Daring to dream big amid concerns of brain drain, today’s Faroese creatives see potential in their cultural heritage — a consideration of the creative economy of the Faroes through the prism of Faroese film.
In the public eye of Faroese society, this electoral year of 2015, there is no shortage of political issues up for debate. The economic policy discussions are certainly among those. Of particular interest to myself is focusing in on the creative sector of the economy.
When it comes to the interplay between industry and public funding in the Faroe Islands, the past two decades have brought about hefty dialogue about its merit. And today, there is a cultural climate change attached to the creative currents of the Faroes. An area of considerable importance to the future economic landscape is namely the rise of the creative as entrepreneur.
Historically, the Faroese have always been used to cultivate and capitalize on natural resources and raw materials available. Today, they are able to outsource a fair bit of the old ways of doing things, allowing for the emergence of new businesses that perhaps previously were disregarded as feasible ventures.
We can include a host of creative industries in this debate, defined in the UK Government’s Creative Industries Economic Estimates of January 2015 (see gov.uk) by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) as: “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.” According to the DCMS, the growth of the creative industries in the UK was three times that of the wider economy in 2013. In the context of this article, however, these industries should be understood in their national frame of reference.
Thanks to the immediate global access of the Internet, the modern Faroese creative is a factory in and of themselves with business headquarters of unlimited reach that can be housed in their pocket. Regardless of the remote location of the Faroes, you can be anywhere and speak with anyone at any time to develop and sell your goods and services. If anything, the remoteness and tempestuous climate of the Faroes could be argued to help incubate a certain entrepreneurial fighter spirit. The Faroese are certainly used to unpredictable forecasts.
The rise of the digital age and the cultural changes that have occurred over the past two decades are quite astounding and have made today, as well as the future, an incredibly exciting time to be an entrepreneur — not least a Faroese one, as many of the things emerging elsewhere still remain unexplored here. And today the fear of failure seems to be less of a deterrent; we’re more willing to take a chance on new ideas.
It wasn’t so only two decades ago. In fact, it was a very different landscape in an economy which experienced an all-consuming crash in the early-to-mid ‘90s with record unemployment figures then hitting over 20% — these now stand at 3.5%. It is safe to say the past two decades have seen quite a significant change for the better, and that includes the conditions for the creative industries.
In the aftermath of the financial collapse, it was not uncommon that pursuing your creative dreams was deemed more of a hobby than a worthwhile effort at a paying job. It wasn’t taken that seriously as a viable profession — and there is a good reason. The creative industries of the Faroes, competing on a global scale, are seemingly too small to even try and test the waters. Although many still hold this assertion, a paradigm shift has occurred.
Today, with the emergence of an increasing number of entrepreneurs along with the return of well-educated creatives from abroad, the debate focuses more on how new competitive industries can be established and exported at a profitable return. Here, it should be noted that the creative industries are not only to be seen to have economic relevance in a national context, but they also increase regional appeal, providing a sort of rural regeneration, built upon the pillars of cultural heritage, if you will. The varied Faroese music festivals are a prime example of this, as evidenced by rising figures of local inhabitants and the impressive international interest these garner from global media outlets, such as the Guardian and the New York Times, as well as the tourism industry.
There is no doubt the cultivation of local creative talent has proven successful over the past two decades. Now, the time has come to try and capitalize on it. We’re seeing an increasing number of creative businesses and individuals today (established as well as up-and-coming), designing computer games and mobile apps, establishing fashion labels, collaborating on international arts projects, building studios, and the list goes on. There is no shortage of ideas or enthusiasm, and the paradigm shift is helped by increasingly ‘democratized’ technology.
Faroese film is one of the aspiring creative industries. Even though it is still to be considered sophomoric at best, the history of film on the Faroes goes all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, as pointed out by one of the leading authorities on Faroese film, Birgir Kruse. The first known film recording made on the Faroes (viewable on dfi.dk) was of Frederick VIII, King of Denmark, in 1907, by Danish filmmaker Ole Olsen, who the year prior founded Nordisk Film (US affiliate: Great Northern Film Company), now the oldest continuously active film studio in the world. The Faroese National Heritage Museum houses a significant amount of such early recordings and more made throughout the years.
“In fact at one point in time the Faroes hosted thirteen various film theatres,” Mr. Kruse noted. So there seems to be no lack of appetite for film on the Faroes, yet for most of its film history, the Faroes have acted as the backdrop for foreign film productions.
“Without funding or a real industry, Faroese filmmakers have thus far relied on Nordic collaboration, where foreigners have often taken the lead,” Mr. Kruse said.
Since its establishment in 1984, the national Faroese public service broadcaster Kringvarp Føroya (KvF) has made few attempts at filmmaking. Now, there is a call for a dedicated drama department to encourage more original production in the Faroes and for more of the current output to be commissioned to freelance filmmakers.
