What is Icelandic Culture?  

Reykjavík at dawn

Despite being home to just under 400,000 people, the Nordic nation of Iceland has a compelling, ancient, and fascinating island culture, one enriched by the Icelandic people’s passion for music, art, literature, and sport.

Iceland’s natural landscapes are what the country is known for, at least as far as its millions of foreign visitors are concerned. But many do not expect how intricate and deeply rooted the culture here is. 

There are signs of it everywhere, from its historic architecture to the great variety of live music and comedy events dotted across the capital, Reykjavík

Then there is the local film and television, not to mention the veritable treasure-trove of literature, all of it intertwined with and celebrating the foundation of this young and vibrant nation – the Icelandic language!

So, what are the origins of Iceland’s cultural heritage, and how do they continue to shape the country we know and love today?

Icelandic History & Heritage 

power lifting in iceland
Photo: Golli. A power lifter in Iceland.

The history of Iceland began with early settlers from Norway. While they might have arrived as the iconic vikings, they settled into the lives of farmers and fishermen, deriving sustenance from the frigid waves of the surrounding seas, and using the once-abundant forests for fuel and ship-building.

Developing an independent and self-sufficient society was no easy feat in Iceland’s earliest days. With a lack of food, bitter disputes between clans, and inhospitable weather, the odds were stacked against any person daring enough to call this new found land home. 

At various points in history, Denmark and Norway both held power over Iceland. The Icelandic Commonwealth came to an end when the Norwegian monarchy urged the Icelanders to swear fealty in fealty in 1262. This agreement was known as the Old Covenant. Formally, Iceland was owned by Norway until 1814, but in actuality, the Kalmar Union meant that the Crown of Denmark had enormous political sway from as early as 1380. It was only in 1874 that Iceland gained home rule from Denmark. 

During the Second World War, in 1940, Great Britain occupied Iceland to protect its people, and to deny Germany an important tactical position between the United States and Europe. After only one year, the Americans took over this responsibility. While the occupation was a contentious issue in Iceland, it was largely peaceful and cooperative, with much urban development achieved in these years.

The Alþingi – Iceland’s historical government

Þingvellir
Photo: Golli. Þingvellir National Park

The Alþingi is often touted as the first democratically-elected parliament in the world, having formed in 930 AD. In Iceland’s formative years, various clans from all across the country would join to discuss new laws, solve disputes, and form new alliances.

Visitors can discover where the historical Alþingi was held, every two years since its formation, at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Þingvellir National Park. This unique and gorgeous area is an important part of the famed Golden Circle sightseeing route in west Iceland. 

The Icelandic Language 

 

Fairly unchanged from the Old Norse spoken by Iceland’s earliest settlers, Icelandic is a North-Germanic language. It is part of the Indo-European language family, but thanks to Iceland’s isolation, many words and grammatical rules from Old Norse are still used in day-to-day conversation. 

Icelandic has many distinct characters – á, é, í, ó, ú, ý, and ö – each of which has a distinctive pronunciation. As such, Icelandic writing is particularly phonetic. It is also a conservative language, meaning that there is a big resistance to changing it among local speakers. For example, the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies is one such body that pushes for inventing new Icelandic words rather than adopting those from other languages. 

Icelandic Literature 

A man reading in a book shop corner.
Photo: Golli. A man reading in a book shop corner.

By and large, Icelanders have a deep love of literature, brought about through a great tradition of written stories, and enforced as a beloved pastime in the winter months. During Christmas, the community engages in Jólabókaflóð (Christmas Book Flood) where many manuscripts are published, ready to be shared as gifts between family members and friends. 

In 2011, Reykjavík joined the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. In collaboration with the Icelandic Publishing Association, the City of Literature office holds the Reykjavík Book Fair, which allows locals and guests to take part in readings, workshops, and discussions about the nation’s latest literary offerings. This wholesome event is great for adults and childrens alike, so check it out if you have an interest in storytelling.

The Icelandic Sagas

Goðafoss waterfall
Photo: Golli. Goðafoss waterfall

While challenging to read, and even more difficult to understand from a cultural and thematic standpoint, the Icelandic Sagas provide, perhaps, the greatest insights into the development of Icelandic culture throughout history. The sagas were written by many different people, but most commonly, Snorri Sturluson is cited as one of the more prolific of their scribes. 

Many sagas were written during Iceland’s mediaeval period, so they can be broken down into various categories. The sagas of the Icelanders (Íslendingasögur) document the daily lives and stories of local people, emphasising their familial relationships, and place within Icelandic society as a whole. Arguably, Njála (Njála saga) and Egil’s Saga (Egils saga) are the best known examples from this category. 

Then there are the legendary Sagas (Fornaldarsögur). These focus on tales from Norse Mythology; of Odin, Thor, Frigg, Loki, and many others. A few sagas divulge more about Icelandic folklore in particular, mentioning the supernatural creatures said to dot this island. Trolls and elves. Hidden people. The Völsunga saga would be your first point of reference for learning more about the body of myths first written about in Iceland.  

Kings’ Sagas (Konungasögur) trace the lives of various Norwegian kings, as well as others across Scandinavia. These are, more likely, of interest to academic historians. But they still offer an interesting look at the political reality of life in Iceland between the 9th to 11th centuries. 

