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Grandma Lo-Fi

Rich Haridy

Succinct, inspiring and lovely to look at, this Icelandic documentary is sure to be one of the highlights of the Melbourne Festival’s ‘Art On Film’ program.
Grandma Lo-Fi
On her 70th birthday, Sigríður Níelsdóttir’s daughters gave her a small electric keyboard. Seven years later the Icelandic grandma had produced 59 albums featuring 687 songs.

Seven years in the making, Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigríður Níelsdóttir is the debut feature from three Icelandic artists, and it’s simply one of the most charming films I’ve seen in quite some time. Delving into Níelsdóttir’s creative process, this intimate film lovingly portrays the transformative quality that music brought to the old woman’s life.

The film highlights an intangible purity and innocence in Níelsdóttir’s music. Not consciously kitschy or playing up to hipster trends, her songs have an almost transcendent experimental style that is glorious to experience. She isn’t making her music for anyone but herself yet the cult following that grew around her in Iceland seems to be immense. While the documentary itself is reasonably insular, it is worth noting that Níelsdóttir has been mentioned as inspirations for Icelandic legends such as Sigur Rós and Björk. Müm also have performed some of Níelsdóttir’s songs at their concerts.

The music itself ranges from amusingly lo-fi Casio loops to some genuinely strange and compelling experimental soundscapes. One piece Níelsdóttir created out of the cooing of a sick pigeon that she took care of for 14 months. It’s a bizarre composition bordering on sound art at times, but it’s all the same to Níelsdóttir. Upon hearing the song in the film, and watching the proud look on her face, it is impossible not to smile. This is art created with no pretence. Pure creative expression. Níelsdóttir is not making something for an audience, genre or fashion but rather just playing with the sounds that she enjoys hearing.

An interesting subtext to the film is the liberating aspect of technology. Níelsdóttir is constantly amazed at what she can create with her little keyboard and tape to tape recordings. One of the most endearing sequences in the film is when we follow her around her basement apartment while she excitedly demonstrates how she makes some of her sounds. Eggbeaters doubling for helicopters, water from a tap into a jug sounding like a waterfall, crinkling paper resembles a fire crackling – all novel discoveries to Níelsdóttir..

This DIY quality that infuses her music also flows through into the construction of the documentary itself. The artistic triumvirate that created this film all come from disparate backgrounds. Fine art, animation, music – all artistic forms pervade the texture of this documentary, which was entirely shot on 8mm and 16mm film. Employing a handmade quality reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s best work, Grandma Lo-Fi intersperses hand-drawn animation, photo-collages, stop-motion, even the pops and crackles of the celluloid itself to create a gorgeous, almost tangible, textural quality to the film.

Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigríður Níelsdóttir is a wonderful little film. Succinct, inspiring and lovely to look at. Sure to be one of the highlights of the Melbourne Festival's 'Art On Film' program.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigríður Níelsdóttir
Dir. Orri Jónsson, Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir & Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir
Iceland, 2011, 61 mins

Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne: 12 October Greater Union Cinemas, Melbourne: 21 October

Melbourne Festival
11 – 27 October

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Rich Haridy is a freelance, Melbourne-based film critic,  Melbourne University Masters student, and Chair of the Australian Film Critics Association. His writing can be found on the Quickflix blog and his own website, Rich On Film; he also co-hosts the film debate show, The Parallax Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @RichonFilm