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Where's the Snow?!

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.

 

Inside the Icelandic Weather report

There aren’‘t many books I'‘d recommend reading over morning coffee but The Little Book of the Icelanders is one of them. It’‘s an ebook, that is you can’‘t buy it at Tergesen’‘s. You have to order it and pay for it online, then you’‘ll get an electronic copy in your email.

The reason it’‘s good for morning reading is that there are fifty pieces explaining Icelandic society and its quirks and weirdnesses, everything from a passion for foot baths to the swimming pool police.

You can read a couple of essays, close the file, go about your business and, the next time you take a coffee break, open the file and read a couple more essays. Mind you, if you enjoy the essays as much as I did, you’‘ll probably find that you’‘ll drink three cups of coffee and not do the dishes or laundry.
There’‘s nothing more annoying than the habit of Icelanders not replying to mail, email or, even, phone calls. This is true even when you owe them money and want to pay them. For years, when I was working with The Richard and Margaret Beck Trust, we tried to pay for some films. We had the films. We had the money to pay for them. As far as I know, our many missives were never answered. Alda explains it all. It turns out that Icelanders don’‘t just do that to foreigners. They                    do it to other Icelanders as well.

There are essays on the attitudes of Icelanders to courting, naming children, traffic lights, and flott. If you don’‘t know what flott is, you’‘ve got to read the book. Flott is more important than the economic crises, its more important than the Ice Save agreement. Heck, it’‘s more important than Davið Oddsson.

I thought that when I was in Iceland at a party and Icelanders were three sheets to the wind with their arms draped over my shoulders, talking to me like I was a long lost and wealthy brother, I’´d made friends for life, only to discover the next day that they walked past me like they’´d never met me.  I thought it might be their hangovers or memory loss from too much Black Death but, according to Alda, it is neither. They behave the same way to each other.

I laughed at the essays in this book, not because I was laughing at Icelanders but because I recognize much of the behaviour in myself and members of my famiy. It felt good. It’´s not just the sanest, most impressive characteristics that we pass on and share but also some of the zaniest. As I read this book, I frequently thought, yup, I’‘m definitely part Icelandic.


The Little Book of the Icelanders can be ordered by logging on to  www.icelandweatherreport.com and clicking on the image of the book. That will take you to the main information page, where you can buy it.
 
 

The ruins of Djupivik

Meet Kara Schuster, photographer, artist, past president and convention co-coordinator of the ICCT

After graduating with honours from the University of Toronto, she went to Iceland for the first time in 2002 as a member of the Snorri program.

She took her second trip to Iceland in 2003 and photographed the southern part of the country.

In 2008 she went back with her mother and brother and acted as their guide.

Her mother’s grandparents on her father's side, Magnús Guðmundsson Ísfeld, (born at Stóruö Reykjum, South Thingeyar) left Iceland for Brazil. There he married Ellin Joelsdóttir (born at Lundarbrekka, South Thingeyar) in 1876 in Curitiba. They had 12 children. Joel August (her grandfather) was born in Curitiba in 1886. 1n 1904 they left Brazil, homesteaded in Wynyard, Saskatchewan. August married Steinunn June "Rose" Thórarinson (born in the North West Territories, now Saskatchewan in 1905) in 1929. August and Rose had seven children, and later moved to Cardston, Alberta in 1946.

Both of Rose's parents, Gudmundur Thórarinson (born in 1863 in Jökulsáhli) and Solveig (Jonsson) Runólfsson (born in Geirastaðir in 1873) and their families moved from Iceland to Fort Rouge, Manitoba in 1883. They married in 1896 in Winnipeg and had six children.

Her photographs for her show were taken at Djúpavík, a small fishing town that was home to a herring factory in the 1930s and was once Iceland’s largest concrete building. It went out of business in 1954. She was taken with the contrast of the beauty of nature and the deterioration of human ambition. Her photographs will be part of the Contact Photography Festival in Toronto during the month of May. There will be an opening reception May 12th, 7 p.m.-10 p.m.

She discovered Djupavík while watching the movie Heima by Sigur Rós. One of their concerts was in the warehouse at Djupavík. After years of travelling to abandoned places in Ontario and New York to document them, she was determined to make another trip to Iceland and go to Djupavík. The owners of the property welcomed her and her family and gave them a private tour of the property.
She says, ‘Being able to experience places that were thriving industries before they are gone forever is exhilarating to me. I like to breathe life back into them, give some of their importance back.’