Modern Icelandic Literature 

book bookstore Icelandic literature bækur
Photo: Golli. A book store in Reykjavík

As history moved on, so did Iceland’s contribution to the world of literature. The late Halldór Kiljan Laxness is considered to be Iceland’s most esteemed writer, having won the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel, Independent People (Sjálfstætt fólk,) first published in 1934. 

Two of Laxness’ other important novels are The Fish Can Sing (Brekkukotsannáll, 1957) and The Atom Station (Atómstöðin, 1948). While the first is beloved both here and abroad for its simple, yet lyrical style, The Atom Station caused quite a stir upon publication for its description of an abortion and supposed communist sympathies.

Another bonafide Icelandic classic is The News From Home (Fregnaðurinn er að heiman, 1952) by Guðrún Baldvina Árnadóttir; better known as Guðrún frá Lundi. This keenly observant novel tells of Icelandic immigrants in North America, detailing the cultural shift they face as they adapt to living in the new world.

Naturally, with so many Icelandic authors published each year, the list of writers worthy of a mention grows at an almost exponential rate. Both Icelandic culture and its nature are subjects rich for exploration as far as prose is concerned, so it is little wonder that many names have become recognised outside of its borders. Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are both known for their crime-fiction, while Sjón has made a name for himself in not over novel-writing, but also screenwriting, music, and poetry.

Icelandic Music

Dancing in an Icelandic nightclub
Photo: Golli. People enjoying Iceland’s nightlife.

Iceland is well-known globally for its music, bringing to the listening public an artistry and technical skill that has gained many die hard admirers. Despite that, Icelanders have an enduring love for the Eurovision Song Competition, despite never having won themselves. Still, their optimism is admirable, and over recent years, acts like Hatari and Daði Freyr have brought them ever closer to the victory they so crave. 

Back when punk music was breaking new ground, the Icelanders were quick to add their own spin on this anarchic genre. To this day, punk remains an important part of Iceland’s musical history. One only need look at Iceland’s Eurovision entry a few years ago – the demonically stylish Hatari who blend punk with industrial and techno music in what is this country’s latest adaptation of the genre. 

The most authentic location to learn more about it is at the Icelandic Punk Museum (Pönksafn Íslands), a small and quirky establishment built inside an abandoned public bathroom on Bankastræti in downtown Reykjavík. 

Those who do not have the time to fit a visit into their schedule should seek out the 1982 documentary, Rokk í Reykjavík, directed by Friðrik Þór Friðriksson. This cool and fascinating catalogue of musical acts captures early footage of Björk when she was part of her original band, Tappi Tikarrass, as well as many other local favourites. 

Who are the most famous musicians in Iceland? 

björk 1997
Björk in concert, 1997. CC. Wikimedia Commons

Some of Iceland’s musical acts have received more recognition abroad than others. In that regard, the country has no more famous musical export than Björk

Avant-garde. Experimental. Eccentric. All of these words could be used to describe Björk’s approach to music. With her willingness to push the boundaries of what is expected in terms of tracks, album art, and stage presence, it is no wonder that her early roles in various punk bands quickly transcended to one of the most acclaimed solo acts of all time. 

Another huge Icelandic name abroad is Sigur Rós, popular for their ethereal tones, minimalist approach to classicism, and sometimes nonsensical lyrics. Speaking of their lyrics, the lines in many of Sigur Rós’ tracks are known to be a strange blend of Icelandic and English, coined as Vonlenska by the lead singer, Jónsi. 

In the world of blues-inspired rock n’ roll, it is Kaleo who dominates the scene. Led by the handsome, charismatic, and immensely talented Jökull Júlíusson, this band’s take on americana has garnered fans across the world. 

 

The indie/folk rock band, Of Monsters and Men, recently celebrated the ten-year anniversary of their debut album, My Head Is an Animal. The band has achieved huge levels of success, both at home and abroad. Quite the leap since they first won Músíktilraunir – Iceland’s very own Battle of the Bands competition – in 2010. 

Who are other popular Icelandic musicians?

Outside the world of pop music, the late Jóhann Jóhannsson was among Iceland’s better known composers. He created soundtracks to many acclaimed movies, including The Theory Of Everything (2014), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016), and Mandy (2018). 

2024 Grammy-winner, Laufey Lín Bing Jónsdóttir – known simply as Laufey – is the latest big star out of Iceland. At fifteen years old, she performed as part of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra on the cello before making a name for herself on talent-based reality shows, Iceland’s Got Talent and The Voice: Iceland. She has since released two acclaimed soulful-jazz albums, Everything I Know About Love (2022) and Bewitched (2023).

Music Festivals in Iceland 

Iceland Airwaves 2018
Photo: Golli. Iceland Airwaves 2018

By now, we’ve covered that the Icelanders not only have a great passion for music, but also an innate talent. No wonder then that this island puts on many excellent festivals throughout the year. Some are focused on local artists. Others pul in bigger acts from around the world. 

Iceland Airwaves is a mix of the two. For four days in early November, both new and beloved acts grace venues all across Reykjavík. It’s an event that provide festival-goers with more intimate performances than they might otherwise find elsewhere. Previous stars from abroad include Fatboy Slim, The Kills, Ratatat, Yoko Ono, and Sinéad O’Connor. As far as local talent goes, the bigger names from form line-ups include Björk, GusGus, Hatari, and Daði Freyr. 

