Frozen Land, Moving Pictures

Cultural experiences come in different sizes, shapes and colors. Foreign travel is often the best way to have them, but watching films is another. Sometimes it's possible to get both simultaneously, and on those rare occasions when we do find ourselves in a foreign place with access to an extensive menu of commendable films, it makes us feel deliriously happy, blessed by good fortune and well being.

Tromsø, Norway is located 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a jewel of a city with a sophisticated profile. It supports a fine university, a symphony orchestra, a professional theater troupe and a lively electronic music industry. Tromsø's population of 70,000 includes 100 different nationalities. Seven percent of the university faculty teaches in English, and some claim that one out of three students that come to Tromsø for an education stay on after graduation.

Since 1991, Tromsø has also hosted an impressive annual international film festival. Scandinavian film buffs know about it, as well as other Europeans, but it remains a secret to most North Americans, who are likely to ask why anyone would travel to the Arctic to watch movies? In January.

Begin with the fact that northern Norway is a geological phenomenon. Tromsø's location is stunning with opportunities to see the expansive winter terrain from sleds pulled by dogs or reindeer. At night, the beautiful but temperamental "Aurora" -- family name: Borealis -- appears in the sky wearing emerald green gossamer, sometimes tinged with pink. Contrary to expectations, Tromsø in January is not dark all day long, but framed in a soft dusk with sunlight increasing by ten minutes each day. Most cafes and restaurants enhance this unusual light by decorating with small lamps and masses of candlelight.

After 24 years, these festival folk know how to make it work. Within walking distance of Tromsø's hotels are first class cinema venues to accommodate 80-90 titles, each of which gets three to four separate screenings. It is arguably one the most well organized film festivals in the world, and much of the festival's success is due to its 330 volunteers. The budget is covered by ticket sales, sponsorships and as expected in a social democracy, a hefty chunk of change -- almost 33 percent -- from the public sector. This year the festival sold 59,000 tickets.

Some titles are well known American feature films such as this year's Nebraska and British-American Twelve Years a Slave. Since most of the films are not in the English language, however, they have English sub-titles.

Various awards were presented by this year's juries. The Norwegian Peace Film Award went to the Palestinian film, Omar right on the heels of the film's Oscar nomination. Directed by Hany Abu-Assad, Omar is about betrayal. Brilliant, yes, but hard to watch at various moments, as it depicts the daily brutality from living under Israeli occupation. "In an effective and uncompromising way," said the jury, "Omar contributes to a deeper understanding of the conflict. It is a fast-moving and electrifying romantic-political thriller, taking the viewers on a roller-coaster ride through the maze of occupation and oppression."

Other Palestinian films were available at the festival by visiting a bank of TV monitors in the Tromsø film gallery, a hallway connecting the city's library to one of the screening venues.

This year's Aurora Prize was presented to the Japanese film The Tale of Iya by director Tetsuichiro Tsuta for a story about tradition and how the world changes through generations.

The International Critic's Award went to Ida, a Danish-Polish film by director
Pawel Pawlikowski. Ida is about guilt, post WWII; it's an exploration of severed identity and reconciliation that according to the jury "avoids clichés and the illusion of an easy answer."

The Audience Award went to an Icelandic film, Of Horses and Men
by Benedikt Erlingsson.

Three documentaries deserve attention.

I Stop Time is a Swedish production by Gunilla Bresky about Vladislav Mikosha, the cinematographer who documented the horrors of WWII. Light Fly, Fly High by Susann Østigaard and Beate Hofseth is about the unlikely subject of Indian women and boxing. Thulasi Ekanandam is the focus, a young woman who literally fights for her independence and freedom from an unwanted marriage. Narco Cultura by Shaul Shwarz is about the glorification of ultra violent criminals in Mexico's drug wars through narco corrida, a peculiar pop-cultural expression.

Each year the festival also has special programs, including lectures. Films from the North offers 40 to 50 shorts and documentaries from the Barents region (northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Canada). In 2013 they had a retrospective of the Swedish legendary filmmaker Jan Troell. This year, they had a retrospective of French Director, Nicolas Philibert.

A portion of the films operates from themes. Last year's were Israel and skate boarding. This year's was Kurdistan and basketball. The German skateboarding film, This Ain't California from 2013 is still talked about. An American-Iraqi collaboration is
Salaam Dunk, 2014's best basketball flick.

"All of them are distinct cultures," explains Festival Director, Martha Otte.

Born in Salinas, California and raised in Hayward -- a suburb of San Francisco -- 62-year-old expat Martha Otte has lived her adult life in Europe, mainly in Norway. Otte has a university degree in moral philosophy from Tromsø University with an emphasis on aesthetics. This is the line that connects her to film, first as a member of a film club, then as a volunteer for the early Tromsø film festivals and eventually as a staff member until 2005 when she took over as director.

She is literally on top of the world and meeting her confirms the poetic vision in such an expression. As Otte talks about literary film -- in both silent and sound formats -- sparks of joy dart from this handsome woman's eyes, perceptible even in the dim light of a coffee bar. Film is her life. She travels the world looking for stories with significant vision and then brings them back home to frozen Tromsø -- to share with others -- every January.