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RIFF 2018: Woman at War, Jonas Mekas Exhibition and Camilla Strøm Henriksen on Phoenix

“You know who would’ve loved this movie? Roger Ebert!” declared Anne Hubbell, founder of Tangerine Entertainment, during our chat at the Reykjavík International Film Festival. She was discussing Yann Gonzalez’s cheerfully blood-spattered melodrama “Knife + Heart,” and I couldn’t help agreeing with her, considering Ebert’s love of Brian De Palma and bold genre mash-ups including his own, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” A day after I posted my enthusiastic review of the picture, Hubbell and her fellow jury members gave “Knife + Heart” RIFF’s top prize—the Golden Puffin, awarded to first or second-time directors—praising Gonzalez’s ability to defy labels “using confidence, humor and a thrilling juxtaposition of love and loss.” Earning a Special Mention was “Styx,” Wolfgang Fischer’s riveting thriller about the refugee crisis that is still in the running for the LUX Prize, presented in November by the European Parliament. Nominated alongside it is Benedikt Erlingsson’s “Woman at War,” a superlative example of Icelandic cinema, showcasing not only the landscape’s distinctive beauty but also its inherent drama.

Through various tourist sites are accessible by road along the country’s perimeter, the vast majority of Iceland consists of uninhabited terrain, with sand and volcanic glass covering a desert terrain well over 12,000 miles in size. This is the sort of desolate locale ripe for a suspenseful set-piece, and as Halla—the notorious activist in Erlingsson’s film—scampered about its rugged surface, outwitting every helicopter and drone aiming to take her down, I was reminded of Cary Grant’s infamous battle with the deadly crop-duster in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.” As played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir with winning perseverance and warm eyes that can fire daggers without warning, Halla is a woman after Mildred Hayes’ heart, so determined to raise awareness about industrial corruption that she has no qualms with torpedoing a few power lines in the process. 

When she marches toward the camera to a quirky militaristic anthem evocative of “Moonrise Kingdom” during the opening credits, the camera pans over to reveal a three-piece band performing the soundtrack live. This conceit soon proves to be much more than a one-time sight gag a la Count Basie’s cameo in “Blazing Saddles,” as the musicians repeatedly materialize along with a Greek chorus of sorts, embodying the conscience and tireless spirit of Geirharðsdóttir’s protagonist in melodic form. The score by Davíð Þór Jónsson, who also composed the music for Erlingsson’s previous festival favorite, “Of Horses and Men,” ranks among the year’s best, emerging as a literal character in the movie without diffusing any tension or emotional nuance. Geirharðsdóttir is equally delightful as Halla’s twin sister, Ása, a bohemian yoga instructor whose dislike of extremism may make her an unlikely ally in her sibling’s uncompromising crusade. 

Halla’s rage at profit-driven forces threatening to forfeit our survival by ruining the environment beyond repair couldn’t be timelier, especially when the government attempts to antagonize her by claiming that she has declared war on working people (there are echoes here of Trump’s motives behind championing the coal industry). How Erlingsson and co-writer Ólafur Egilsson go about tackling this topic is by turns poignant and comedic, leading to some well-earned moments of catharsis that had me cheering, such as when Halla—clad in a Nelson Mandela mask—yanks a drone out of the sky before smashing it to bits. Her ambivalence toward bringing new life into the world has caused her to put plans for adoption on hold, but when a four-year-old girl is left orphaned by the war in Ukraine, her attitude toward the future begins to shift. The film’s lyrical final shot comes as close to encapsulating mankind’s current self-imposed predicament as any I’ve seen in 2018.

Photo of Jonas Mekas by Joanna Kedzierska.

Jonas Mekas, the godfather of American avant-garde cinema whose diaristic chronicling of everyday life predated the modern internet by several decades, was set to be RIFF’s Guest of Honor until ill health caused him to reluctantly cancel. The 95-year-old auteur was still eager to conduct his scheduled masterclass via Skype, and his exuberance was euphoric to behold. At one point striking a kung fu pose, Mekas displayed the energy of a man one-fifth his age, consistently punctuating the word “cinema” with an exclamation point. He rejects work that lingers on misery, opting to continue crafting “a celebration of life on this planet.” 

Born in Lithuania a day before Christmas, Mekas vividly recalled in a 2015 interview how his brother gave him a still camera on his birthday, which just so happened to be the same week that Russian tanks rolled into his country. His first-ever pictures were taken of the tanks, causing a disgruntled lieutenant to rip the camera from his hands and destroy the footage. After being imprisoned for eight months with his brother in a labor camp, they eventually settled in New York, where the filmmaker still lives today. With online media liberating his intuitive creativity just as it did for David Lynch, Mekas launched his own site in 2006, where his experimental uploads continue to push the form in provocative ways. I particularly love his manifesto on the eternal youth of cinema, produced in honor of its centennial, where he insists that the art form can never age because “it is always beginning.” He considers his camera an extension of his hand, and will continue to use the same one until it needs to be replaced (he currently operates a GoPro). 

