The Icelandic capital Reykjavik, lying not far below the Arctic Circle, has been the setting every autumn since 2004 for one of the most northern of international film festivals. The people who present it are proud and enthusiastic while those who attend enjoy a most unusual setting for a film showcase. This year the festival partnered up with the Iceland Airwaves music festival for more mutual exposure.

The sections of this year’s festival underlined the programme’s diversity. The Open Seas section presented 18 films, many having their Nordic premiere; Special Presentations included new films by Todd Solondz and Thomas Vinterberg; the Docs In Focus section, meanwhile, featured 14 very diverse, resonant and thought-provoking documentaries. In contrast, there were sections on music called Sound and Sight and a Youth Programme focusing on films and documentaries for younger audiences. Shorts, seminars and conferences featured conspicuously and the advances in transworld communication media was exemplified in a live video-conference with Noam Chomsky. Guest of honour was legendary independent film-maker Jim Jarmusch who was presented with the RIFF’s Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement by the President of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson.

The competition section was called New Visions and consisted of 12 films from Europe, North America and the Middle East. These films suggested that such disparate stories from across the world had a spiritual resonance which, perhaps, reflects the trials, tribulations, turmoil and uncertainties of the world today. One film, however, emerged as a clear winner in the end. The Four Times (Le Quattro Volte), directed by Michelangelo Frammartino won both the Main Jury Golden Puffin Discovery Award and the FIPRESCI International Film Critics’ Award. The director considers The Four Times to be a political film regarding the relationship between man and nature, the title referring to four cycles of life on a journey of one soul that moves through a dying old shepherd, a baby goat and a fir tree. The film subsequently becomes a hypnotic mediation with virtually no dialogue and no music but sounds and images from a quiet medieval village in the hills above Calabria in southern Italy. The Four Times is poetic and engaging cinema which shows how the traditions of a timeless village still have to face the fragility of life, the camera-eye giving furtherance to nature.

The director wasn’t in Reykjavik to pick up his award but, by coincidence, a director from his production company Vivo Films was present. When accepting the main award Arianna Rossini said the director apologised for not being there but joked that he would try and include a Puffin bird in his next film. Rossini was in Reykjavik as part of this year’s RIFF Talent Lab whose objective is to help young filmmakers make contacts with film professionals who can help and consult them on their first feature film. Many of the Talent Lab entered their short films for the Golden Egg competition. One of the Golden Egg entries was Marichen by another Talent Lab attendee, German actress and producer Katharina Ingwersen. Marichen is the story of a young woman looking for her lost child. Ingwersen was motivated into making a film in which she could also act to express her own style and characterisation better, saying "It was important that I played the leading part," and adds, "I also wanted a two-sided character, something that you wouldn’t expect if you saw this woman with a child." The Golden Egg competition was won by Faroe Island director Sakaris Fridi Stora for his film The Passenger, the story of a taxi-driver in Norway living with his girlfriend in his deceased foster parents house when his real father tries to contact him.

In a strong main competition there were many other highlights. German entry At Ellen’s Age epitomises a film crossing the boundaries of continents, world politics and personal states of mind. A woman is at the crossroads of her life in her career (after 10 years as an international flight attendant), goes AWOL and loses her job, then finds that her estranged partner’s ‘other’ girlfriend is pregnant. These shocks lead to a period of erratic readjustment that will change her life and lead her back across the world. The film has two excellent actors in Jeanne Balibar (in the lead role of Ellen) and a rare appearance for Julia Hummer who plays one of the members of a pro-vegan protest group in which Ellen takes temporary residence, both giving characteristically excellent performances.

Inside America takes the social habits of the majority Hispanic inhabitants of a Californian town on the Mexican border as its premise, particularly the oppressive and borderline violent local high school. Possibly alluding to, or taking a lineage from, Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), the film doesn’t foreground the sexual mores as in Clark’s film but instead takes a more focused look at peer groups and their expectations. These real characters from the town play versions of themselves to a surprisingly sophisticated level, though the larger impression is of people with little real hope of escaping their somehow trapped existence.

The Polish entry The Christening by Marcin Wrona received a special mention from the Church of Iceland at the awards ceremony. A personal film for the director, based on a true story, it tells the tale of a man from the Polish provinces, now living in Warsaw, who wants to put his criminal past behind him and settle down with his wife and baby son. However, the mafia still have a vendetta against him and redemption is on his heels. The Christening creates a haunting and claustrophobic atmosphere while reflecting the mindset of the protagonists. Using the quasi-religious notion of money as being the root of all evil to appropriate effect it realistically depicts the senselessness of violence.

The films at this year’s RIFF were attended by a record audience and, with a programme focused on many diverse subjects and issues, it is deservedly becoming one of the most important annual film events in Europe.