Said Mr. Kruse: “The time has come for KvF to prioritize fiction on the agenda, whether that be short or long form. Or why not a zeitgeist series, which, on a public service premise, brings into focus the full spectrum of the nation, based on contemporary stories by our active writers working with our skilled new directors.”
The other main public players of Faroese film today include the Ministry of Education, Research and Culture (MERC), the film workshop Klippfisk along with the capital’s cinema, Havnar Bio, and the Nordic House.
Recently, a dedicated Faroese Film Fund was introduced, awarding annual grants — in 2015 up to 700,000 dkk — and this has provided a much-needed boost. Even though the amount itself is microscopic on a national production scale, it can be considered a well-fought victory for Faroese filmmakers.
Earlier this year, the Fund received 36 applications for a total of close to 10 million dkk, which puts things into perspective. The grants could well increase in the coming years.
According to KvF, the issue remains a lack of funds to support significant policy changes. Here, parliament has a chance to take a new stance on the priorities of the public service contract with KvF. Meanwhile, several Faroese filmmakers choose to do more commercially focused productions — in fields such as narrative advertising — in collaboration with business partners in the private sector.
Beating Hollywood at home
One of the pioneers of Faroese filmmaking is writer/director Katrin Ottarsdóttir, who released her first feature — and concurrently the first professionally produced Faroese feature ever — ‘Atlantic Rhapsody’ in 1989. She has since released a further two, ‘Bye Bye Bluebird’ in 1999 and ‘Ludo’ in 2014.
Consistent in her work is the focus on showcasing the skills of a Faroese cast as well as a unique Faroese setting. However, the opportunities for funding and gathering an experienced Faroese crew have not always been present, as her long-time partner and producer, Hugin Eide, explains.
“There was going to be a Nordic film festival in ‘89 and Katrin and I agreed that it was unthinkable that no Faroese film was featured,” Mr. Eide said. “Then the idea came and we managed to get a bit of funding for it. But the film crew was Danish, and all the equipment was acquired through the Danish Film Workshop. It was a massive undertaking, involving over 100 actors and 52 different scenes, featuring different actors for each scene. Thankfully, we weren’t aware at the time of how logistically complex the whole thing would be.”
The film wasn’t to be finalized until the Danish Film Institute acted as guarantor to secure additional backing. Not until the day before the premiere of the film, set to open up the festival, everything fell into place.
“It was a big event,” Mr. Eide noted. “9,000 people saw it in the cinema of the capital as well as others around the isles. It featured on the bill right after ‘Out of Africa’ and ‘Rambo’ but we beat their audience figures.”
The likes of Meryl Streep and Sylvester Stallone didn’t stand a chance against Ottarsdóttir’s record-breaking movie, as a fifth of the Faroese population flocked to its premiere and subsequent screenings, around 60 in total, counting three times the attendance of other foreign films out at the time. The film shortly thereafter won the main prize at the Nordic Film Days festival in Lübeck, Germany, and featured in outlets such as Variety.
“It became a cult classic for fan clubs in Norway,” Mr. Eide said. “It toured the US, South America, South Africa, India, was broadcast on TV in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and we could go on.”
At the time, Ottarsdóttir and Eide were the only Faroese filmmakers around. Today, an increasing number of young people embark on filmmaking degrees abroad and we’ve seen significant growth in the body of work produced—with Faroese feature film production set to rise.
Enter writer/director Sakaris Stórá, who, in the space of the past few years, has graduated from film school in Norway, won the first public Faroese film prize, Geytin, for his short film ‘Summarnátt’ (2012), and last year won The Special Prize of the Generation 14 plus International Jury for his short film ‘Vetrarmorgun’ (2013), collecting three award nominations in total at the Berlin International Film Festival. Recently, Stórá along with writer Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs finished the script for his first feature film, with production scheduled for this year.
At first, Stórá himself questioned whether his dream of working as a filmmaker could in fact be accomplished in the Faroes. It took a fateful meeting with a prominent American film director at the Reykjavik International Film Festival in Iceland in 2010 — where Sakaris won The Golden Egg for his first short film ‘Passasjeren’ (2009) — to convince him.
“I used to think the Faroes were quite uninteresting, very limiting,” he said. “I lost my way for a bit, you could say. But I always wanted to work in the Faroes due to it being my stomping ground as well as for the love of the language, and because I feel there is a need for it. There is a need for seeing your own time and society, depicted on the big screen.”
On the difficulty of working in film and tackling potentially difficult subject matters in the Faroes, Stórá is adamant of its value, social and cultural, as well as economic and political. “We don’t have a tradition for filmmaking in the Faroes, even though film is of course prevalent and readily accessible here. What’s important to remember is that even though one’s circumstances might not be ideal, you can still achieve things with the right amount of will. It’s so important to have and nurture that desire to do your thing anyway.”