Like a Flower in a Field, Mekas’ first solo exhibition in Iceland, debuted two days prior to the masterclass at Reykjavík’s Ásmundarsalur art gallery. Skillfully curated by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, the exhibition featured three monitors compiling excerpts of the filmmaker’s online diaries. Likening the sprouting of flora in New York with the spontaneity of his artistry, Ragazzi selected 45 images of flowers captured in Mekas’ work to align the gallery windows, bathing the white-walled room in colorful light. A collection of handwritten statements from the director also covered the walls, my favorite being, “We do not need perfection! We need nervous breakdowns!”

Perfection certainly wouldn’t be the word to describe the masterclass itself, which was marred by poor reception that rendered Mekas’ answers nearly unintelligible. Every time his voice cut out, I silently recited the Icelandic mantra taught to me by the festival’s indispensable guest coordinator, Martiina Putnik: “þetta reddast,” meaning, “Oh well, it will work itself out somehow!” And work itself out it did, thanks in large part to Mekas’ indomitable spirit. So expressive were his gesticulations and jovial grins that they told us everything we needed to know, even when his words were obscured. He loved interacting with the audience, waving to each of us on the monitor as the camera scanned the crowd. I asked him about his belief in the importance of changing one’s mind—which he memorably voiced in defense of Paris Hilton—and how the chronically divided American populace could benefit from this perspective. This question elicited one of Mekas’ most animated responses, arguing that we are doomed to rot if we remain stuck in one way of thinking. He concluded the Q&A by taking a recording of the audience with his GoPro (pictured above), making us the latest addition to his intimate oeuvre. 

Among the best movies I saw at RIFF was “Phoenix,” the first directorial feature effort of Norwegian actress-turned-filmmaker, Camilla Strøm Henriksen. She made her film debut in Martin Asphaug’s acclaimed 1989 drama, “A Handful of Time,” for which she earned the Best Actress prize at Norway’s Amanda Awards. During our chat at RIFF, Henriksen credited the picture with bringing a new energy to her nation’s cinema, increasing the number of high-quality films that were made there. Her interest in directing spawned from her frustration with the acting business and the difficulty in acquiring good roles, ultimately finding that she preferred telling stories rather than acting in them. Henriksen’s extensive experience in directing television, including over 100 episodes of Scandinavia’s longest-running soap, “Hotel Cæsar,” was an ideal training ground for the tight turnaround of independent filmmaking, since it required her to shoot a great deal in a small span of time, moving fast while being clear with her intentions. 

The heroine of “Phoenix” is Jill (Ylva Bjørkaas Thedin), a girl on the cusp of celebrating her 14th birthday, whose unstable mother (Maria Bonnevie) and estranged father (Sverrir Gudnason) have caused her to become the sole parental figure in her family. Jill’s younger brother, Bo (Casper Falck-Løvås), may be pint-sized, but he’s also wise behind his years, able to see directly through the lies he’s fed. Henriksen first began developing “Phoenix” 12 years ago, around the same time I began my career as a published film critic. Both of us have vivid memories of seeing Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece, “Pan’s Labyrinth” on the big screen for the first time, an experience that Henriksen found immensely influential as she crafted her own psychological portrait of a young girl. 

“I saw it eight times and loved it, even though fantasy is not really my kind of thing at all,” Henriksen told me. “I was inspired by how seamlessly the director blended fantasy with melodrama full of pathos. My grandparents had worked in puppet theatre, and I grew up with the Norwegian fairy tales that they performed. The monsters in these stories externalized the fear of things in life that are too terrifying for children to fully comprehend. I thought that element would fit naturally into this family drama, where we are authentic in the psychology without allowing it to become the sort of social realist picture that bores me to death. Having the story be viewed from Jill’s heightened and subjective point-of-view is what draws in the audience. She has a very strong ambivalence toward her mother. In a way, she hates her and deep down, wants her dead, but that’s something she could never admit to herself. That little monster in the film externalizes her resentment and fear of her mother—all these feelings that are still undigested.”  

Henriksen makes a point of not specifying the insidious disorder afflicting Jill’s mother, and says that no particular research was needed since the story was based on events from her own childhood. Her years of therapy have been immensely helpful, serving as a form of research by teaching her so much about herself. In terms of understanding the mind of an actor, Henriksen draws from her own personal experiences as well. She is well aware of how actors must bare their souls onscreen, and won’t be able to do so unless they feel they are in safe hands. Thedin’s remarkably assured and unmannered debut performance is a testament not only to her talent but the mastery of Henriksen’s direction. 

“From the moment we first met, Ylva had this wonderful open curiosity about her,” said Henriksen. “Not only did she have an intuitive understanding of drama, she also had a great sense of empathy that really touched me. That wasn’t something that I was specifically looking for, but I realized when I met Ylva that this quality is important for the role of Jill. She taught me a lot, actually, because I initially had been looking to cast children whom you could sense were carrying a big burden. Both Ylva and Casper are very resourceful and you feel that they will survive even as their parents go under. The film is an ode to the strength and courage of children. I wanted to show that in a truthful way without being simplistic. There is no clear solution for their plight, but they have each other.”

