Icelandic trials at Molodist film festival

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Oct. 25, 2013, 5:49 p.m. | Movies — by Michael Hammerschlag

Icelandic movie "The Deep" shows the story of a horrible 1984 shipwreck that killed a group of fishermen, leaving one survivor.

Two Icelandic films by cinematographer Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson made as splash at Molodist Monday and Tuesday: “The Deep” (to be screened on Oct. 25 at 11:30 p.m. in Kyiv Cinema), an incredible true tale of shipwreck survival in the Arctic and “XL,” a kaleidoscopic 60-ish story of the vast excesses of a Parliament Deputy who wallows in alcohol, food, sex, and drugs.

Iceland is a fascinating place of rock, glacier, steam, and lava; isolated in the mid-north Atlantic with a genetically related population smaller than the one of Kyiv neighborhoods Kharkovskiy and Poznyaki. The country is 100 percent geothermally heated and hydro-powered. After the 2008 crisis, they booted out the politicians and banker/criminals, defied the IMF and simply defaulted on their massive debt… and are the better for it. Icelandic movies tend to be quirky, offbeat, and unique (like Scottish), as is their land, and have been prominently featured at previous Molodist festivals.

Directed by Baltasar Kormakur “The Deep” is a story of a hellish 1984 shipwreck in freezing seas just off of Iceland. The movie is Iceland’s 2012 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language film.

Gully, only one fisherman who impossibly survived in five degree sea for six hours, is played by the talented Olafur Olafsson as a low key everyman saved by his layer of body fat - indeed the only good thing about being fat, one floats like a cork and can resist serious cold.

Incredibly he then landed on and had to cross a deadly lava field.

“He got to the island - huge waves on a rocky shore, there were these huge cliffs, and he had to swim back out!” Olafsson explained.

Lava can be like broken pavement, or impassable piles of razors blades; it is basically glass - even cold you can break through big bubbles and slash your leg to the bone; hot - your shoes turn to taffy. “That’s what it was like - piles of razor blades, and after walking on lava for two hours (without shoes) his feet were down to the bones, through all the meat.” Not to mention extremely old air and snow.

The verisimilitude is amazing: the battle with the sea is filmed at the actual location of the sinking.

“It’s a low budget (movie) and we couldn’t do any CGI. We were doing it at the real place, with big waves, we sank a real boat - actually it sank twice without us planning it.” The first time, the dried out boat had shrunk enough that water leaked between the planks on their first voyage, “It was really, really low and we just managed to save it… The second time we had an engineer who said we could put it on its side. Baltasar (Kormakur) wanted to open a hatch to have Olaf get out, the engineer said ‘no problem’, the other (salvage) guy said, ‘Don’t open it - it’ll go down!’ Baltasar stunted it himself, opened the hatch, the water rushed in and almost sucked him in - we barely managed to get away and it just sank. Took two days to raise it again.”

Kormakur actually tied himself to the floating filming platform, got in, and held the actor in the water to keep him within the frame during 3-4 weeks of frigid aquatic filming. The speed of the sinking after they snag their net is shocking – fishing truly is about the deadliest profession: no rescue gear can be deployed - the raft is rusted closed anyway. While 80% of Iceland lives by the sea, losing men to the bottomless deep is a constant fear.

Gulli was hailed as a hero, and a medical marvel - no one had ever survived even 45 minutes at that temperature, let alone 6 hours, but he was confused and beset by survivor’s guilt - he allowed himself to be tested for weeks to see what made him so special.

“Apparently his fat was like seal fat, not human, and very efficient”, expounded cameraman Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson. “Gulli didn’t want the film made - it was the memory of losing all his friends. But it was a story that needed to be told. These fishing boats going down with everyone on it… so many times in Iceland,” explained Bjorgulfsson. “It was screened for the people of Westman Islands (eight kilometers off Iceland), who were all for it.” Historical footage of Gulli, who is fishing again, rolls during the credits.

In “XL,” the film directed by Marteinn Porsson, an Icelandic deputy is forced to go into rehab after a public brawl. This is as unchained and wild as “The Deep” is controlled and constricted. Bjorgulfsson, who worked in the “XL” crew as well as in “The Deep,” described how he shot the swirling distorted liquor and drug fueled point of view scenes - he strapped the camera to his head as he pawed the various women.

Leifur, the lead (again pictured by Olafsson from “The Deep”), is a fat, hard-drinking, womanizing, lusty character who still manages to remain charming and sympathetic. This movie definitely isn’t for everyone, but does show a certain side of the Icelandic character.

Icelanders have a reputation as careful and cautious people, but “XL” puts that in grave doubt. “That’s what alcohol and drugs make you do, that’s the result,” explained Bjorgulfsson. “You do things you wouldn’t, or shouldn’t do. Bad things.”

Michael Hammerschlag is a freelance journalist in Kyiv.

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