At Reykjavík International Film Festival’s 16th edition, strong opening and closing feature films – End of Sentence and Parasite – bookended a program where, in between, my top picks were all documentaries: an excellent slate, more than offsetting my sense that a few films with pre-festival buzz underperformed.

Local director Elfar Aðalsteins’ debut feature, End of Sentence, a joint Irish-Icelandic-US production, stars slowly-smouldering John Hawkes as Frank, alongside brashly explosive Logan Lerman as his son Sean. The plot is boilerplate: with her dying breath, Frank’s wife entreats him to scatter her ashes across an Irish lake, and to bring along Sean, who is just finishing an Alabama prison term. But a run-of-the-mill road trip becomes nuanced with a trio of sharp actors whose characters develop slick chemistry after an awkward start. The third wheel is Sarah Bolger as Jewel, a captivating Irish drifter improbably yoked into the mission, but without whom Frank and Sean couldn’t have carried it out. Kind and human (though also considerably flawed), she somehow enables the regeneration of a moribund father-son relationship.

It becomes clearer, with grudging revelations, that Sean and Frank are fundamentally incompatible. Frank resents his son’s selfish, anti-social adolescence, which hindered his care for his sick wife, and Sean believes Frank’s placid façade masks a passionless, ineffectual father who never trusted him. At a post-screening session, Hawkes explained: “I’m reminded how much I didn’t like Frank at first. He was rigid, weak, dweeb-y. I had to fight against that.” And Aðalsteins described how he arranged his deliciously indirect exposition: “We all spent a week together before filming started and asked a lot of questions about the story, and then we tried to find the answers on film.”

These three hapless characters manage, imperfectly, to move beyond seemingly inescapable prisons, both literal and metaphorical. Not just Sean, but the others as well, grapple with coming to the end of their sentences and negotiating their lives beyond. “End of sentence” also invokes a cinematic metaphor as well: Aðalsteins uses weighty, Pinteresque silences to show how his characters struggle in ways that often cannot even be verbalised, making catharsis all the more elusive. But they do escape, in a final sequence that is as freshly surprising as the opening is formulaic. Ashes, water, journey, memory, trauma, discovery, forgiveness, life and death, love and family all meld together almost magically in an extremely (and most impressively, not corny) feel-good ending: wounds are soothed.

At RIFF’s other end, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is as mind-blowingly wonderful as every other festival-goer (and box office) around the world reports. Ten minutes in, it was clear how enjoyable this film would be and I felt grateful to have another two hours ahead.

Bong’s 2017 Okja, an offbeat fable about a super-pig bred to satiate a hungry planet, featured the zesty originality that flourishes even more prolifically in Parasite. This modern epic examines wealth and poverty (and the always-turning wheel of fortune); struggle and success; luck, deceit, situational ethics, and the human condition. It’s about life schemes, cleverly transposed into film schemes. Bong himself described it as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.” The Guardian called it “a modern-day Downton Abbey upstairs-downstairs,” which is not wholly preposterous, but Parasite is profoundly more philosophical and existential than small-screen melodrama.

Hitting every note he attempts in this brilliantly-acted production, Bong ends with a quintessentially South Korean macabre note, completely unexpected (by mainstream-western standards at least), that invokes but transcends Sam Peckinpah’s or Quentin Tarantino’s over-the-top bloodfests. It’s a perfect climax to a bleak parable that had induced us to forget, temporarily, quite how bleak it was amid an appealing fantasy that the unluckier (parasitic) characters might pull off a coup to beat expectations, and that the wealthy family might not be utterly corrupt beneath their decadent veneers.