Fans of electronic music – experimental, techno, or house – will want to book tickets for Sónar Reykjavík. On the other end of the musical, and geographical, scale, Eistnaflug Festival showcases the best of Icelandic Heavy-Metal, held in the tiny eastern town of Neskaupstaður each year. 

There are many other small festivals that take place throughout the year, counting Reykjavík Folk Festival, Reykjavík Jazz Festival, and Nordic Music Days.

Icelandic Film & Television 

Still shot from 'Against the Ice'
Photo: Icelandic Film Centre. Still from ‘Against the Ice’

Compared to other countries, Iceland has what is still considered to be a burgeoning film and television industry. But, of course, that’s not to say there are not a wealth of locally-made films and shows worthy of a mention.

Cinema in Iceland 

 

Nowadays, Baltasar Kormákur is considered Iceland’s most-acclaimed film director. Breaking through, his first major film was 101 Reykjavík, a dark romantic comedy set in Reykjavík, and released in 2000. Two years later, he directed another Icelandic film called The Sea, which dealt with the personal issues of a wealthy fishing family. 

Following these local productions, Kormákur began to direct films for international audiences. A Little Trip to Heaven, starring Forest Whitakker and Jeremy Renner, was released in 2005. One year later, he directed the crime-film Jar City (Mýrin), based on the aforementioned Arnaldur Indriðason novel. 

More recently, viewers will know him as the director of films like Everest (2015) and 2 Guns (2013), as well as the creator of the show Trapped and the Netflix-production, Katla

 

Another important Icelandic director is Friðrik Þór Friðriksson, who shot such local classics as Children of Nature (Börn náttúrunnar, 1991,) the only Icelandic film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. He is also the mind behind the influential music documentary, Rock in Reykjavík (Rokk í Reykjavík, 1981.)

In the last couple of decades, there have been other notable films out of Iceland, including Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss, 2013,) Rams (Hrútar, 2015,) Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, 2018,) Metalhead (Málmhaus, 2013,) and Under the Tree (Undir trénu, 2017.)

Iceland in Hollywood movies

Many Hollywood films have used Iceland as a filming location. Some have even gone so far as to make it the major setting. Two great examples where Iceland played a major role are the Ben Stiller comedy drama, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) and the Will Ferrell – Rachel McAdams comedy, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (2020.) 

However, in terms of pure setting, you can spot Iceland in such films as James Bond: Die Another Day (2002,) Justice League (2017,) The Fate of the Furious (2017,) Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015,) and many, many more. 

The Best TV Shows from Iceland 

Ráðherrann The Minister Ólafur Darri
Photo: Sagafilm/Facebook. Actor Óafur Darri of “Trapped” fame in 2020 TV series “The Minister”

One of the best known television dramas to come out of Iceland over the last few years is the crime-noir series, Trapped, starring the trio of acclaimed locally-born actors, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir, and Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson. The show was developed by Baltasar Kormákur, and ran for three seasons. As of now, there is no word as to whether the show will return, but fans across the world are eagerly awaiting news. 

In the meantime, there is another beloved crime show that does not stray far from the Icelandic ambience. The fourth season of US-drama, True Detective, stars Jodie Foster and used Iceland as its primary shooting location, standing in for the US state of Alaska. Thanks to the dark ambience and snowy setting, only eagle-eyed viewers will be able to discern which places in Iceland the show was filmed.

Film Festivals in Iceland

 

We now know about Iceland’s contributions to the big screen. Little surprise then that there are many great film festivals held throughout the year. Founded in 2004, Reykjavík International Film Festival (RIFF) is the biggest, running for 11-days each year. The festival awards the prestigious Golden Puffin to the discovery of the year, as voted for by an international jury. 

Other important cinematic events that take place each year include: Stockfish Film Festival. Northern Wave International Film Festival.  Akureyri International Film Festival (AKIFF).

Icelandic Art 

 

There are a number of famous artists who have lived and worked in Iceland. These include the pop-art maestro, Erró, the expressionist painter, Nína Tryggvadóttir, and the acclaimed sculptor, Einar Jónsson. Frankly, there are so many Icelandic artists in circulation that writing them all here would be impossible. A better option would be to get involved in Iceland’s art scene yourself.

One way to do this is to pop into the many galleries and art shops found around the country. Also, Reykjavík Arts Festival (Listahátíð Reykjavíkur) is a fantastic stop for those seeking to know how the Icelanders creatively express themselves. Founded in 1970, the festival is a biennial event held in June. 

Art Museums in Iceland 

Hafnarhús art museum
Photo: Golli. Hafnarhús is one of the museums in Reykjavík

Art-lovers will find many places across Iceland to appreciate the beauty of local work. For example, the National Gallery of Iceland, Reykjavík Art Museum, and the Living Art Museum are all fantastic locations to appreciate classic and modern art pieces. 

When it comes to sculpture, visitors should stop by the Einar Jónsson Museum (Listasafn Einars Jónssonar). It is located nearby to the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church, making it a quick stop downtown. 

And for those interested in how the camera makes its own contribution to Icelandic culture? The Reykjavík Museum of Photography boasts a collection of over 6-million images. Many of these document the development this nation from the 17th century to now. 

In North Iceland, pay a visit to places like Akureyri Art Museum or the Icelandic Folk and Outsider Art Museum.