Stórá added: “And we should be determined to break into the international market. The stories might be told from a uniquely Faroese perspective, but the subject matters remain universal. It just makes it more interesting to place it in a unique setting like the Faroes. I don’t have any ambition of moving elsewhere. It’s important that we see our own circumstances depicted through our own lens regardless of what the point of view might be. That’s how film can really serve its purpose.”
The producer of ‘Vetrarmorgun’ and his forthcoming feature film, Ingun í Skrivarastovu, runs the production company Fish & Film and is one of the founders of the Faroese Filmmakers Association. She, too, firmly believes in the prospects of a budding Faroese film industry. “There are fantastic opportunities out there,” she commented.
“In fact ‘Vetrarmorgun’ has been distributed all around the world and translated into several languages. There is a big audience out there. It is a wonderful format, easy to distribute.”
Ms. í Skrivarastovu added: “Instead of always highlighting potential challenges, we should focus on the opportunities present. Just as any other business would. The issue, as it stands, is that the work experience doesn’t remain on the market but instead goes abroad. The time has come to make sure the work experience remains at home.”
Having attracted the interest of several international companies in producing Mr. Stórá’s forthcoming feature, Ms. í Skrivarastovu deems it possible to break the mold.
“We cannot do it all on our own, but funding of productions should ideally be 50% Faroese. We cannot go abroad in search of backing without Faroese funding, if it’s to be done right.”
How about the generation of economic value?
Ms. í Skrivarastovu: “We do create jobs and a ripple effect throughout the local community. There are new income streams and job opportunities because of what we do here, not only during the production process itself but subsequently as well.”
Another company, charting new territory in the Faroes, is Green Animation Studios (GAS), set up last year after winning the StartUp Tórshavn entrepreneurial challenge for best business concept. Shortly thereafter, GAS attended the Creative Business Cup in Copenhagen, where they garnered interest from representatives of Google and crowd funding platform Indiegogo, highlighting their concept as ideal for online marketing and monetization.
“It is a catchy concept, not least due to it being so uniquely Faroese,” said CEO Elin Hentze. “Foreigners get excited about it. For us, the possibilities are endless.”
In short, GAS is about creating 3D animated films with a focus on Faroese history, tradition and arts and to showcase Faroese culture worldwide. The company’s first project, ‘Kópakonan’, is based on a centuries-old folklore legend about a young farmer and selkie/seal woman, traditionally told through song and dance. It is a tried and tested tale recognized across the North Atlantic, although GAS will reinvent it for their purposes. The project consists of a 3-part mini-series with the first 25-minute part currently in pre-production.
“It’s a challenge because of the costs involved,” Ms. Hentze said. “Producing just one of the three parts carries the equivalent cost of building a house.”
Ms. Hentze continued: “Part of the challenge is also keeping the project Faroese. By embarking on a Nordic collaboration, you might get more grants but it may become more costly as well, and you run the risk of sacrificing a few things — a tail here, a toe there. And then it is no longer a uniquely Faroese production.”
In GAS’ quest to carve out their own niche of a budding Faroese film industry, Ms. Hentze calls for a dedicated, government-appointed board, similar to the Faroese Tourism Board, focused on supporting the creative industries of the Faroes.
“I think the conditions of the creative industries could be improved upon. There are so many valuable resources here, not least the people. The biggest risk we run is that of a brain drain and exporting all of our best creative minds.”
And there are countless other examples of the flourishing creative capital of the Faroes. Take artist Edward Fuglø, whose work covers everything from stamps to large-scale gallery instalments, the proprietors of which include the Queen of Denmark amongst others. Or take knitwear label Guðrun & Guðrun, who have retailers worldwide and are featured in one of the biggest Scandinavian TV series of recent years, ‘The Killing’ — with the main character’s preferred woolly jumper vying for becoming one of the Faroes’ best-known exports.
In music, consider fantastic national folk treasure Kári Sverrisson, Grammy Award nominated songstress Greta Svabo Bech or multi-producing prodigy Benjamin Petersen. These are just a few examples. The Faroes has a thriving cultural ecology.
In seeking to develop new competitive industries for the future, it is of vital importance to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit, and it is a positive trend that Faroese creatives see the potential of the islands as well as their heritage, amid growing concerns of an overall declining population. They dare to dream bigger and work to transcend old market boundaries. They seem to rely on more agile business principles where you grow and decrease your business with flexible budgets and overhead costs, depending on immediate demand. Success is not guaranteed but neither is failure. Through the prism of Faroese film, today’s prospects of a rising creative economy in the Faroes are encouraging.