Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Icelandic Canadians are in the arts because they're artistic

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Examine the background of writer-filmmaker-editor Caelum Vatnsdal and you might reasonably suspect the existence of some kind of Icelandic Mafia lurking in the Winnipeg art community.

Consider: the 41 year old Vatnsdal got his start in the local film culture courtesy of the city's premiere filmmaker Guy Maddin, whose first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1989) vividly mythologized the Icelandic-Canadians of Maddin's own ancestry.

(Vatnsdal's first gig was as a camera assistant on Maddin's 1992 feature Careful, but he also appeared on camera and got to utter a single line of dialogue, which he can still recite: "Master has an occluded bowel. Alert Herr Doctor Schmidt at once!")

Look at the list of film projects Vatnsdal has himself directed and note the concert film We're the Weakerthans, We're from Winnipeg, featuring Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson, one of the programmers (along with Vatnsdal) of the Icelandic-Canadian arts festival Núna (Now).


Well, yes, Vatnsdal says.

"It's essentially a coincidence," he says over coffee at The Neighbourhood Cafe close to his house in Wolseley.

"There are so many people of Icelandic descent here doing those sorts of things."

The kinds of things Vatnsdal does are vividly varied. In addition to directing films, he is the author of the definitive book on Canadian horror films, They Came from Within. He is currently at work on a biography of Dick Miller, a Hollywood character actor who worked for decades for producer Roger Corman and starred in one of Vatnsdal's favourite films, A Bucket of Blood (1959). (If the subject seems obscure, the Miller biography has put Vatnsdal in the same room as Corman, director Joe Dante and on the phone with one of Miller's frequent co-stars in the 1960s, Jack Nicholson.)

Vatnsdal also spent two years, from 2008-2010, as the editor of the Lgberg-Heimskringla, which he proudly asserts is "the oldest continually published ethnic newspaper in North America."

That position, he says, came about because he had experience as a writer and editor.

"Probably the most Icelandic thing about me is my name," he says. "The actual blood count is diluted by now into some fractional amount. My father's grandparents on his father's side came over. They were originally named Eggertson and renamed themselves after the region they had come from, which in Iceland is pronounced 'Vostol.'"

Vatnsdal was always enamoured of that part of his ancestry, he says. "It's vikings and volcanoes and all that stuff. It was an attractive thing to be, it seemed to me as a kid.

"(Guy) always maintains that if you have one little drop of Icelandic blood, it enriches or pollutes -- depending on your perspective -- the rest of your blood, and you're therefore Icelandic no matter how infinitesimal the amount. And that's sort of what it was like for me."

It's safe to say Vatnsdal feels enriched.

"Since becoming involved with Núna (Now), and the newspaper, I've learned a lot more about my heritage," he says. Indeed, he has attended significant moments in Iceland's history in his capacity as editor of the LH, including being there when the country was one of the first to fall victim to the worldwide economic collapse.

"Prime Minister Geir Haarde was the first one to lose his position, and I had the first interview with him after he left," Vatnsdal recalls. "I ended up with this in-depth interview literally conducted in his office while he was packing to leave.

"I ran it in the LH, and the only feedback I got from any reader was that it was boring," he laughs.

"I was like: 'What do you have to do?'"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 J14

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