Brotherhood In Rural Iceland

in 27th Tromso International Film Festival

by Martin Botha

The main competition of the 27th edition of the Tromsø International Film Festival was quite strong. Several features were included, which won awards at other major film festivals. Although Graduation (Bacalaureat) deservedly received the FIPRESCI prize another film also stood out.

The setting of director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Heartstone (Hjartasteinn) is a remote fishing village in Iceland. Teenage boys Þór and Kristjan experience a tumultuous summer as one attempts to win the heart of a girl while the other discovers new, uncomfortable feelings toward his best friend. When summer ends and the harsh nature of Iceland takes back its rights, it’s time to leave the playground and face adulthood. The majestic landscape of Iceland is used as another character in the film. The director stated in an interview that the landscape signifies contrasting emotions: ‘where the sun shines without rest during the summer and barely rises at all in winter. A place where the same things you love and give you freedom also tie you down. A place where young kids come to know animals and discover how nature and people can be both amazingly beautiful and incredibly cruel.’

Throughout the film is a sense of death – from the scenes with dead animals to Kristjan’s attempted suicide. Death looms over the joyfulness of growing up and to be young.

Heartstone is a personal story based on the director’s experience growing up in this remote place. Although the film received international awards for its Queer sensibility the narrative core of the film is a strong, beautiful friendship between two boys, and how their social environment and inner conflict drive them apart, before the bond they share manages to reunite them again. With little to keep them busy during the summer months, their boredom manifests itself into cruelty and destruction. In some of the earlier sequences of the film they catch and kill fish or smash up car wrecks merely for fun, however, there is also tenderness beneath their aggression, particularly in Kristjan’s protectiveness toward the less mature Þór. None of the boys have a stable home environment. Þór older sisters tease him mercilessly and there is an absent dad. Kristjan’s situation is worse, due to an abusive drunk of a father, who is also homophobic.

A patriarchal community dominates everyday life – we witness it in the community’s reaction to Kristjan’s queerness. It is painful to experience the character’s mental breakdown. At the beginning of the narrative he signifies leadership and popularity, but when the friends become aware of his sexual orientation, he is forced into the role of an outsider. In two moving symbolic scenes parallels are being drawn to him as the outcast and a bullrout (freshwater stonefish), which is considered to be ugly and of no use to anyone. The sense of heteronormativity is overwhelming and there seems to be no place for nonconformists – they either leave the place or even try to kill themselves.
The approach to the subject matter is sensitive, nuanced, tender and without sentimentality. The coming-of- age process is different for both characters: Despite a rather traumatic experience Þór seems to grow, while Kristjan disintegrates psychologically and needs to leave the village. He weathers a consistent stream of abuse from his hard-drinking dad, as well as rejection by the community.
For many members of the LGBT community the story of Þór and Kristjan will evoke memories of a familiar rite of passage. Guðmundsson’s direction is subtle and nuanced. He receives wonderful support by the two main leads. Their performances are excellent. Actor Baldur Einarsson as Kristjan is a key factor to the film’s emotional depth. He magnificently registers the challenging emotional upheaval of growing up in a hostile environment. Especially the scenes of his humiliation are difficult to watch.

It is a remarkable achievement for a first-time director.