Icelandic Architecture 

Reykjavík from above, housing crisis Iceland
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík from above.

Many of Iceland’s most well-known buildings were designed by the State Architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, who studied in Copenhagen. As such, there are many different styles of architecture found in Iceland. Almost all of thenm have been inspired by fellow Scandinavians.

While sovereign over the island, the Danish brought classical timber construction techniques. The Norwegians brought the Swiss chalet style. The vibrant, corrugated iron homes in the capital had their materials imported from England. The suburbs, dense with boxy, Soviet-style residences, are quick and cost-efficient to build. 

But if you’d like to take a step back in history and see how the Icelanders took to architecture themselves, one excellent place to visit is Árbær Open Air Museum (Árbæjarsafn.) It is a permanent exhibition hosted by the Reykjavík City Museum. This cool outdoor attraction presents the chance to see how buildings and homes in Iceland might have looked in earlier centuries. Both inside and out.   

Traditional Turf houses in Iceland 

Turf mounds in Iceland
Photo: Golli. The remains of turf houses in Iceland.

Many Icelanders once lived in abodes built symbiotically within the landscape. These are known as turf houses, or torfbaeir. Their sloped rooftops are composed of grass. Their structure timber and stone. All of which helps to insulate the interior and provide much-needed warmth during the freezing Icelandic winters. 

The hobbit-style homes were primarily used during the Settlement Era. Between the 9th – 11th centuries. But they were still built as far as the 1700s. Oftentimes, they were used as shelter by farming families, demonstrating just how resourceful the early Icelanders could be when faced with the adverse environment in which they lived. 

Today, many turf houses are preserved as part of Iceland’s cultural heritage. Many have even been converted to local museums. You can appreciate these quaint hovels at the Árbaer Open Air Museum in Reykjavík, at Laufás in North Iceland. On the South Coast, you could stop at Skogar Museum or the picturesque Commonwealth farm, Þjóðveldisbærinn. 

Hallgrímskirkja 

Hallgrímskirkja lutheran church in Iceland
Photo: Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavík

Dedicated to Iceland’s most beloved poet, Hallgrímur Pétursson, Reykjavík’s best known landmark is Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church. 

Designed by the acclaimed State Architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, work began on the church in 1945 and ended in 1986. It towers over the quaint corrugated-iron houses of downtown, its curving basalt columns and large clock face a permanent presence. 

Admission to the main church building is free. Climbing its 74.5 m steeple costs an additional 1000 ISK for adults. 100 kr for children between the ages 7-16. Those who remain at ground-level can appreciate the building’s exquisite interior, as well as its gigantic pipe organ. Only those in the tower are privy to panoramic views of the city and its surrounding mountains and ocean. 

Harpa Concert Hall 

Harpa building in Reykjavík
Photo: Golli. Harpa concert hall.

Hallgrímskirkja captures a beautiful fusion of nature-style architecture and regal prestige. Harpa Concert Hall sits at the other end of the spectrum. Almost as though it was snatched directly from some science-fiction movie. As such, it is one of Reykjavík’s most recognisable boxy-blue designs with a glittering glass-paned exterior. Harpa Concert Hall has won countless architectural awards since first opening its doors in 2011.

Harpa not only attracts a wide range of international stars to its stages, but it is the permanent home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, the Icelandic Opera and Reykjavík’s Big Band. Aside from these acts, Harpa also hosts various conferences and awards shows throughout the year.

Sports in Iceland 

Football team
Photo: Golli. Jóhann Berg

Many Icelanders prioritise fitness in their lives, with some – such as the titan-like strongmen, Jón Páll Sigmarsson or Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson – taking their passion for health to mind-boggling extremes. But aside from bodybuilding, there are many other forms of athleticism that are widely popular across the country.   

Glima – Iceland’s version of wrestling 

 

The ancient combat sport, Glima, originated in Norway, travelling with migrants to Iceland during the Settlement Period. Opponents grip a specially-made belt that wraps around the waist and thigh. Then they attempt to wrestle each other to the ground by tripping and throwing. As popular as when Icelanders were first learning to live in this new land, tournaments are still held every year. 

Handball in Iceland 

Handball
Ómar Ingi trying to break down the Danish defense (HSÍ / Facebook page)

To the laymen, handball looks to be a peculiar, some might say, overtly European version of basketball. As Iceland’s national sport, handball continues to be of great interest to the Icelanders, and is often touted as the game they are the most skilled at when facing off against international competitors. 

The national governing body is the Icelandic Handball Association, organising leagues for both men’s and women’s teams. The Icelanders’ greatest achievement in the sport came during the 2008 Summer Olympics where they earned a Silver medal.

Football in Iceland 

 

Football is also popular in Iceland. A great number of local teams compete as part of the Football Association of Iceland (Knattspyrnusamband Íslands, KSÍ.) 

Representing the men’s team, Iceland national football arguably had its heyday in the late 2010s, defeating England 2-1 in the 16th round of Euro 2016. It was during this time that a thunderous football chant, the Viking Clap, was popularised. It has since been adopted by many international fans supporting other national teams. 

Modern Politics in Iceland 

Alþingishúsið
Photo: Golli. Alþingishúsið parliament building

Iceland is a democratic republic, with the President being Head of State and the Prime Minister acting as the Head of Government. Among the planet’s younger nations, Iceland gained its independence from Denmark on June 17 1944. 

