From the Arctic to Hollywood and Back: Conversation with Baltasar Kormákur

In order to hear two perspectives to the same topic, we decided to reach out to one of the international supporters for the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund AIFF: the acclaimed Icelandic actor, director and film producer Baltasar Kormákur.

Among his cinematic works, we find Everest starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Adrift with Sam Clafin and Shailene Woodley, and TV series Trapped and Katla. Baltasar is one of the ambassadors for AIFF, along with Nikolaj and Nukâka Coster-Waldau, and he is committed to support and mentor Indigenous creators in the global film industry. 

We are thrilled to have you here, Baltasar. We recently had a talk with Liisa Holmberg and Anne Lajla Utsi on the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund, founded in 2018. You, alongside Nukâka and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, became AIFF ambassadors. What's behind this choice and this initiative?

It's probably around 2018 when I went to Sámiland, to Kautokeino, Norway to be precise, where I had a meeting of the European Film Academy with the International Sámi Film Institute. There I met Liisa and Anne Lajla for the first time where I did a masterclass for them; that was also my first meeting for the European Film Academy. I've always been interested in Indigenous cultures, so when Anne Lajla came to me about becoming a sort of mentor for Sámi creators, I was open to that. We kept in contact and discussed what possibilities there were. When the Arctic Indigenous Film Fund idea came up, she asked me if I would become an ambassador, I was thrilled about it, so I accepted and suggested involving Nikolaj and Nukâka as well. I thought they would be a great addition since they have so many ties to Greenlandic culture. The whole ambassadorship arrangement happened organically and was announced at the Nuuk International Film Festival in September 2021. One month after the announcement, I was glad to host the UArctic delegates and guests in my studio to present the AIFF initiative along with Liisa and Anne Lajla. We're at the beginning of something, and I'm more than happy to support it.

So how did you like Sámiland and Greenland?

I loved it, they were both great experiences and flying over Greenland is amazing. These places are just so raw and real, it's like Iceland, on steroids (laughs). And maybe that's why the connection is so strong, they're perhaps in the same position as we were twenty years ago. At that point, Iceland was struggling to get funding, being at the outskirts of the world. Now the Icelandic film industry is blooming, and we move more and more to the global stage. The outer circle is now the Arctic Circle and Indigenous communities in the Arctic. Everywhere people are talking about inclusion and diversity, and this needs to include Indigenous people. You can't really make decisions about how to make the world a better place without including the people who are actually inhabiting some of the biggest territories on Earth. I think the world is hopefully coming to a place where those voices will be better heard. The film industry is a great place to start because film is such a strong medium. I would love to be involved in a film that is mainstream in a sense, but respects and tells the story of Indigenous culture in a globalized world. It's necessary that the culture is pictured in a truthful and right manner through something that reaches the masses. 

Besides educating future generations of Indigenous filmmakers, Anne Lajla and Liisa stressed the importance of educating Indigenous producers. What particular potential do you see in Indigenous creators?

I think this has to be looked at on a very wide spectrum. Sometimes Indigenous creators are approached as if they all came from the same cloth or presented the same idea. When I was starting my career, I always had to present myself as an Icelandic director as if that was the main trait of my filmmaking. When I went to Hollywood to make films, I brought a lot of resources back to Iceland and built a studio here. So let's say the Indigenous director or producer becomes successful outside the Indigenous culture. It might then be very powerful for them to bring all that success back to their  community and tell their story. This is what I've done in Iceland, and now we have stronger connections to the international film industry, and we have bigger budgets. At the same time, you can bring your own actors to the outside world. Having Indigenous creators more involved in bigger productions that will be seen by more people will bring out Indigenous stories in a more authentic way. People today are not going to tell a story in Hollywood about Iceland like they did in the 50s, where it had absolutely nothing to do with the country. So just being a part of the industry is the most important thing, and the other things will follow.

This reminds me of something that Liisa said; her vision is that, in the future, it's normal that Indigenous people make their own films. What do you think about that?

Indigenous peoples don't have to be only making Indigenous films. I think everything becomes Indigenous by having an Indigenous artist, without the identification of what is or what isn’t Indigenous according to the world. Being Indigenous cannot be tied to one single idea. When we talk about Indigenous films, we often think about one thing: a man on a boat or a person with a reindeer. And there's nothing wrong with that, but I think the picture needs to be broadened. 

What is the best thing about working with the International Sámi Film Institute and representing AIFF on the international stage?

The highlight for me was to go to Nuuk and announce the collaboration. But I also think that bringing all these people together in my studio was a very strong moment. It's great to see some recognition for what Liisa and Anne Lajla have been doing. People actually did put money into the film fund. Often you do those things and it's more symbolic than it is actually fruitful. I was very happy to hear how successful it was. I don't want it to be about my ego in any way, to be honest. Often, when established and rich people offer their support, there has to be a mutual gain. I do it because I think it's a healthier business if there are more perspectives and more diversity. I believe that this is an important step to take, and I am interested in other cultures than mine, especially Indigenous cultures, who by being connected to their past are consciously and sustainably moving towards their future. 

To conclude, where do you see yourself and your partnership with AIFF in five years from now?

I think and hope we will have more successes. I would love to be producing something and making a film with Indigenous creators. Making a movie or a TV series somewhere in the Arctic, as a producer or director, supporting Indigenous creators making their dream come true. I hopefully can be more involved on a physical level. I'm on the board of the European Film Academy and I try to be a voice there for them. I hope Anne Lajla will take over my position when I finish in two years!

About the future, I am optimistic and I think we can only build up from here. I can only see more opportunities. It's important that everyone participates in the conversation. There is a shift in the world where Arctic communities are given more attention. I know there's a lot of dark corners that need to be looked into, but I do think there's something positive in that. It's necessary to try and make more of it, instead of only focusing on the difficult and negative parts. That's the way I choose to look at the world.

By Francesca Stoppani, Intern, UArctic International Secretariat.