It’s not a show to miss. If you’d like to go, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to RSVP. Her show is at the Thor Espresso Bar, 35 Bathurst Street, Toronto, opening reception is May 12th from 7 p.m. - 10 p.m. Show is on from May 1st - 31st.
 
Kara’s website is at www.karaschuster.com or call 905-302-9699
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Destination Iceland: The Trade Ships

It’s 1872 and after a long, hard winter, isolated from neighbouring farms by wind, snow and sleet that come in howling storms, trapped inside with no heat but body heat from the other household members plus some heat from the cattle in their pens, it’s time to ride to the coast to a Markaðr, the annual trip to trade goods with the Danish ships that have anchored off-shore, a trip that each way may take ten days.

The winter has been spent with everyone knitting and weaving on a fixed and standing loom. The good weavers wove three yards a day of wadmal, as the cloth is called. It comes in a variety of colours: grey, black, light blue, the russet brown of undyed wool, and sometimes white.
 
On the trip to the trading station, every rider has two horses so that the rider can change as the horses get tired. With them was also a string of pack horses loaded with supplies. In the packs would be woolen mittens, stockings, fine socks, ordinary wadmal jackets, fine wadmal jackets, wool, eiderdown, other bird feathers, tallow, butter, salted mutton and beef. There might even have been one or two fox skins and maybe some bird skins. Swan skins have become rare by this time, and command a high price.
 
Women rode side-saddle to the harbour where the trading fair was held. Side-saddles were little more than chairs set sideways on a horse. The side-saddles gave the rider little control over the horse and women were at greater risk than men when fording rivers. The side-saddles used for this yearly event had unusually elaborate foot-boards, with backs of worked brass to display the farmer’s wealth and status.
 
As you get closer to the harbour, you can see other groups of horses and riders that are descending from the hills and, before you, groups of farmers and peasants have already gathered in clusters in front of the shore. The men greet each other with the traditional kiss, then study the ships.
 
You pitch your tents and begin by finding out what is being charged and paid by the Danish merchants. No cash changes hands. Everything is done by trading goods. The Danes control both the selling and buying prices.
 
The Sýslumaðr, in his gold-laced cap and uniform buttons struts about to keep order, because the drinking is heavy. The Sýslumaðr is similar to a sheriff. He was granted an area called Sýsla in which he was responsible for collecting tolls, taxes and fines, and upholding the law. The Danish merchants are free-handed with liquor before the bargaining begins so there is a party atmosphere to the gathering.
The men row out to the two Danish ships and scramble up the ladders. The women wear white head-kerchiefs over their usual black caps, and instead of shawls they cover their shoulders with short scarves that reach only to the waist. In spite of their bulky petticoats, they manage to climb the ladders and over the gunwales of the ships.
 
The ships have been constructed like a store. There’s a desk and a counter. Sometimes, the stores supply most of the Icelander’s necessities – dry goods, clothes and caps, saddlery, wool carders, querns of basalt for grinding grain, horse shoes, and spinnning wheels; sugar, grain, tobacco, and especially rye spirits. Everything is needed: timber, salt, grain, coffee, spices. The timber consists of pine and fir, the forms are beams for roofing and framing, twenty-two to twenty-four feet long, one-inch boards for siding for houses, three-inch planks and finer woods for the cabinet maker. Salt is essential for salting both fish and meat and the only local salt that is available sometimes is called dirty salt because it comes from burning seaweed. There may be birch wood, sawn and split for fuel, but it is not for ordinary people. Only the Danish merchants can afford it. There are cereals – rye and wheat – that can be bought as grain, flour or already made into biscuits. The farmers prefer the grain because the flour is often mouldy or in poor condition. Buying grain means the laborious task of grinding it with a handmill but that is work for the servants. They can do that when they are not pounding hardfish with a stone hammer to ready it for eating. You will be buying a lower-quality rice in quantity, because, like most Icelanders, you like to make rice milk. In the years between 1864 and 1870, the amount of imported rice quintupled. The available spices are usually cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Twist tobacco is bought for chewing as well as smoking. The favorite form of tobacco is snuff.
 
The merchants have a large cargo of port, sherry, claret and champagne, rum and cognac, and even cherry brandy to trade with the better off farmers. Most such liquor is expensive and of poor quality. Sometimes, the traders bring so much liquor that they don’t have room for the supplies the Icelanders want and need. The brennivin, kornschnapps and rye spirits are cheap. The profits for the traders are high.
 
According to F.R. Burton, who attended one of these markets, there was considerable hard drinking and loud hymn singing at night.
 