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)

I can’t imagine a stronger entry for the Academy Awards’ newly-renamed Best International Feature, for which Parasite has been nominated, or a film better suited to win South Korea’s first Oscar. I praised it to friends – possibly hyperbolically, but you know how overwrought film critics can get – as the Citizen Kane (not the Downton Abbey!) of our own moment. Like Orson Welles, Bong projects a cocky, infectious faith in the power of cinematic narrative, a confidence that a well-made film can do whatever it wants while the audience can do nothing but sit rapt and go with the flow. The dynamic appeal of Welles’ quirky new aesthetic in 1941 seems comparable to what Bong creates here. If such assessments are arbitrary and perhaps silly, suffice it to say that Parasite is an incredible achievement, the kind of film you feel lucky to have caught early on so you can tell everyone else to see it (and enjoy being the one who, they will remember, turned them on to it).

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth – about how people shape and rearrange soil in tunnelling, development, mining and extraction – is more interesting than one might first imagine. As in his acclaimed 2005 Our Daily Bread, the Austrian documentarian lets people tell their stories with minimal editorial intrusion, making viewers feel direct and authentic interaction with them. The land-movers – truck drivers, engineers, explosives specialists – redistribute our planet’s dirt, stones and minerals in ways that advance short-term profit motives. But lingering in the background (and firmly front and centre by the end) are the longer-term dangers.

With dazzling cinematography – many shots must have taken days to prepare – Geyrhalter teaches a great deal about the process: how bulldozers work, and drills, and enormous shovels, and dynamite. It is very high-tech: a Carrera marble slab that once took a week or two to produce now takes an hour, an Italian quarry worker informs. It’s “miraculous,” but he also notes that the mountain they are levelling will, eventually, disappear.

Earth (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

The workers feel an intimate connection with the earth, burrowing into places where people have never before ventured. But balancing this, Geyrhalter teases out a lurking sense of ecological guilt. In the California desert, a bulldozer operator – not sure exactly what development plans necessitate the massive tract he is clearing – explains, “You’ve gotta move forward for prosperity. The earth fights us every step of the way. But if all else fails, there’s always dynamite. We will win.” At every site, workers confess to assaulting our planet. “I don’t think earth is giving us anything easily,” one says. “Extracting is a violent struggle.”

When Earth ends at Canada’s Fort McKay, with its ecologically horrific tar sands extraction, Geyrhalter bypasses the earth-disrupters; instead, the Dené (First Nations) residents get the last word. “We believe every element of earth has a spirit,” one woman says. “Earth means life. Simple. It provides everything we need to survive. And we see Mother Earth retaliating, because they’re chipping away at the earth.”

Varda par Agnès (Varda by Agnès), an autobiographical documentary completed by Agnès Varda just before she died (aged 90) last year, presents a superbly self-reflective coda to a delightful career. Always a welcome presence on screen – humble, forthright, honest, engaging – she is even more so in this farewell. The film is exactly what one would expect it to be, and what one would want it to be. Recording a recent lecture she gave in an old French opera house (with film-clip excursions back in time to many of her films, where we see her both behind and in front of the camera), Varda by Agnès spotlights the woman who accomplished a magnificent oeuvre of simple, experimental, captivating films predicated upon the conviction that people, real people, are considerably more interesting than they are presumed to be.

Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda)

Varda is a patient, effective explainer (and evangelist) of cinematography, both the technical/production aspects, and the experiential humanistic dimension. She unfurls fascinating behind-the-scenes reminiscences of Cléo de 5 a 7 (1961), Le Bonheur (Happiness, 1964), Daguerréotypes (1975), Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond, 1985), Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000), Quelques veuves de Noirmoutier (The Widows of Noirmoutier, 2006), as well as the hilariously misbegotten One Hundred and One Nights (with Robert De Niro, Anouk Aimée, Gérard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau, celebrating the centenary of film), and many more. And she ventures beyond film, with meditations on philosophy, musical scores, digital cinematography, and her late, postmodern site installations. She brings back actors and other collaborators, emphasising how her films are always a collective production. Whatever films she discusses here that you haven’t yet seen, you will want to watch immediately afterwards. Throughout her work Varda embraced a wide variety of topics, genres and approaches, yet her oeuvre is unified, one coherent overall vision: perhaps the best possible illustration of what an auteur can achieve. As her valedictory faded out, I thought: what a beautiful person – this was a life.