The major government building, the Alþingishúsið, stands at Austurvöllur square in central Reykjavík. The iconic white building that is the Prime Minister’s office, known locally as the Stjórnarráðið, sits on the major thoroughfare, Lækjartorg, near to Harpa Concert Hall. 

Equality 

Rainbow flags Höfði homophobia iceland
Photo: Golli. Rainbow flags at Höfði House

Modern Icelanders place a great emphasis on equality measures, looking to legally protect those often considered disenfranchised by society. 
In the global rankings, Iceland ranks well in terms of gender equality; a result not only of government initiatives, but also the thousands of women who have refused to accept unequal pay. It is little wonder Iceland was the first country to democratically elect a female President, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1980. 

The famous Women’s Day Out protest occurred October 24 1975. It marked the first time that women walked out of the workplace to fight for their rights. Every year since, the tradition has been continued, shining a light on issues that still need to be resolved. 

Iceland was also one of the first countries to allow gay marriage, legalising it in 2010. Today, Iceland is considered a world leader in regards to LGBTQ+ policies and representation. Have you seen the colourful and accepting Pride Parade that takes place in Reykjavík annually? Rainbow flags aplenty!

Iceland also has a strong unionised workforce. These unions have guaranteed rights in regards to parental leave, both for the mother and father. In doing so, they promote a more egalitarian approach to dividing domestic responsibilities and child care. 

In Summary 

Reykjavík skyline
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík from the water.

Let’s finish this rather meaty overview of Icelandic culture. There is nothing much left to say except that reading will only get you far. So, make sure to break up your time seeing Iceland’s natural wonders by exploring its culture too.  You might learn more about why it is such an engaging place to visit and live. 

Making Space

Ninna Pálmadóttir film director

Scene: A grey, Icelandic country road on a grey, Icelandic day. A middle-aged, bearded farmer drives a middle-aged, dusty jeep down the turn-off leading to his farm. After a short distance, the gravel road submerges into a lagoon half a metre deep. The farmer drives on without a second thought. He only stops when he […]

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Icelandic Animated Short Nominated for Oscar

sara gunnarsdóttir

Icelandic director Sara Gunnarsdóttir’s animated short, “My Year of Dicks,” was nominated for an Academy Award under the category Best Animated Short Film.

The nominations were announced at a ceremony last night, January 24, where the title of the film was occasion for some humour. 

The animated short is based on the comedic memoirs of Pamela Ribon, and centres around an American teenager’s coming of age.

Also nominated for best short film were The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse; The Flying Sailor; Ice Merchants; and An Ostrich Told me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe it.

The final selection will be announced at the Academy Awards ceremony, hosted this March in Los Angeles.

Where Can I Watch “A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism?”

Friðrik Þór Friðriksson

Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s 2009 documentary, “A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism” (originally Sólskinsdrengurinn, or “The Sunshine Boy”) was a critically well-received film about autism.

The narrative of the film centers around the mother Margret Dagmar Ericsdóttir and her search for help to understand her son, Keli’s, condition.

Many of Friðrik Þór Friðriksson’s films explore the lives of people who are socially marginalized in some way, such as in “Angels of the Universe,” which features a mentally ill artist.

The documentary was also narrated by Kate Winslet and scored by Sigur Rós and Björk.

During the filming of the documentary, actress Kate Winslet and mother Margret Dagmar Ericsdóttir met and together founded the Golden Hat Foundation, a nonprofit organization for raising autism awareness. The organization aims to “change the way people on the autism spectrum are perceived, by shining a light on their abilities and emphasizing their great potential.”

Additionally, a book arose from the nonprofit and film, called “The Golden Hat: Talking Back to Autism.” It compiled correspondence between Kate Winslet and Margret Dagmar Ericsdóttir, in addition to statements from various celebrities and Margret’s son, Keli.

It may be difficult to find on a major streaming service, so if you want to watch it, then your best bet is likely acquiring it on DVD.

Triangle of Sadness Sweeps European Film Awards

Harpa Concert Hall Reykjavík

The 2022 European Film Awards took place in Rekjavík’s Harpa concert hall last night, December 11.

Some 1,200 were expected for the film awards, 700 of those foreign guests who came for the ceremony.

See also: European Film Awards in Reykjavík Postponed Due to COVID-19

The film awards, which had previously been postponed due to COVID-19, are seen as significant, as their being hosted in Reykjavík serves as recognition for Iceland as a film industry destination.

“Triangle of Sadness,” directed and written by Ruben Östlund, swept the awards last night. A critique of the lifestyles of the super-rich, the film garnered awards in four categories, including best film, best director (Ruben Östlund), best screenwriter (Ruben Östlund), and best actor (Zlatko Buric).

Other notable prize-winners included Vicky Krieps (best actress, “Corsage”), “Mariupolis” (best documentary), and “The Good Boss” (best European comedy).

In lieu of the traditional red carpet often present at film awards, attendees at Harpa walked along a moss carpet, both a reference to Icelandic nature and sustainability.

 

Icelandic Film, Lamb, Wins 2022 Nordic Council Film Prize

icelandic film lamb

The 2022 Nordic Council Film Prize, awarded in Helsinki yesterday evening, Tuesday, November 1, has been awarded to the recent Icelandic film, Lamb. Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson and co-written with notable Icelandic author, Sjón, the folk horror film was described as “a unique story of loss, grief, and fear.”

