'Tails of Iceland' documentary explores the bond between Icelanders and their unique horses
New York-based documentary filmmaker April Anderson was looking for a new project to follow her half-hour Beyond the Paint portrait of notorious New York nude body painter Andy Golub, but was seeking something new. She found it in something old: the pony-size Icelandic horse breed that evolved from ponies brought to Iceland by Norse settlers in the ninth and tenth centuries.
Her new hour-long documentary Tails of Iceland, which premiered last month in Reykjavik, depicts the remarkable horses together with those who raise, ride and love them. Like Beyond the Paint, it was made under the auspices of Anderson’s Art As Air art/photography/videography project, which profiles passionately committed but lesser-known artists.
Anderson directed Tails of Iceland, with her musician husband and Art As Air co-founder Martin Chytil, who co-produced it with Iceland’s Erna Arnardóttir.
“Martin and I first went to Iceland in 2014 on a lark, because we thought it would be an exciting place to go,” says Anderson. “We were right: We fell head over heels in love with all of it. In a world of turmoil and man’s inhumanity toward man, Iceland shines like a beacon of hope, representing a simpler societal construct of acceptance, hard work, community and self-sufficient survival.”
The couple went back for a second trip, and on the return flight met a young Icelandic couple on their way to their honeymoon, and became Facebook friends.
“We then learned that the young man, Kári Örn Hinriksson, had been battling a rare, virulent type of cancer since he was 17, when he was given two years to live. Now 10 years later, he was still fighting the disease while trying to live a full and good life.”
Anderson and Chytil went back to Iceland again in the summer of 2015 (their upcoming trip this summer will be their eighth) and spent a day with Hinriksson and his wife Júlíana.
“He spoke very lucidly on how he knew he didn’t have long to live, and introduced us to his family’s horses!” continues Anderson. “His parents owned several and he grew up with them and was attached to them. He chased them around and told us how they got their names, and we took some pictures. It was a magical experience and whetted our curiosity and desire to learn more about Iceland, its people—and its horses.”
Hinriksson died six months later. Anderson posted on Facebook a particularly good photo that she’d taken of him, which Júlíana saw and passed on to his mother Erna Arnardóttir—a lifelong horsewoman—and the two started corresponding.
“Toward the end of 2017 I’d just finished Beyond the Paint and was looking for inspiration for a new art project, and had a moment of epiphany during a conversation with Erna one day,” recalls Anderson.
“I said I wanted to do something about the Icelandic horses because we loved Iceland and the horses seemed amazing, and asked if she’d be interested in collaborating on a project. She jumped on it and said yes, that she needed something in her life now that she’d lost her son—and we began this journey together to document the passion and relationships between the horses and the people of Iceland, and how they are intertwined.”
Anderson, Chytil and another Art As Air team member, Vathaska, began shooting Tails of Iceland, also with Arnardóttir, a year ago last April. They did a second shoot in August.
“Martin learned how to fly a drone, and we were lucky to have Horses of Iceland [a strategic marketing outreach] donate their services, including long-range drone footage,” says Anderson. “We spent the months between last August and this February editing, and Martin composed the soundtrack music. The jewel in the crown is the end-title song—‘Run’ by Snow Patrol, which Kári sang in school with his friend Jón Ásgeir, and is the only recording of him singing.”
Anderson, whose day job is marketing/communications director for The Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF), was able to secure the rights to “Run” though her music publishing connections. The SHOF induction gala producer Nancy Munoz—“a big horse person,” per Anderson--is also a co-producer of Tails of Iceland.
“There’s a huge horse community in Iceland, and maybe half of it participated!” notes Anderson. “The horses are part of the culture, and a dozen or so people will round up 60 to 70 horses and herd them across the Highlands for fun, staying in community houses or hotels. But it takes a lot of planning to make sure they have enough food—for them and the horses.”
One especially scenic Highland ride shown in Tails of Iceland is on the famous trail along the juncture between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
“Highlands roads are numbered but they have their own off-road trails that you have to map out to make sure it’s safe,” says Anderson, whose film shows the challenging if not treacherous conditions sometimes faced during the roundups and rides. Here she notes that Icelandic horses were originally “beasts of burden, imported for the express purpose of means to travel.”
“They’d take two or three and ride one until it tired, then ride the next one. But they’re like puppies! They follow you around, and when I was filming at least one was always bumping me from the back and two others were nibbling on the camera wires. And they’re so inquisitive! They must see everything and put their nose in everything—and they’re great with children: I had a two-and-a-half-year-old in the first shoot who was so patient, and had no fear, because children know horses are good. They all have personalities, and are just adorable.”
She credits the way that Icelanders raise the horses for their mild demeanor.
“They don’t saddle them until at least four-years-old and let them run free before they try riding them—so they’re the happiest horses I’ve ever seen,” says Anderson. “Since they’re so small, they have to be made strong for riders—and need to gain muscle from roaming the rock terrain that is Iceland. So they’re left alone and have freedom up in the Highlands and fields, and then every fall there’s a roundup and they sort them out in a big pen.”
Anderson also notes that besides their size, Icelandic horses have two distinguishing gaits: the fluid tölt, where at least one foot always touches the ground, and the flying pace, a fast gait during which both legs on one side of the horse simultaneously touch the ground. Tails of Iceland, then, explores the cultural connections between Icelanders and their special horses.
“Our goal was to capture some of the tales and a lot of the history, but more importantly, to illustrate how deep this unique kinship goes,” says Anderson.
Dedicated to the memory of Hinriksson, Tails of Iceland premiered March 23 at Reykjavik’s main Bíó Paradís Cinema.
“It was the most unbelievable experience,” says Anderson. “We had blizzard conditions the day before, and then snow flurries and rain. But 200 showed up, and while Icelanders aren’t as expressive as we might be, I have to say that they were pretty much blown away.”
The movie’s U.S. premiere is slated for the Equus Film Festival in December in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and it will also be available for streaming via Vimeo on Demand.
"Tails of Iceland" trailer