Associate Editor, Features; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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(Despite what Italian horrorfilms might say, it sometimes does pay to look in a basement...)

Every year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam a fun time can be had when the audience ratings are popping up for the first time, always a few days into the festival already. The usual suspects may be on top of that list but you can rest assured at least half of the upper ten consists of titles you've never ever heard of. Happy surprises, or world premieres by yet unknown people. Often these will be documentaries impossible to catch outside of a festival.

Enter Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir, a documentary about a woman who became a culty pop star in Iceland ten years ago at the ripe young age of seventy-one. And although the film never lifts the veil quite high enough to understand what's going on, the picture it paints and the woman at its center are indeed hugely entertaining. Enough so for the film to be rated an average of 4.3 out of 5 by the IFFR audience and ending up in the festival's top 10.

Who is Sigrídur Níelsdóttir and why is this film so well-received? Read on!

The Movie:

For once I will let go of my usual Story-Movie-Conclusion structure because this is a rather short documentary (even with credits it clocks in at 62 minutes) and I would have to repeat myself three times. Alternatively I could tell you every tiny detail about it, but that would spoil a lot of this movie's charm.

So let me start with what this film does NOT do. It does NOT provide you with an extensive overview of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir's life, settling instead on a few choice episodes the lady feels comfortable in talking about. For example: Sigrídur was married and spent time in Brazil but that only gets touched upon in the slightest, while an early crush of hers gets major limelight.
It also does NOT tell you how she got her cult-status, nor does it focus on her fame. People who do not know her may even wonder if she is famous at all, although the fact that she self-published 59 records is impressive in itself.
The film also does not make her out to be some sort of genius. After the umpteenth nursery-rhyme-mixed-with-electronically-altered-kitchen-sounds you might want to know what all the noise (haha) is about.

These things seem like major fails in a documentary, if that was what the film set out for. Thing is, it doesn't. Instead it tries to show how Sigrídur Níelsdóttir's creative thought processes work, where her inspiration comes from and how much fun she is having with it.
You get to see Sigrídur explain how she makes music, tell about the past, you see her creative sound effects.... her music computer is a giant machine of which she only uses less than half of the buttons ("I just start pressing things until I hear something I like..."). She comes across as just a nice old lady who has a hobby and who accidentally got mentioned by some famous people a few times.

What makes this so much fun to watch is that at all times Sigrídur Níelsdóttir has a twinkle in her eyes and harbors no illusions about the end result. On top of that the filmmakers use her drawings, collages and sketches for animations which embellish whatever is on screen. Near the end of the documentary you even get a big surprise which turns into yet another success story, and the visual aspect of the film plays a role in that.

Grandma Lo-fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir lauds its "star" for doing what she does, be it brilliant or awful, and if there is a message in there it is that you could do worse things than trying to find your inner creativity, no matter in which field or art. It is a hard-to-resist little "feelgood" movie and judging by the corridor talk here at the IFFR people left the cinemas with a big smile on their face.

No-nonsense. Small-scale. Fun. Successful. Just like its subject...

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