When the trading and visiting are done, it is time to return to the farm. The horses’ pack saddles are set on pieces of turf to protect the horses from saddle sores. Each saddle has wooden pegs jutting from its sides, and wooden chests full of the traded goods are hung from the pegs. The trip will be slow because the packs often shift and have to be righted.
 
Although it is summer, traversing the quaking bogs, ravines and rivers may be made more difficult by rain, sleet and snow. The hæði and the river fords have holes filled with quicksand that horses sink into and have to be pulled out. Some rivers have ice rushing down from the glaciers.There is the occasional ferry. In most cases, it is a small rowboat that can only take people and their supplies. The horses have to be driven into the water to swim for the other bank. Some turn back and have to be caught and forced back into the river. Most of the time, though, there is no ferry and you have to follow a local guide across the least dangerous path.
 
But you’ve been to visit the fair, boarded the trade ships, purchased at least some of the goods you need for the coming year, seen people you haven’t seen for twelve months, caught up on news. In the weeks ahead, there is shortening daylight, growing darkness, winter wind and rain and cold, but you’ve been to the fair, been inside the ships and bought at least some of the things you’ll need to survive for another year.
 
With notes and quotes from R.F. Burton’s Ultima Thule, 1875

Huldufólk Markerville

We met in the very early morning in the Creamery Museum yard; there was a chill in the air so I gave her my Icelandic woollen shawl to put over her shoulders.

At the big rocks, I explained, is where the huldufólk live. Most people have never seen them but everyone knows of the mischief they cause.

They can sour the milk, tip over the barrel of whey, cause the spinning wheel to break down and if you ever misplace anything you just know the huldufólk moved it. The story begins when a mother decided to hide her children that were not washed when God came to visit. She sent all the children with dirty faces out the back door and they never came back. They turned into life-sized fairies much like us; they marry, have children and work but live in the rocks on the barren landscape in Iceland. Wayne Linneberg, local historian, spent one summer researching how the huldufólk got to Markerville. He found out they came with the first immigrants in 1888. You can get his research paper in the Pint Sized Gift Shop in the Creamery Museum. We walked around the Creamery looking for the hidden people, we had been told the best time to see them was at dawn. We stood on the walking bridge to see if we could catch sight of them foraging for breakfast on the riverbank. The early morning light was magical, almost super natural, so I felt sure we would spot a huldufólk – but saw nothing!

We strolled down Main Street, reading the posted plaques that let visitors know where the first building used to stand. All the time we felt we were being watched. There was a hotel, a meat market, livery stable, a pool hall, and two stores. Behind one store is where the library used to be. It was first started in 1892 at the Tindastoll post office. The farmers could get their mail and exchange books. They even had a literary society called Iðunn. Those Icelanders like to read, recite and versify.

We sat quietly on the riverbank by the giant cream can admiring the huge stocks of grain coming out the top, hoping the huldufólk would let themselves be seen near this monument honouring all the Markerville pioneers. We sat perfectly still for twenty minutes, only hearing cows softly lowing from across the river and then a mouse ran though the grass at our feet. Something had frightened it. We did not see huldufólk! I guess we didn’t believe strongly enough and they knew it.

As the light turned from gray/blue to a yellow/orange glow we walked across the street to the Fensala Hall and went inside. Huldufólk had lived here for many years. Their presence has been documented in photos taken over the years, showing the glow of their eyes when nothing else could be seen. The hidden people could really tell some tales about the parties and celebrations held here.

On New Year’s Eve 1891, the honoured poet and orator Stephan G. Stephansson said these words “If we feel our community lacks some amenities needed to make it a more pleasant place, we can do something about it. We know nature did not corral all the hardships and leave them near Red Deer… So if we feel something is amiss, let’s get our hands out of our pockets and do something about it.” That spirit is alive and well in Markerville today!”
Then we walked past Mozart Street to Johnson Street, right up the new steps of the Historic Markerville Lutheran Church, which is sitting a little higher today on a new foundation. We peeked in, I thought I heard a voice; could that be the ghost of Rev. Hjalmsson giving one of his four-hour sermons? The huldufólk remembered back then, the men would go out for a smoke but the women were made of tougher stuff. They sat in the church for the duration of the sermon. Those strong women helped form “Vonin” Icelandic Ladies Aid in 1891, which is still active today.

A short walk brought us right back to the rocks in the museum yard; Markerville is very small. The sun was fully up and we could feel its welcome warmth. We sat down to enjoy coffee with lump sugar and kleinur. Later that day many Alberta Icelanders came together in Markerville for a picnic. It was June 17th.

 
 

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