And as is sadly not always the case with festivals, the homegrown films were good! Grounded (pun intended) in the remote island’s geographical and geological situation – its harsh, unique, stunning landscape, its quietly enduring spirit – Icelandic films unfailingly complement their almost otherworldly setting. My favourite film was The Seer and The Unseen, Sara Dosa’s engrossing documentary about a woman with “second sight” who makes it her mission to speak for Iceland’s elves (most Icelanders believe in them, or at least do not disbelieve), and advocate for their interests in preserving the country’s natural beauty.

It’s a compelling perspective for environmental activism, though Ragga Jónsdóttir makes clear that her elf-whispering is not an allegorical plea for conservation: it’s simply that the huldufólk (“hidden people”) are quite upset because humans are destroying their homes, churches, businesses and restaurants (yes, they have communities just like ours) and they want us to leave their world – which is also our world – in peace, and to respect its integrity.

Elves tolerated the first wave of road-building that was necessary to connect the country’s far-flung villages a few generations ago, Ragga tells us, but superfluous new roads (that disrupt their sacred lava fields) annoy them. “They demand,” Ragga informs, “that their holy places not be destroyed.” Traditionally, Icelandic developers were careful not to disturb elfin villages: a newly-built street would zig and then zag as necessary to avoid displacing an elf chapel. Ragga decribes the symbiosis between people and elves: “If humans will protect nature, spirits will protect humans. But humans have broken that pact.” (She reminded me of the First Nations observers at the end of Geyrhalter’s Earth – filmmakers everywhere are producing their own variants of this same story.)

Especially for an international audience, the lurking question of whether Ragga and her human supporters really believe in elves is an interesting strain in this film, but it is beside the point. The elves are invisible to some, who have chosen not to hear them, Ragga suggests. But so are many other things that people believe in – God, for example, and the economy: Recounting the 2008 banking crisis in which massive amounts of capital evaporated, leaving Icelanders bereft and traumatised, Ragga observes, “The elves were more real to me than the money that had vanished.”

The Seer and the Unseen (Sara Dosa)

Dosa – who is actually American, but seemed (like me) temperamentally Icelandic, or Iceland-ish – spoke after the screening about what Ragga taught her: “The world is alive. And powerful. By seeing the land as Ragga does, we are motivated to protect it. It’s more fun to be in a world in which there are elves; elves are good to think with.” Elves and their habitats are disappearing amid modern overdevelopment, Ragga warns, and even if our noisy world makes it harder to hear huldufólk, “at least respect the possibility of elves.”

One Child Nation, Nanfu Wang’s autobiographically-based documentary about the policy that lasted from 1979-2015, takes her back to China to visit relatives who had been sterilised or forced to abandon babies. She also speaks with midwives, family planning officers and local government officials who enforced this policy with utter brutality, including infanticide. She shows photographs of tiny full-term corpses found in plastic bags at a garbage dump. Babies who were several months old were sometimes abducted, trafficked to orphanages where they generated $25,000 in the international adoption market.

The level of human torpor starts out disturbing and gets worse as Wang’s diligent investigation (bolstered by material from other journalists and amateur sleuths) pieces together details of a system that affected many millions of families, yet was mostly kept hidden from the world at large. She spotlights the gender prejudices that this policy fostered: boys, always prized as pillars of the family who would carry on the name, become even more highly valued when parents got only one shot at procreation. Baby girls would often be abandoned in a basket at a market. They were sometimes collected and taken to orphanages (for a bounty), and sometimes died of exposure and hunger while villagers watched.

One Child Nation (Nanfu Wang)

One Child Nation explores the workings of authoritarian propaganda: the policy was disseminated in slogans (“Fewer children make for a happier life”), posters, community theatre, films, songs, parades and school activities. So many people Wang interviews, traumatised when she asks them to recall what they had done, helplessly explain: it was the policy, it was strictly enforced. We were just doing what we were forced to do, putting collective interests above all else. “It was war,” says one family planner. “We were fighting a population war, and people die in wars.”