Hrönn Krisinsdóttir and Sara Nassim were also honoured in their role as producers, with the DKK 300,00 (USD 39,900, EUR 40,300) prize money split evenly between the recipients, reflecting the co-operative nature of filmmaking.

Also present at the ceremony was Finnish PM Sanna Marin, who awarded the prize.

Lamb, starring Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason, revolves around a farming couple who live in a remote region of Iceland. Supernatural events influence their relationship when one of their sheep gives birth to a human-sheep hybrid.

The film, originally called Dýrið in Icelandic, has already garnered recognition, premiering in the Cannes film festival’s Un Certain Regard section, and taking home the Icelandic Edda award, the official award ceremony for the Icelandic film industry.

The Nordic Council awards five prizes each year for literature, film, music, environmental activism, and youth literature. 

Other recipients of the 2022 prize include Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist for her work “Silent Earth,” the Norwegian graphic novelist Nora Dåsnes for her work “Ubesvart anrop,” an account of the 2011 terror attacks in Norway, and also the city of Mariehamn in Åland, for its environmental work in preserving its wetlands.

Valdimar Jóhannsson’s Lamb Sweeps Edda Awards

Lilja Jóns. Lamb

Valdimar Jóhansson’s 2021 film, Lamb, swept the Edda awards, which took place this Sunday September 18.

Nominated in 13 categories, the folk horror film took home a total a 12 awards, including film of the year, director of the year (Valdimar Jóhannsson) and screenplay of the year (Valdimar Jóhannsson and Sjón).

The Edda Prize is awarded annually by the Icelandic Film and Television Academy since 1999. Under consideration this year were 154 television works, 10 films, 13 documentaries, and 15 entries for youth media.

Icelandic filmmaker Þráinn Bertelsson was also recognized for his work in cinema. Þráinn is best known for his films Jón Oddur & Jón Bjarni (1981), Dalalíf (1984), Skammdegi (1985), and Magnús (1989). He has since been active in journalism and politics.

At the award ceremony, Þráinn stated: “I am extremely grateful that I somehow managed to work only on things that I was interested in. Everything I do, I do for fun and hopefully for someone else too.”

Iceland’s contribution to the 2022 Oscars was also selected at the award ceremony, Berdreymi (Beautiful Beings), by director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson. The film concerns a troubled teenage boy with a difficult home who befriends a bullied child at school. According to the jury, the film “is a haunting story that is presented with calmness and consideration […] The tone, spirit, and feel of the narrative exploits the potential of the form in a remarkable way, resulting in a raw and powerful cinematic experience.” Guðmundur is also known for his 2016 film, Hjartasteinn (Heartstone).

Read more: Of Lamb and Legends (for subscribers)

 

Aftershock

Quake

Picking up threads

Auður’s novel centres on a woman waking up from a grand mal seizure, having lost her memory. As a single parent, she feels unable to let on how much she has forgotten because she fears losing custody of her child. As she starts digging into her past, she finds more than she bargained for. For Auður, the story begins with past violence and how we rewrite our lives to make them fit to what we believe is right. “I’d read an article in a German science journal by a neurologist that stated that we were characters of our own creation. We adapt our memories to the capabilities of our personality.” Now that she’s seen Tinna’s take on the story, she can muse on their different approaches. “You have to strip the story down a lot for a film. A film’s narrative has to be a lot simpler than in a book. That’s why the novel is such a great format. It’s the only art form where you can let yourself take any stories you want and mix them all up. When a story gets to the theatre or a film, it has to have a really definitive voice; which thread of the narrative are you taking on?” Even though they share a storyline, her novel and Tinna’s film are entirely different. Auður tells me that she had no influence on the filmmaking process. “I told Tinna she should do it completely in her own way. When you’re creating a piece of art, you have to have your own unique take on it.”

For Tinna, finding a clear throughline in the intricate plot of the novel wasn’t an issue. “There were so many things that I wanted to keep, but then again, there were a lot of things I had to cut out in order to strengthen the story that I wanted to highlight in the film. The book has more threads to the storyline than the film does. I had to choose which one of them I wanted to highlight. I had to find the core of the story that I wanted to tell.” Again, she went with her gut, the part of the story that spoke the loudest to her. “In this case, it was her love for her son. That she wants to become a whole person in order to be there for her son was what spoke the loudest to me. It’s what we all want.” There’s more to it than simply taking care of the child. It’s a matter of saving the child from generational trauma. 

 

Family inheritance

In some ways, working through your own trauma is the most selfless thing you can do, as you’re taking on the challenging work of self-discovery in order to provide better conditions for your children. Tinna went on: “I wanted to touch on the chain reaction that many of our generation are combatting these days. Trying to be open and honest about events and experiences we’ve had. About the things that shaped us in our childhood and our lives. How we can face these things and work on them in order to stop our own trauma from affecting how we raise our children. So, they don’t have to deal with what happened to you as well.” In Quake, the older generation is silent on some family secrets, while the main character is trying to get things out in the open. This ties back to a mindset shift that’s currently taking place. “I think we’re stepping away from the closed-off, silencing mindset that many of us grew up with. Not just in our families but in society as a whole. People are much more open about things these days. It’s difficult, and it comes with growing pains, hurt feelings and sensitive topics. But sometimes, you just have to dive deep into your core and acknowledge that things aren’t great all the time.” Tinna states. 

