A few short years ago, the idea of a comedian running for political office would strike most people as A) funny and B) kind of pointless. I mean, who would want a comedian to be the mayor of a city? It’s 2007! The economy’s booming, everyone’s doing fine—Who wants to risk screwing things up?
But, as we all know, the economy hasn’t been doing that well over the last few years, and people the world over have become disillusioned by politics and, especially, politicians. Nowhere is this more true than in Iceland, where the soaring economy from the early years of the 21st century made it hard for anyone to imagine that the country’s good fortune could ever come to an end. It did, though, and the nosedive taken by the once-prosperous country’s economy left its citizens feeling betrayed by the politicians and financial bigwigs who had thrown their country into economic turmoil. Against this backdrop rose an unlikely political hero: Jón Gnarr, Iceland’s most popular and controversial comedian.
As the head of The Best Party, Gnarr threw his hat in the ring to become the mayor of Reykjavík. With an aptly-chosen campaign song (Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best”) and a platform that included building a Disneyland in the city and refusing to talk to members of the opposition unless they’d watched all five seasons of “The Wire,” Gnarr’s campaign was meant as a joke at the expense of the country’s politicians. After all, the guy said he was running because he wanted a high-paying job, his own office and the power to hire his close friends for other important positions. Who would actually vote for him?
A lot of people, as it turned out: Jón Gnarr is now the mayor of Reykjavík. Director Gaukur Úlfarsson was there with his camera from the beginning, recording every step of Gnarr’s campaign for his feature documentary Gnarr. The film avoids common documentary tools—like talking head interviewees and an all-knowing narrator—in favor of simply letting the hilarious story of an unlikely politician’s ultimately successful campaign unfold in front of the viewer’s eyes.
Úlfarsson took the time to chat about how he came to make the film, its international premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival (“I kind of felt that people really didn’t believe that that actually happened, like it was all one big hoax”) and one very special endorsement (“I just received a text message from God almighty, where he stated that ‘Everyone that watches Gnarr on VOD or iTunes will be saved and allowed into my kingdom of paradise.'”)
As a special bonus for MM readers, we’ve added an exclusive clip from the film, wherein a similarity between Gnarr and President Obama is revealed.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): What made you want to document Gnarr’s run for mayor? How did you actually start making the film—did you just approach Gnarr and say, “I heard you’re running for mayor. Can I film it?” How did Gnarr get off the ground?
Gaukur Úlfarsson (GU): Well, first of all, I am a part of a generation that was raised on Jón’s humor, whether it be on TV or through his daily morning radio shows. To most of my generation, Jón is God. One of my early works as a filmmaker was a TV show I wrote, shot, edited and directed [“The Silvia Night Show”], and Jón talked and wrote in papers about it being the best show on TV. But we had never met until a year before he decided to run for mayor, when we were both invited to a strange dinner party at a mutual friend’s place. We started talking and got along famously. Shortly after that, [we] decided to start working on an idea for a TV show. We started meeting many times a week, working on the TV idea, and he kept talking about this idea of running for mayor, which I thought was a terrible idea. Until, one night, I could not sleep, and I realized that this could actually be brilliant and needed to be documented. So I was there for the whole run. Then, of course, after about a month of shooting, lots of filmmakers contacted Jón about filming the process. So I guess I was supposed to be there.
MM: While the idea of a comedian running for political office is a funny one, the backstory of Gnarr—Iceland’s economy being gutted and the country’s subsequent disillusionment with politics—is a pretty serious topic. Did you give any thought to how to balance the serious and the comic when you were shooting? Or did you let things unfold organically?
GU: [I tried to make] the experience as cinematic as possible and keep it as far away from the world of TV as I could. So the whole movie has no interviews, nor a narrator. What you see is what you get: 100% fly-on-the-wall, where nothing is re-shot. This kind of documentary work is, of course, a lot harder than the traditional docs as we see them today, in which I personally think the line between and reality TV and old docs, such as [D.A.] Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back or the Maysles brothers’ Salesman, has been blurred. [The way we shot Gnarr], you have to cover everything that happens. If you miss something, then you are screwed.
But the landscape of Iceland’s economic meltdown I covered in the opening titles of the movie, by shooting the news from a TV screen. For the rest, I just made sure we were there and ready with cameras rolling.
MM: Gnarr had its international premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Did you have any expectations about how people outside of Iceland would receive the film? If there anything about its reception that’s surprised you?
GU: It’s my first movie and my first premiere abroad, so I had no idea what to expect. The Tribeca reception was fine, but I kind of felt that people really didn’t believe that that actually happened, like [they thought] it was all one big hoax. Straight after Tribeca, we screened it at Hot Docs in Toronto, where the crowd was a lot more enthusiastic about it. Then, later that summer, I had a screening at Michael Moore’s fantastic Traverse City Film Festival, and there I could feel a real change in atmosphere. I guess you guys in the States had had quite a big dose of absurd politics in America in the meantime, [which let you] appreciate it a lot better.
MM: Are there any upcoming projects you’re working on? Do you want to stick to doing documentaries and TV in the future, or have you any interest in doing something narrative?
GU: I have just received funding from the Icelandic Film Fund to start writing my first narrative. I will co-write it with a young and promising Icelandic novelist. It will be a horror movie that takes place in NY and on a tiny Icelandic fjord. The best and only way to describe how I want it to be is as a mix of Lynch’s Lost Highway and Bergman’s Persona.
MM: Anything you’d like to add?
GU: Yes. I just received a text message from God almighty, where he stated that “Everyone that watches Gnarr on VOD or iTunes will be saved and allowed into my kingdom of paradise.”
Find out more about the film by visiting gnarrthemovie.com or focusfeatures.com/gnarr, then—for those who want guaranteed entrance into Heaven—watch the film on iTunes, Video on Demand or Amazon Instant Video.