My Night at the Icelandic Oscars

The unexpected pleasure of watching an awards ceremony in a language you don't understand


Last weekend, hours before the Hollywood glitterati descended upon the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles in their coutured droves, I had the good fortune to be in Reykjavik attending the Edda Awards, also known as the “Icelandic Oscars.”

The contrast between the two ceremonies is pretty much as one might expect. The Eddas are a good deal smaller and rougher around the edges, though for the most part delightfully so. The ceremony is billed as a formal event, but Icelanders’ conception of formalwear is pleasantly capacious. Tuxedoes could be spotted here and there, but jeans were more common; jackets were nearly ubiquitous, ties considerably less so. Guests were arrayed about five to a table, with drinks and a communal tray of sushi. (Chopsticks optional.)

And, of course, the Eddas are entirely in Icelandic. Apart from the frequent “thank you”s and the occasional invocation of a familiar name—“James Bond,” “Walter Cronkite,” “Cartman”—I couldn’t understand a word.

As it turns out, this deficiency on my part only increased my enjoyment. As you might expect, the structure of the ceremony was eminently familiar: the host, the celebrity presenters, the self-mocking gags, and the creeping aura of inevitability. This last element was in particular evidence: Though the event was billed as a contest between two films with a dozen nominations each—Life in a Fishbowl (Vonarstræti) and Paris of the North (París norðursins)—the former won in all 12 of its categories (including Picture, Actor, Director, and Screenplay), and the latter only two (Supporting Actor and Actress).

This is evidently a frequent occurrence at the Eddas. As a nation, Iceland is film-mad, but due to its size (the population is a bit over 300,000), it only produces about half-a-dozen or so non-documentary features a year. There are three nominations in each film category, and it’s not uncommon for a single movie to sweep most of its categories. That said, the 12 for 12 performance by Life in a Fishbowl—a tender, beautifully realized story of fractured lives colliding on the eve of the nation’s 2008 economic crash—set a new record for dominance. By the midpoint of this year’s ceremony, pretty much any hint of suspense had evaporated.

Except for me. The delightful part of attending an awards ceremony in an unfamiliar language (and mostly unfamiliar cultural setting) is that everything is suspenseful. What award is this? Who’s that guy who just came on the stage? What are they talking about? The Icelanders at my table were getting bored by the second hour—at least until the Edda-winning film editor accepted her award in a state of sublime inebriation. I was riveted throughout. (Not least, I confess, by the jib camera operator responsible for tracking shots over the audience, who frequently swung his boom so low that if anyone in attendance had stood up unexpectedly, the world would have been treated to the headline “Guest Decapitated at Icelandic Film Awards.”)

But in the end, it was the code-breaking aspect of the evening that was most enjoyable. It’s remarkable how much one can intuit (or at least how much I think I intuited) in the absence of linguistic comprehension. One can often follow, for instance, the architecture of a joke even without understanding its particulars. She said something nice about that fellow, and then a second nice thing, and a third, and then—pow!—here comes the genial punchline. I doubt that I’d ever seen or heard of lifetime achievement award recipient Omar Ragnarsson, a national icon who, at 74, seems to have been everything in his life: a rock star, a newscaster, an environmental activist, an author, and a champion rally driver. But by the end of his video tribute, I felt as though I’d grown up watching him.

I had been invited to Reykjavik for the inaugural edition of the Stockfish European Film Festival, a wonderfully curated festival held in the city’s only arthouse theater, the Bio Paradis. Between the festival and the Eddas, I felt as though I came in contact with half or more of Iceland’s close-knit film community, in which everyone knows pretty much everyone else. At one large party, a filmmaker I’d been chatting with earlier stopped by on his way out to say goodbye. When I asked the woman with whom I was talking whether she knew him, she told me he was her cousin. It took me a moment to realize she wasn’t joking.

But perhaps the most striking reminder of the intimacy of Iceland’s film scene came at the Eddas themselves. I was sitting with Pavel Jech, the dean of Prague’s FAMU, one of the oldest film schools in the world. He was attending Stockfish to conduct a workshop for filmmakers trying to hone their first or second features and seeking narrative advice. At the end of the ceremony, when Life in a Fishbowl’s producers finally took to the stage for their inevitable Best Picture win, Pavel pointed one of them out to me: “He’s one of my workshop students.”