Swedish production designer Eva Norén, whose credits include Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 landmark, “Let the Right One In,” collaborated with Henriksen to find subtle ways in expressing the characters’ inner journey through the mise-en-scène. Nearly the entire first half is set within the family’s claustrophobic loft, aside from one entrancing sequence set in Jill’s class, where she develops a crush on the boy seated next to her. The educational rainforest footage projected onto the screen before them makes it appear as if they being doused with water, a deft metaphor for the bracing sensations being felt by the girl.

“It’s the one moment where Jill finds a window to the world opening up,” noted Henriksen. “So much of her focus is inwards, since her life is centered around taking care of her family, while trying to get her mother on her feet. She has very little space to actually dream or invest in her own life—in a life that is outside the world of the family. With her mother planning for a job interview and her father due to arrive home in time for her birthday, Jill is now clinging to enough hope that enables her to have a moment of freedom. That scene in class is where she finally opens herself up to something else—her own sexuality—before her hopes are crushed. The subtlety with which this is conveyed came about through the writing process. Though the shooting script was quite close to the first draft, it came together only after a great deal of decluttering. I knew in my heart what I wanted the ending to be, but I didn’t trust it until that last draft.”

“Phoenix” will be released this Friday, October 12th, in Norway, and it is my deep hope that the film will receive the U.S. distribution it deserves. In my review published during the festival, I likened the film to Charles Laughton’s 1955 knockout, “The Night of the Hunter,” an enduring classic that I was delighted to hear Henriksen cite among her chief references. The haunting rendition of “Fly Me To The Moon” sung by a young girl over the end credits reminded me the famous sequence in Laughton’s film, where little orphaned Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce, dubbed by Betty Benson) comforts her brother by singing “Once Upon a Time There Was A Pretty Fly” as they sail along a river at night. Whereas Robert Mitchum’s sociopath-in-preacher’s clothing was the evil force tearing apart the children’s family, in the case of “Phoenix,” it is the even scarier scourge of mental illness.

“My music supervisor, Goran Obad, and I thought it would be lovely to have a young girl singing at the end,” recalled Henriksen. “We wanted somebody who sung well, but not too well—who didn’t hit all the notes. So he found a 14-year-old girl who isn’t an established star, but is obviously a good singer, as you hear during the credits. What I hope the song conveys is that the children were able to take something positive from their parents. Jill and Casper share a resourcefulness and an ability to express love that is, in some way, indicative of how they were brought up. Even though it’s going to be hard for them moving forward, they will be able to find joy in life.”

If I were asked to compare RIFF to any previous festival I’ve attended, the closest equivalent would be Ebertfest, the jubilant movie marathon annually held at Roger Ebert’s alma mater in Champaign, Illinois. Both events prioritize the moviegoing experience above all else, and celebrities are invited not to promote a project but to have their work honored. The stars aren’t on hand for interview opportunities, but that makes one’s interactions with them all the more meaningful. Mads Mikkelsen, recipient of this year’s Creative Excellence Award, chatted with me about how his brilliant 2012 collaboration with director Thomas Vinterberg, “The Hunt,” has become all the more radical in our current sociopolitical climate, challenging us to break the stigmas surrounding what can and cannot be discussed in regards to allegations of abuse. I treasured the opportunity to tell honorary guest and jury member Shailene Woodley that her performance in James Ponsoldt’s 2013 gem, “The Spectacular Now,” is one of the best I’ve ever seen. As the camera holds on her character during the film’s breathtaking final moment, every conflicted feeling she harbors for her ex ripples across her face, suggesting the many directions she could go, none of which are guaranteed. 

After Helga Stephenson, former head of the Toronto International Film Festival and mentor to RIFF festival director Hrönn Marínósdóttir, was honored at a festive ceremony, she spoke with me about her fond memories of Ebert, whom she knew since the late ’70s. The tribute to Stephenson was held at Bessastaðir, the residence of Icelandic president Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson. When I got the chance to meet the president, I told him how refreshing it was to see a literate head of state who was knowledgable about history, supports universal health care and speaks in complete sentences. He savored every last one of my well-deserved compliments, asking me to “please continue,” before getting swept back up into the crowd. Photographer Donald Gíslason, a longtime friend of Guy Maddin’s, had endless great stories to share about Icelandic culture and the vibrant history of the festival, which has always taken full advantage of its natural surroundings (back in 2015, a screening took place in a “secret cave”). I also must give special thanks to photographer Joanna Kedzierska for her excellent film recommendations, her impromptu tour of Reykjavík’s nightlife and most of all, her friendship.

During my daily strolls to screenings at the Bíó Paradís, I passed a costumed singer (pictured above) who serenaded passersby with beautiful tunes, one of which moved me so deeply that it became the official anthem of my entire trip. “Goodnight, Irene,” the American folk standard first recorded by Huddie ‘Lead Belly’ Ledbetter, nailed the bittersweetness I felt as one of the greatest adventures of my life came to a close. As the plane lifted off the runway at Keflavík Airport, taking me back to a country of toxic 24-hour news cycles and misogynistic Supreme Court justices, my paraphrased version of Ledbetter’s song ran through my mind…

Goodbye, Iceland

Goodbye, Iceland

I’ll see you in my dreams

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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