The lure of fantasy isn't just the chance to suspend your disbelief that, say, elves don't exist. Maybe they do, and we just can't see them. Iceland is apparently a place that's fond of that kind of second-guessing.
A gentle little documentary, Huldufolk 102, playing at the Fantasy Worldwide Film Festival this weekend, explores old Icelandic beliefs in elves and hidden people who live in rocks and mountains -- and even in flowers, as one girl in the film says. The festival, running from today to Sunday, thrives on this sort of thing. Other films range from the British film Mee-Shee, a family-oriented feature about a giant whale, made by the special-effects company Jim Henson's Creature Shop, to off-beat features such as Gamerz, a Scottish comedy about role-playing game enthusiasts, and the Canadian film Sidekick, about a comic book-obsessed computer geek. Yet Huldufolk 102 has the kind of quietness and intimacy that is maybe most appealing to fantasy fans.
Iceland's huldufolk lore comes from the ancient beliefs of the country's earliest immigrants from Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland. Yet the tales of the hidden people remains very much a part of Iceland today.
It even affects the country's road system. Roads are commonly diverted around rocks thought to have huldufolk living inside. Sometimes these rocks are even thought to be huldufolk churches. One neighbourhood filmed in the documentary went so far as to give one large rock an actual street address, number 102 (hence the name of the film), making it clear that the neighbours treat the huldufolk's rock like any other home on the street. This isn't trying to be cute or superstitious. It's more about living with nature, while showing a certain respect for older, somewhat homey beliefs.
Christianity has, over the centuries, sought to reduce the significance of the folklore. Tales of giants and other more astounding characters have been greatly toned down. And the documentary notes that only 10 per cent or so of Icelanders today still actually believe in elves. But the large majority of Icelanders don't deny they exist. That's an important distinction. It is less about continuing beliefs than about a sense of tolerance among Icelanders and the church there toward the old folklore.
But why Iceland? A belief in elves and spirit people exists all over the world. Yet Iceland's otherworldly landscape, with steam erupting out of fissures in the rock, northern lights above and all manner of geothermal activity is prime ground for spirits to flourish. Maybe the cold weather and hyperactive geography create some kind of strange magnetism or something in the air, sparking visions, as one person in the film speculates. Or maybe it's simply a case of being spooked during the cold winter nights, and the affect that has had on isolated Icelandic culture. One old custom, for instance, was to never leave one's house unattended. At least one person in the family always had to stay behind to guard against elves, though that person had to be careful never to look an elf in the eye or he would be whisked away forever.
But what is truly at the core of the old beliefs and the modern tolerance of them is a deep respect for the land, the seemingly magically placed clusters rocks, even strange mounds of earth behind one's house. All have had some story attached to them in old Iceland, and still do today. And that's not some fantasy tale, but simply a respect for the life forces all around.
Fantasy Worldwide Film Festival runs today to Sunday at the Innis Town Hall, 2 Sussex Ave. (Huldufolk 102 screens Sunday at 10:50 a.m., preceded by Canadian short Two Winters: Tales from Above the Earth.) Tickets $10 or $80 for a weekend pass. 416-406-2224. fwifft.com.