Those Who Dare: a film about Iceland’s pivotal role in Europe’s democracy movement

From left to right: Lennart Meri (Foreign Minister, Estonia), Jānis Jurkāns Foreign Minister, Latvia) and Algirdas Saudargas (Foreign Minister Lithuania).

Photo by Ragnar Axelsson – taken in Höfði house in Reykjavik on August 26th. 1991 – at the ceremony when Iceland became the first country to recognise the independence of the Baltic nations.

Those Who Dare: a film about Iceland’s pivotal role in Europe’s democracy movement’
By Kalli Paakspuu

DOC member Kalli Paakspuu talked to Icelandic documentary maker Ólafur Rögnvaldsson about his new film Those Who Dare, which follows the chain of events that led to the regaining of independence in the Baltic States after their troubling history of post World War II occupation. Icelandic’s Social Democratic Party leader and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, insisted that the West support the democratically elected governments of the Baltic States and was the only foreign minister to support them in their darkest hour.

The film will have its Canadian premiere as EstDocs Gala film at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Friday, Oct. 16 at 6:30 PM. (See for festival and ticket details.) Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson will be a guest at EstDocs screening of Those Who Dare and will give a talk, “Transforming from Totalitarianism to Democracy: Learning from the Baltic States” on Saturday, October 17 at 3:00 P.M. at Tartu College, 310 Bloor Street West.

Filmmaker Ólafur Rögnvaldsson

Ólafur Rögnvaldsson: I’ve been a cameraman/cinematographer for most of my working life, doing occasional TV documentaries and TV programmes as a director.

Kalli Paakspuu: Your film Those Who Dare tells the story of Iceland’s involvement in the independence movements in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania prior to and following the coup in Moscow in 1991. What made you want to tell this story and why is this important to tell now?

OR: The situation in the world has shifted quite dramatically since we decided to make this film back in 2009. Then the whole Putin and Ukrainian situation [hadn’t taken place]… And so what we were thinking at the time was, that this was a…well documented story in the media in Iceland ever since 1991. That we had been the first ones to recognize the independence of the Baltics…in the international arena. So in our minds…this was more about…telling this story in a sensitive way to Icelanders to keep the story alive. It was a sense of pride for one thing and the belief that a small nation could make some sort of difference in the international political arena, even if that was really debated in Iceland….whether we had anything to say…if what we did was important at all. Some people said we are such a small nation that nobody listens to [us].

KP: That was your motivation.

OR: That was our motivation at the time. If we were thinking about making this film today we would have a different way of approaching it.

Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson

KP: It forms like a biography. There is a strong biographical aspect to it with the Foreign Minister, Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson

OR: Yes. And that was one of the aspects that interested me…Hanibalsson was really, really the driving force behind the Icelandic interests. It was his personal agenda to such a large extent. You can see in the film there was very little connection between Iceland and the Baltic countries historically…. Each [Icelandic] foreign minister brings his personal touch very heavily to the ministry. More probably so than with the bigger countries.

KP: When we show your film it will be the week that we have a federal election and that is a great moment for us. We know that your Minister of Foreign Affairs was the chairman of the Icelandic Social Democratic Party at the same time that he was the Minister. Can you say something about the base of the Social Democratic Party and what kind of support he had when so few Europeans were working with him in the beginning?

OR: I’m not so familiar with it, but I think he had a lot of support in Iceland with the public….Since Iceland has had such a short time since we got…independence. The consular independence is really, really more important to Icelanders than others. That may have something to do with it. Only our mothers and fathers lived in a free country; our grandparents did not. It’s such a young democracy.

KP: How long has it been a democracy?

OR: Officially since 1918.

KP: That’s when the Baltic States were also democracies for the first time.

OR: We are not part of the European Union. There is a lot of sense in Iceland that we will lose our independence if we join the European Union. Every time that is mentioned people start shouting that we have lost our independence.

KP: You mentioned the democratic moment in 1918. In terms of making this film you had Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian and Icelandic partnership and investment. How did you manage so many interests and how did that influence your directorial vision?

OR: We started by contacting the Estonian Film Fund. The guy there pointed to Tiit Pruuli and Kiir Armatuas. They had already been working with the Latvian producers, Sekulis, and they were just the right people and were interested in this story. They knew the story from their side and they were really, really interested in seeing the Icelandic side and how we would handle this. Basically [from] a different point of view.

KP: So they weren’t putting in strong hands in there. They were giving you support, financial and network support.

OR: They contacted the networks, which was essential…and is how we got the bulk of our archival materials. There’s about seven to ten minutes from each country of archival material. Most of it comes from the networks.

KP: Did you have to search through their archives?

OR: No, the co-producers searched the archives. They were really instrumental in all this work. They provided hours and hours of DVDs with archives… It was a little bit different from one country to the next. The deal in general was that they got the rights to show the film in exchange for the archive….They didn’t pay anything. Or very little sums for the rights. Iceland paid more for the rights, which is normal because it is an Icelandic production.

KP: Can you me tell how Those Who Dare has been received?

OR: It’s only been on TV in Estonia and Lithuania. It’s going to be in Iceland in the fall and in January in Latvia. I was at the premiere in Estonia…the cinema premiere. Basically all I have heard is very positive. I was happy to hear in Estonia they were interested to see the three Baltic countries as a whole. As we always tend to look at the Baltic countries as a whole while people inside these countries—they are so different from each other. They don’t see them[selves] as a whole. They are individual countries. All the films they had seen about these events were kind of for each country, but never as a whole. All the documentaries were from Estonia, Lithuania or Latvia…. This is bit of a side-step for me. I’ve done smaller films about historical subjects. I like observational films more. I like to be a fly on the wall and kind of be in the present more.

KP: What comes first? The team or the concept? Or the money?

OR: The money comes last. You know that…For me the concept comes first. I’m originally a cinematographer so if I see something, I start shooting and develop the story. I have a lot of material before I start financing. It’s a good thing to be a cameraman. All you need is really your own time and some gas and some money for food and you can start. The film I am making now, I worked on it for two and a half years before I started working on the financing. I was really convinced with this story that I would get it financed anyway. In that way I didn’t take such a chance. Financing is always the determining factor if you go all the way with the project or not. When do you have a story? It’s not until then that you can make the film.

KP: You have to have an audience, too. You have to know who you are telling your story to.

OR: This not as important in Iceland. If you are doing a local film, you generally have a very broad audience. It’s not as fragmented as in other countries.

KP: You are making films in the language spoken in Iceland.

OR: Yes. And we have a very small audience and the determining factor is the Icelandic film funds. Not from the TV channels. They bring so little money into the project. The big money comes from the film funds.

Those Who Dare has its EstDocs Gala Screening on October 16 at 6:30 PM at the Bloor Cinema.