Auður’s books have long dealt with family secrets and generational trauma. It’s raised plenty of interest but a considerable number of eyebrows as well, especially early on in her career. To her, denial equals isolation. “It’s not a question of is there a family secret, but which one is it and where is it buried. When you write about these things, so many people tell you that it’s their story, we’re so similar in so many ways.” As the years have gone by, Auður finds less and less resistance to her writing. “The book came out in 2015, and it was harder to tell the story back then. We’ve gone through such an awakening as a society. With each year that passes, it takes less effort to open up about these things. More people are listening without diminishing your experience.”

As Tinna was writing the script for the film, Icelandic society and the world as a whole was in upheaval over the first wave of #metoo. Much like Quake’s main character was forced to go through the painful process of rewriting her own narrative, writing the story of such a personal journey tugged at Tinna’s soul. “It was hard. I went through some lows when writing the script. Some deep lows. It’s a touching story, and just as I was writing it, the #metoo campaign was at its peak. Everyone was opening up and sharing their stories. People were taking sides, and stories were coming out in Facebook groups. There was a lot going on in society, and I was dealing with some events that have to do with silencing.” While Quake doesn’t deal with sexual abuse, it addresses the necessary pain involved in opening up about past trauma. “It was a purge and an awakening. It hit people hard at the time. But it was necessary and important. In every moment of reckoning, there is a struggle involved. It’s painful. And if it isn’t, it isn’t real, and you won’t get what you need.” 

Tinna Hrafnsdóttir

Auður Jónsdóttir

Healing from within

For Auður, the role of narrative in the healing process is fascinating. “In therapy, they ask you to tell your story, and there’s a good reason. It gives you the power to see things out for yourself and to acknowledge your role in what happened as well as other people’s role. It validates your experience and gives it space. The story itself is a healing process.” The talk turns to #metoo again, which in Iceland prompted a nationwide study on the traumatic history of women and its effect on their physical and mental wellbeing. “It’s not just that people are waking up to these things. We’re also learning so much more about them than we used to. We have better tools to understand our traumatic experiences and how trauma is passed down in some families. If you experienced trauma as a child and never had the chance to deal with it, there’s more risk of trauma as you grow older.” 

As stories of trauma get shared more widely and openly, people also realise that there’s often logic behind irrational behaviour. “Because it’s so hard to understand. People need to know more about trauma and how it affects people so they can understand how to get the help they need. I’ve also heard experts say that it’s important to go through working through trauma in order to be able to let go. It’s so interesting when we embody our trauma, and they start to control our reflexes. We can be another character than we could be if we hadn’t dealt with our trauma and learned to understand our own reactions. People can run into trauma in love, in life, in decision making, if it is always there, strumming in your subconscious.” For instance, there’s the urge to keep a secret hidden when opening up about it might start a healing process. “People do the strangest things without understanding it themselves. Speaking of reflexes, they’re often very counterintuitive. A woman of this generation, like so many others with buried trauma, has her way of making sure it stays that way. It’s her only way to keep her reality going. And that’s what family secrets were all about. No one could say anything because then it would all blow up. Keep a straight face and keep the family together. And it passed from generation to generation. I think there’s something to the idea that if you want to change the fate of your whole family, you should start with yourself. So you don’t pass it on. Secrets come with certain actions. Repression, shame, insecurity.”

 

Finding your strength

For Tinna, it’s crucial to find a personal connection to what she’s writing about, no matter how hard it is to dive back into these feelings. “Even if the film is based on Auður’s book and I stay true to that core, there’s plenty of me in the script as well. How can there not be? My voice gets added to the work.” For Auður, authoring the book was deeply personal, requiring her to open up. Tinna says: “I am infinitely grateful to Auður for giving me this opportunity. I respect her deeply as an artist for doing it.” Such an act of letting go requires humility. 

Tinna recognises that she has that ability now and that it is a product of her going through a traumatic experience herself and overcoming it. “In my case, I couldn’t always be this brave. I wasn’t always able to. I was shy and scared of other people’s opinions. But then I had to go through a massive personal challenge myself, I couldn’t get pregnant. For five years, I had infertility treatments, which is a really long time when you can practically hear your biological clock ticking.” Motherhood had always been her goal. In fact, she remembers a conversation on infertility with a friend years before she experienced it herself. “I distinctly remember telling her I could manage just about anything life would throw at me, except that. Not being able to become a mom, I couldn’t bear the thought.” After five years of infertility treatments, Tinna’s own personal miracle happened, and she had two healthy twin boys. “Sometimes, I think life put me in this situation. I needed this. I was so insecure before it happened. All the feelings I experienced during that period, all the fear and doubt that came along with it, proved to myself who I was and what I could do. I won’t give up no matter what. And to me, this was the greatest victory I could ever achieve. I don’t care if I could direct a Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep; this would still be my greatest feat. And when you get to that point of your greatest victory, all the losses you face become so much easier to deal with. I was filled with serenity. As for what I do, I can stand by my work if I do my best and put my heart into it. But if people don’t like it or if it isn’t going according to plan or doesn’t reach the peak I want it to, that’s OK too. Because I’ve already proven to myself what I’m capable of.”

