There is an established film genre centered on the music scene in Iceland that combines concert footage with musician interviews to give a sense of the state of popular music at a particular moment in the country´s cultural history.
The genre began with Friðrik Þór Friðriksson´s Rokk í Reykjavík, a documentary account of the punk movement of the early 1980s, and has flourished in recent years with films such as Ari Alexander Magnússon´s Screaming Masterpiece (2005) and Sigur Rós´s Heima (2007). Another film can now be added to the list: Where´s the Snow?! by the young American director Bowen Staines and his Icelandic co-director Gunnar B. Guðbjörnsson, which premiered at the Reykjavík International Film Festival last September.
It is an important film for two reasons. First, as a US-Iceland co-production, it signals a growing awareness outside of Iceland of Icelandic music in general, and of the Iceland Airwaves music festival in particular. Second, these directors, while both recent film school graduates, are not documentary filmmakers in the traditional sense. They make no claim to objectivity, but rather revel in their status as generational insiders documenting the music of their own time in a style more celebratory than analytical. In this sense, the torch of the music film in Iceland has been passed from documentary film-makers to a younger generation of directors as familiar with social networking sites and digital media as they are with celluloid, who see film as potential content for the web, and their personal involvement with their subjects to be their main strength as filmmakers. They are also do-it-yourselfers, eager to take on multiple roles as cameramen, lightning technicians & editors. Along with Gunnar’s brother Hlynur as soundman, the film was made with a crew of exactly … three.Gunnar B. Guðbjörnsson, 27, is a graduate of the Icelandic film school, a multimedia professional, director, editor & cameraman who has worked professionally in advertising, TV & film production and now produces the Sleepless in Reykjavik webTV series (www.sir.is) on Icelandic music. His film Himinn er að hrynja .. en stjörnurnar fara þér vel, about the British concert tour of composer Ólafur Arnalds and his string quartet, was shown at the Gimli Film Festival in 2009.Bowen Staines graduated in film studies from the Savannah College of Art & Design and has worked as a cameraman for National Geographic as well as producing a number of music videos and his own web series called Don´t Panic TV (www.dontpaniciceland.com). He is also a singer-songwriter with two CDs to his credit (perhaps he gets it from his dad, the celebrated folk singer Bill Staines) and to seal his credentials in youth culture, he is a professional skateboarder, as well. In fact it was skateboarding that first drew him to Iceland at the age of 20 to visit Ingolfstorg, the skate park at the end of Austurstræti in downtown Reykjavík. Since that time, he has developed a bit of a ‘thing’ for the country, you might say: at 24, he has been to Iceland 14 times.
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Where’s the Snow?! takes its name from the question Icelanders hear far too often from first-time visitors to the country. The film takes as its subject the 2009 edition of Iceland Airwaves, the music festival that floods the streets of downtown Reykjavík every October with music fans from all over the world. Thirteen musical acts from Iceland are shown in exuberant concert footage and relaxed backstage interviews, interspersed with lyrical shots of the Icelandic countryside -- plus the odd cultural musing from a musicologist who bears a more than passing resemblance to the present writer.A youth focus is quite evident in the fast-paced editing and brilliant colour palette of the film. While some scenes in small clubs exemplify the challenging lighting conditions under which the film was shot, others are kaleidoscopic displays of saturated colour and dazzling light. Scenes of the Icelandic countryside are not merely used as visual relief between stage performances but spliced into the performance footage itself as cutaways, as if Iceland herself were singing on stage.The affection these filmmakers bear towards their subjects is evident in every frame, but that is not to say that the bands represented all fall within a narrow range of personal taste. In fact, what the film succeeds brilliantly in displaying is the astonishing variety of musical styles alive and well in the Icelandic capital today: the blithe tunefulness of Dikta, the anything-goes raucous performance style of Reykjavík!, the gypsy-rap soulfulness of Bróðir Svartúlfs, the nostalgic melancholy of Ólafur Arnalds and his string quartet, the straight-up backbeat and plangent whimpers of Mammút, the singalong appeal of disco legend Páll Óskar backed up by chamber-pop group Hjaltalín. Two extraordinary moments stand out from the rest. One is the surprise appearance of the heavy metal performance art band Dr. Spock on a the stage of a semitrailer parked unexpectedly at an intersection in the middle of town, complete with their trademark elephant mask and plastic yellow gloves, with a whisky-guzzling fire-eater thrown in for good measure. The other is the simply heart-breaking performance by Agent Fresco of “Eyes of a Cloud Catcher” in an unplugged set at the Nordic House, matched later in the film by their performance of the same song in a rhapsodic version with wailing electric guitars at the Sódoma bar. No further examples are needed to show the astonishing range of talent that makes up the Icelandic music scene today.Bowen Staines & Gunnar Guðbjörnsson would have to be happy at the reception their film got at RIFF: four screenings, plus an extra screening added on because the others were all sold out. A large part of the film’s initial success would have to be due to its trailer, one of the most suspenseful, exciting and skillfully put together films on You Tube today, with music specially composed by Olafur Arnalds. It was on the basis of this trailer alone, that the film was pre-sold to a European cable company before it had even come out of the editing room.
Where´s the Snow?! film is must-see viewing for anyone interested in the Iceland Airwaves music festival, where these two directors can be counted on to be at their posts once again this year filming at the 2011 edition of the festival, to take place on Oct. 12-16 in Reykavík.