A masterclass with Claire Denis offered a close-up encounter with the exceptional director who had several films shown in retrospective here (including Chocolat [1988], Nénette et Boni [1996] and her latest film, High Life [2018]). She came late to Iceland, missing some scheduled appearances, and explained why she couldn’t stay long: “Film is my whole job. I have no time for anything else.” This might have come across as crusty or ungrateful, but it struck me as an honest expression of her focused dedication. She seemed like a woman who is always directing: as the session started, she booted a half-dozen photographers from the room. “You will distract us. You can come back in when we’re done talking.”

Such talks always include advice for young filmmakers: “You have to be brave, and stubborn,” Denis said. “And you have to be able to wait, and to find solutions where apparently there is no solution.” It’s not about “being an artist” – which she considers a vague and irrelevant aspiration. It’s fine if others appreciate her films as art, she said, but that is not her conscious aim: “I am a filmmaker. I never thought I was making films to be an artist.”

She has finished a new script, but just learned she has to change the South American country where she had planned to film because of security concerns: hence her abridged festival visit. Still, the moderator asked, couldn’t she take off a few days to celebrate the honour of receiving RIFF’s Silver Puffin Award for creative excellence? “Honorary doesn’t pay the rent, and it is not going into the budget of my film.”

There were a few letdowns at Reykjavík – and none of these was awful: all had grains of compelling material, but (to my mind) didn’t fully capitalise on them. Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s El Reino (The Realm), a slick and snazzy Spanish political thriller, became a bit more complex than it needed to be, and I lost the plot around one of the bends. Tim Travers Hawkins’ XY Chelsea featured some intimate scenes with Manning in her post-prison life, but it was slow; her life story turns out to be interesting, not fascinating. Cold Case Hammarskjöld, revisiting the UN Secretary-General’s suspicious death in a 1961 plane crash, reminded me of Errol Morris on speed: the story intrigues, but director Mads Brügger was too forcefully present, and I lost interest in a film that was ultimately about himself. (Varda could get away with this; Brügger can’t).

Founding director Hrönn Marinósdóttir conceived and planned this festival as her MBA master’s thesis, and then simply decided to enact that plan when she graduated. RIFF, like Reykjavík, happily embraces a low-key vibe, but despite this – or more likely, because of this – it strikes me as one of the more rewarding outposts on the festival circuit. The reception where Iceland’s president Guðni Jóhannesson feted Denis and festival guests at his estate, Bessastaðir, is one of the most enjoyable events I’ve experienced at any film festival; the warm, funny and gracious former history professor personified the welcoming spirit I felt from the entire community.

Maria San Filippo recently wrote for this journal a blistering critique of how stratified, alienating and dysfunctional she found her visit to one of the world’s (supposedly) most spectacular festivals, Telluride. She should come to Iceland – fantastically far from the madding crowds – to get the bad taste out of her mouth: the films here are eclectic, the directors and actors who attend are gracious (even if they may need to rush back to work), the audiences are appreciative, the organisers are thoughtful and efficient, and everything is precisely as pleasant and stimulating as a week and a half of movies should be. “Let the good citizen here find natural marvels,” W. H. Auden wrote in his 1937 poem “Journey to Iceland” – to which I would add: let the good moviegoer here find cinematic marvels in cozy cinemas that provide a comforting refuge against October days that grow windy and sombre (though still marvellous). And perhaps, also, elves.

Reykjavík International Film Festival
26 September – 6 October 2019
Festival website: https://riff.is/?lang=en

About The Author

Randy Malamud, Regents’ Professor of English at Georgia State University in Atlanta, has written ten books, including The Language of Modernism (UMI, 1989); Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals and Captivity (Macmillan/NYU Press, 1998); Poetic Animals and Animal Souls (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); The Importance of Elsewhere: The Globalist Humanist Tourist (Intellect/University of Chicago Press, 2018); and Email (forthcoming, 2019, in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series). His essays on film appear in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Point, Film Quarterly, Truthout, Spring and Film International.