Adaptation

The process of adapting the book to film took years, a lot of personal growth, and the process was slightly marred by the global pandemic. A twist of fate meant that the release of the film coincided with the American release date of Quake, translated by Meg Matich. The book she wrote several years ago is all of a sudden a massive part of her life again, and that has had some unexpected results. “I got back in emotional contact with it through the film. It really hit me when I wasn’t expecting it. Tinna and I went to New York to promote the film and the book, and so I started talking about the book like it came out yesterday. The book started taking more space in my life again, and it reignited feelings that I’d forgotten. A book is such a part of the era you write it in. I got a little sensitive, which surprised me.” Memories resurfaced, and issues she believed she had resolved years ago reared their head again. “You think you’re done working through it. But it can get you when you least expect it. It’s fiction, but the feelings are real, and there’s a creature in this book that can be raised from the dead even if you don’t expect it.” 

Even for a novelist who writes autobiographical fiction set on airing out old secrets and facing them head-on, when Auður was working on the novel, she found another side of trauma she didn’t expect. She had taken control of her own narrative, but she still wasn’t ready to let go. “Vigdís Grímsdóttir was writing my mother’s biography and mentioned an incident from my childhood in an unfamiliar context. It struck me down. I realised that while I had written autobiographical fiction until then, I had always had control over my own narrative. I was protected by the fiction.” Quake centres on a woman who’s forced to rethink the narrative of her own life. For Auður, it’s a process she’s familiar with. “I’ve had to rework my narrative often. That’s where I got the idea. I wanted to write about a person that wakes up with a clean slate as if she were a newborn.” 

In the end, Auður was able to let her story go. “Tinna does it so beautifully, so strongly. It’s healthy for an artist to see another artist’s take on their work. It’s fun to work with others in this way.” Auður adds that this isn’t even the first new work of art that’s sparked by her novel. “There’s also a musical composition by Páll Ragnar Pálsson based on a text from the book. When the book was published, he asked if he could make a composition based on a clause from the book about nature within us and geological activity within us. He composed this work, Quake for cello and orchestra, that’s been performed all over the world and was selected as the most outstanding work at the International Rostrum of Composers in Budapest in 2018. The text always accompanies it whenever it is performed. And then he made the score for the film with Eðvarð Egilsson. So, there are at least three works of art derived from this one story.” Tinna took Auður’s words and transformed them into her own images. “I think it’s so important to use every frame and use all the imagery you can.” Tinna states. “Sounds and colours are so important as well. No less important than the words. The soundscape is so strong in this film, which is why I tell people to see the film in the cinema. I use colours very strategically as well. I use grey, white, and red, these are the colours I use most in the film, and all this is a part of how I tell the story. She’s wearing a red coat, and there’s a reason for that. There’s snow everywhere, everything is white, and there’s a reason for that.” She tells me that getting such copious amounts of snow during the shooting was a lucky coincidence. “You can never rely on Iceland’s weather like that. And we for sure didn’t have the funds for fake snow!” 

Icelandic Film Quake Gets International Theatrical Release

Icelandic writer-director Tinna Hrafnsdóttir’s film Quake will have a theatrical release in North America, Sweden, and the UK, Variety reports. The psychological drama is Tinna’s first feature-length film as a director; as an actor, she takes a supporting role in Quake, but has previously had starring roles in the popular TV series The Valhalla Murders and The Minister.

“Quake” follows Saga (Anita Briem), a single mother in her late thirties, who has a grand mal seizure while walking in a public park with her six-year-old son. The event results in her total memory loss and afraid of being declared an unfit mother, Saga attempts to conceal her precarious state of mind while also dealing with suddenly surfacing memories of her childhood, which she’s long repressed. The film is an adaptation of the Icelandic Literary Prize-nominated novel Stjóri skjálfi by Auður Jónsdóttir, which was recently published by Dottir Press in the US under the title Quake (translated by Meg Matich).

The film, which premiered in Iceland in March and was well-received at the Santa Barbara film festival the same month, sold to Juno Films in North America and the UK and Njuta Films in Sweden. Both companies are planning for a late 2022 release. Quake will also be presented at the upcoming Cannes Marché du Film.

Lamb to Be Iceland’s 2022 Oscar Submission

lamb dýrið noomi rapace

The Icelandic Film and TV Academy has chosen Lamb to be Iceland’s submission to the 2022 Academy Awards, or Oscars, RÚV reports. Lamb (titled Dýrið in Icelandic) has already snagged two nominations and one award at Cannes and is already the highest-grossing Icelandic film to be screened in the United States.

The film is directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, who wrote the script alongside Icelandic author Sjón. Lamb stars Noomi Rapace and Hilmir Snær Guðnason, who play María and Ingvar, a childless couple in the Icelandic countryside who discover a mysterious newborn on their farm. While at first, “the unexpected prospect of family life brings them much joy,” it ultimately destroys them.

The jury of the Icelandic Film and TV Academy praised the film’s strong imagery and originality. “From the first moment, the viewer is captured and hypnotizes through a mysterious and exciting adventure,” the jury wrote. Their statement called the film a “careful study of human nature, sorrow, and loss.”

Lamb is currently showing in Icelandic theatres.