a significant role in Skammen / Shame (1968). For me, this pilgrimage to Fårø had a special personal meaning. It was seeing eleven of Bergman’s films in my home town that kindled my interest in cinema as an art form from the age of 14. I felt that the circle of my life was somehow closing here in the wonderful company of my Scandinavian archive colleagues. We were all on the same wavelength, enjoying this remarkable experience, for me the climax of my life as a film archivist, film maker and film enthusiast.


Towards the end of 2018 I knew that my Omega chapter was slipping through my fingers: many tasks would not be finished before I walked out for the last time. I was sure, though, that I would be able to attend to some of them when retired (which is common in Iceland), and that was confirmed by a Ministry of Culture official during the handover period. It is Ministry policy that institutions should be able to avail themselves of the knowledge and skills of retired staff, should the latter be willing to collaborate. My successor Þóra Ingólfsdóttir is an experienced administrator and former director of Hljóðbókasafn Íslands, the Icelandic Talking Book Library.

Forty years is a long time. Forty years as director, consultant, staff member and again director. Archives and museums have changed. When I began, there was a typewriter on my desk. The Archive has gradually adjusted to the changes in technology that have transformed our world, but nothing can replace the basic essentials: a passion for film, film preservation and film history – the legacy left us by people like Wolfgang Klaue and Ib Monty.

It goes without saying that I wish “my Archive” all the best in the future. The same wishes go to FIAF, the flagship of film preservation. I am grateful for all the knowledge and inspiration I have received from this grand association for such a long time. And, last but not least, I thank FIAF for encouraging me to go public with my farewell letter.

Klapptré er sjálfstæður miðill sem birtir fréttir, viðhorf, gagnrýni og tölulegar upplýsingar um íslenska kvikmynda- og sjónvarpsbransann. Ritstjóri er Ásgrímur Sverrisson.