In the year 2000, on the 1000th Anniversary of the first European landing in North America, that of the Vikings at L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, there were celebrations across the continent. This anniversary, entitled Vikings! 1000 Years included bilateral visits and planned formal festivities. The province of Manitoba is home to the largest population of Icelandic ancestry outside of Iceland. Theirs is also the second oldest ethnic festival, after the Irish festival of Montreal, in North America.
Islendingadagurinn, or the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, has been an annual institution since 1890. After being held in Winnipeg for over 40 years, the festival moved in 1929 to the Interlake region town of Gimli, the centre of New Iceland. It would grow year after year into a major summer event, attracting people from all over North America and also inspiring other communities to establish their own festivals celebrating unique cultures and the settler’s experience.
As a child growing up in the Gimli, I have many fond memories of the Icelandic Festivals and often volunteered and participated in the events. Many decades later, as the 1000th anniversary approached, the Icelandic community of Manitoba would be marking a milestone in recognizing and celebrating their ancient forebears’ first foray onto our continent.
Many of us felt that there was an opportunity to enrich and add another cultural dimension to our annual festival. For centuries, Iceland has produced literature and music to tell stories from unique, often mystical perspectives. Works such as the Sagas of the Icelanders became world-renowned literary chronicles. In this spirit of story-telling, the idea of a film festival came up and I joined with Harley Jonasson, then President of the Icelandic Festival, Svavar Gestsson, former Consul General of Iceland in Canada, Hjalmar Hannesson, the very first Ambassador of Iceland to Canada and film director Jon Gustafsson to establish a film festival in Gimli that would showcase films by Icelandic directors as well as Canadian directors of Icelandic origin.
We contacted local, provincial and federal officials to garner the resources needed to set up and execute a cultural film festival. The Icelandic Ministry of Culture as well as Telefilm Canada, whose director was former national broadcaster Laurier LaPierre, provided funding for this new initiative. LaPierre believed strongly in Canadian film festivals and thought our proposal was worthy of support. The Gimli Film Festival was officially established. Our next challenge was setting up a large screen offshore in Lake Winnipeg. This was a daunting task but with the help of enthusiastic volunteers from the community, it was realized in good time. Our first run of films was a tremendous success as moviegoers loved watching films on the beach under the stars. Each and every night, the crowds grew and the sands of the beaches were covered with a multi-coloured patchwork of blankets. The popular response convinced us that film had found a home in Gimli – but what now? The millennial celebrations were over and there was no plan to hold a festival of only Icelandic and Icelandic-Canadian films. I undertook to make it a Canadian film festival with Icelandic and international content. For the next three years, we would continue to hold the film festival on the Islendingadagurinn weekend until the GFF grew too large, leading our team to make it a stand-alone event and move it to every third week of July. In these subsequent years, we had paid summer employees as well as indoor screenings within four locales along with an impressive program focusing on Canadian feature films, shorts and documentaries.
By 2010, we had become the largest rural film festival in the country and one of the major Canadian film festivals in Western Canada. The festival has also contributed significantly as an economic driver for the Interlake region, providing a boost to tourism by attracting people throughout Manitoba as well as from other provinces. Over the years, the board of the GFF developed several awards and prizes to recognize both accomplished and emerging local film-makers, an example being the RBC Emerging Film Maker Competition. In addition to promoting the themes of Canadian, Manitoban, Icelandic and Indigenous experiences, the festival has also shed light on issues affecting circumpolar nations such as climate change and other challenges. A new award entitled the Alda Award, holding the meaning of “wave” in Icelandic, was established to recognize excellence in circumpolar film making. In 2015, Icelandic-Canadian director Sturla Gunnarsson won the inaugural Alda Award for his outstanding documentary, “Monsoon.” Themes surrounding the environment and social justice have been a common thread throughout the festival’s existence.
Along with the Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, I am proud to see that the Gimli Film Festival has grown to become a summer institution in its own right. By 2015, the festival reached an overall record attendance of 10,000 people and remains well-positioned to continue growing as a cultural draw within our region. As founder of the GFF, I have continued to chair and participate in the festival’s activities for over 15 years and throughout this time, I have taken great pleasure in witnessing not only the delight of movie-goers but the blossoming of future film makers.