Husavik: The small Icelandic town chasing Oscar success via a Eurovision film

The harbour town of Husavik will be familiar to anyone who has seen Will Ferrell’s Netflix Eurovision film

‘The film gave Husavik worldwide recognition,’ said one of the town’s campaigners. Photograph: Suzie Howell/The New York Times

‘The film gave Husavik worldwide recognition,’ said one of the town’s campaigners. Photograph: Suzie Howell/The New York Times

 

On a recent Monday, in the backroom of an empty seaside hotel here, a group of locals gathered anxiously around a computer livestreaming the 93rd Academy Awards nominations, waiting to discover whether their campaigning had been successful.

A little after 1pm came the good news, and the residents heard the name of their town said in an American accent one more time: Husavik, a song from the Netflix film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, was nominated for best original song.

The song gets its name from this tiny coastal town – which is also home to the film’s main characters – and for weeks, residents had been working to get the song an Oscar nomination. “I teared up” on hearing the news, said Orlygur Orlygsson (37) one of the campaigners gathered in the hotel. “The film gave Husavik worldwide recognition, and we wanted to do the same for the song.”

Yet he was still shocked by the nomination, he said. Among the 2,300 people living in this harbour town perched on Iceland’s northern coast, Orlygsson may be the highest-profile fan of Fire Saga. He owns a cafe called Ja Ja Ding Dong, named after a silly song from the film. And in February, when Husavik was one of the 15 tracks on the Academy’s longlist for best song, Orlygsson started the campaign to persuade Academy members to nominate it.

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.
Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga.

Fire Saga tells the story of two musicians from Husavik, played by Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. The pair – who are “probably not” brother and sister – are selected by default to represent Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest after a ship carrying more prominent Icelandic singers explodes.

Off they go into the world of “neon lights and billboards,” although in the end they discover that there’s no place like home. Husavik is their Eurovision act, the film’s triumphant climax. When the film arrived on Netflix in June, critics weren’t impressed. Jeannette Catsoulis wrote in her review for The New York Times that “this over-egged farce whips slapstick and cheese into an authentic souffle of tastelessness”.

But fans of the Eurovision Song Contest – which attracts 200 million television viewers each year – embraced the film in a pandemic year when the actual contest was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1956. Once the residents of Husavik began their online campaign, thousands of those fans spread the word on social media.

Part of the reason a group of adults have had the time to campaign for the song is the widespread underemployment in the town brought on by the pandemic

The campaign features a fictional Husavik resident named Oskar Oskarsson who, in a video posted to the campaign’s website, raves about the town, where the only thing missing is “another Oskar”. In the tongue-in-cheek video, a woman pretends that a fish is an Oscar statue and residents leave gifts for elves to help with the campaign.

“The people of Husavik are very excited,” says the campaign’s website. The video has been viewed up to 200,000 times across YouTube and social media platforms, the organisers said. The actor in the video is Sigurdur Illugason, a local house painter who is now performing in the musical Little Shop of Horrors at the Husavik theatre club for a masked audience of 50. Kristjan Magnusson, the mayor of Husavik, said the campaign’s main value was to lift the spirits of people in the town.

“The fun of coming together for a big project is the most important thing,” he said. “The rest is a bonus.” Molly Sanden, who sings on the track for McAdams’s character, praised the people of Husavik for rallying behind the song.

“The campaign shows the town has the heart and spirit the song is about,” she said in a telephone interview from her native Sweden. She said she hoped to visit Husavik as soon as the pandemic is over to see the mountains, Northern Lights and sea gulls described in the song’s lyrics. The lyrics could apply to most of Iceland’s coastal communities, and the song’s demo was written with Husavik as a place holder before the film’s director and producers visited Iceland to decide on a location to set their film.

“I first heard a demo of the song when we were driving around Iceland scouting for locations,” said Leifur Dagfinnsson, who manages the local production company True North, which worked on Fire Saga. The initial plan, he said, was to find a town on the southern half of the island near Reykjavik, the capital, to save money on transportation. Husavik is closer to the Arctic Circle and had never been the location for an international film production.

Before the pandemic, the town’s economy was powered by tourism. Photograph: Suzie Howell/The New York Times
Before the pandemic, the town’s economy was powered by tourism. Photograph: Suzie Howell/The New York Times

But the strong demo featuring Husavik tipped the balance in favour of the northern town. “Husavik is easier to pronounce than other Icelandic town names,” Dagfinnsson said. That gave it a clear advantage lyrics-wise over Stykkisholmur (Stikk-is-hohlm-ur), a town that he said “would have made sense from a budgetary point of view”.

In Husavik, whale-watching boats outnumber fishing vessels and – contrary to the town in Fire Saga – it has half a dozen bars. Tourism is the town’s main industry, and part of the reason a group of adults have had the time to campaign for the song is the widespread underemployment brought on by the pandemic. The residents hope tourists will be singing the town’s name into their car’s GPS now that Iceland is allowing vaccinated foreign visitors.

Leonardo Piccione, an Italian artist who lives in Husavik, noted that the tiny town had connected “two of the greatest television events on the planet,” adding, “That’s something to work with, I think.”

The campaigners hope to build on the publicity of the Oscar nomination to open a Eurovision museum next to the Ja Ja Ding Dong cafe, with memorabilia from Icelandic contestants who have never won the competition. And, of course, they will release more videos of Oskar Oskarsson when Academy members begin voting next month.

Widely predicted to win best original song is Speak Now from One Night in Miami or the Golden Globe winner Io Si (Seen) from The Life Ahead. Also nominated are Fight for You from Judas and the Black Messiah and Hear My Voice from The Trial of the Chicago 7, the third Netflix film in the category.

Win or lose, Husavik is now part of the fabric of the town here. The local soccer team, the Volsungs, blasts the soundtrack before matches, and the children’s choir regularly performs the Icelandic part of the song. Savan Kotecha, an executive producer of Fire Saga, co-wrote the lyrics to the song using Google Translate for the Icelandic lines and Google street view to get a sense of the town.

“It didn’t occur to me the song would come to have a special meaning for the people there,” he said in an interview. “Now, in all sincerity, we want to win for Husavik.” – New York Times

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