This was the most enjoyable film I watched in Glasgow. Most of the time I was on the edge of my seat cheering. The hero of this fairy tale, as the writer-director calls it, is Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). Halla is a woman in her forties, living alone and seemingly happy with her ‘crusades’ (and the name ‘Halla’ refers to one of the last Icelandic outlaw’ characters in the 17th century)’. Halla has three passions – leading a choir, taking care of the planet and protecting her local landscape. It’s these last two which motivate her declaration of war on heavy industry and the power company. Her heroes are Nelson Mandela and Gandhi. The film’s narrative begins with the one woman war already well under way. A large metal smelting plant has been built close to Halla’s town and power is brought to it by overhead lines which snake across the mountains. The Chinese are said to be interested in investing in the smelter, so protecting it is high on the government agenda. Halla has already managed to cut the power supply more than once and now she has bigger plans. Meanwhile, the company and the government have brought in security forces, the CIA and the latest surveillance technologies to stop her (though they don’t actually know who is causing the power losses yet). But Halla is very fit and resourceful and has some clever ideas. She might not be a superhero, but she is a tough adversary.
The narrative has a key twist which I won’t reveal and it has a sub-plot which goes some way to explaining the film’s co-production status. Halla applied some time ago to adopt a little girl orphaned after the fighting in Ukraine. This is a bureaucratic process that appears to be heading for a resolution just as Halla is about to launch her biggest attack. She desperately wants the child but how would her arrival affect Halla’s campaign?
The film works because of the wonderful central performance and the comic understanding of co-writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson whose previous film was the cult hit Of Horses and Men (Iceland 2013), which I also enjoyed (and which also featured Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir). The comedy is in the way Halla evades capture and outwits the security forces, but pleasure is also generated by the careful planning procedures and exciting action scenes. I note from going back to a film still from Of Horses and Men, that Erlingsson seems to have repeated the idea of a lone Spanish traveller on a bicycle who is a kind of ‘silent witness’ to all the trouble Halla is causing (and since the authorities don’t know the identity of the saboteur, this poor Spaniard is arrested on the grounds that he is an alien). I wonder if this character played by Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is set to appear in Benedikt Erlingsson’s future films? The other big attractions in the film include the Icelandic landscape (beautifully presented in ‘Scope by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson) and the music. Halla has her own musical accompaniment physically in place with her as she tackles her mission, a wonderful touch. The euphonium is an inherently comic instrument for me. Icelandic films seem to thrive on a certain kind of dark humour. If you enjoyed Rams and Under the Tree, you should certainly enjoy this.
Woman at War was screened in Critics Week at Cannes in 2018 and it has been acquired for UK distribution by Picturehouses so it should appear later this year. Don’t miss it. The main trailer for the film gives away the twist so here is a much shorter US teaser:
Ísold Uggadóttir’s first feature, which she also scripted, won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival and highlights the importance of the screenplay in filmmaking. And Breathe Normally‘s script just doesn’t quite hold together as narrative difficulties are often elided by moving on quickly to the next scene. However, this is a minor criticism as the film is a highly involving story about a refugee (Babetida Sadjo) from Guinea-Bissau (due to her sexuality) marooned in Iceland as her passport is fake.
It’s also about Lára (Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir), a single mum who also happens to be gay, who’s struggling in poverty and her path crosses Adja’s (the refugee) when she takes a job as a border guard. What struck me is the way Uggadóttir, whose direction is excellent, manages to suggest that social class is the key element rather than race, sexuality or gender. Despite idiots like Tory James Cleverly dismissing I, Daniel Blake because it’s fiction, only the wilfully blind are unaware that inequality in many societies has reached unsustainable levels (inequality is never right but was sustained by the welfare state, ease of credit and expanding economies). What unites the disadvantaged is usually social class; this is not to say ‘identity politics’ are not important, but that Marx’s call for class consciousness to fight exploitation is as valid as ever.
There are few institutions in the film as it is a social realist ‘slice of life’. We see border security at work and some of the workings of the deportation process; we are also shown, briefly, Lára’s son’s school. However it is clear that she is almost as trapped by society as Adja; ‘almost’ because for Lára there is some hope, ironically, in the border guard job: by saving herself and her son she has to oppress others.
Uggadóttir shot the film in Reykjanesbær, a town that houses the international airport in Iceland. It is shown to be ugly and she explains that the film avoids the tourist clichés used to represent the country. It is a bleak film (I won’t give away whether the ending offers hope) that gives a convincing glimpse into the lives of refugees (and the poor) who are often demonised whilst they are invariably the victims. Netflix.
At first, I was under the misapprehension that Under the Tree was a follow-up to Rams (2015), the Icelandic film that became a surprise arthouse hit in the UK in 2016. I was wrong. Under the Tree is a different writing and directing team. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson wrote and directed the film with Huldar Breiðfjörð as co-writer.
But Iceland is a country with a small population and a small but vibrant film industry and the same lead actor, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, appears in this film and in Rams, the production context is very similar and the genre of ‘black comedy’ is exactly the same. I was bowled over by Rams which I found quite moving as well as tragic and darkly comic. I feel a little more distanced from Under the Tree and that is probably because the story idea, though ostensibly the same (warring neighbours), is presented in a more familiar setting/context.
Two couples, Konrad and Eybjorg and the older Baldvin and Inga, are neighbours in a pair of houses in an undefined location, presumably on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Though the houses seem quite ‘modern’, Baldvin and Inga have a large tree in the front garden that casts a shadow over their neighbour’s patio. Eybjorg is a younger woman determined to sunbathe and frustrated by the shadow. This is the basis of the conflict and what ensues is similar in many ways to the classic stop-motion animation Neighbours (Canada 1952) by Norman McLaren. Neighbours was clearly a political allegory about escalation and military conflict. I think it’s more difficult to pinpoint the purpose of Under the Tree, apart from its generic ‘pleasures’.
The film also has a secondary plot in which Atli, Baldvin and Inga’s son, offends his wife and is thrown out of their apartment (in a communal apartment block). He has to return home and begin legal action to gain access to his daughter. There is a clear parallel here between the conflict over the tree and the battle over the child. It seems in some ways that the young couple (whose behaviour I at first thought was wild and unreasonable) go about resolving their conflict in a ‘modern’ way. The parents’ behaviour is almost primitive. I should also mention that Atli had a brother who died and Inga hasn’t properly recovered from this. There might be a suggestion of a kind of psychological thriller or even horror film in Inga’s actions. ‘Missing’ children seem to be a recurring feature of the (limited) number of Icelandic narratives I’ve read.
I’ve probably learned most about aspects of Icelandic culture from the crime novels of Arnaldur Indriðason and the adaptation of one of his novels Mýrin (Jar City 2006). The missing/lost children/siblings is a feature of more than one of these novels, as is the importance of choral singing. In Under the Tree there are two sequences of the male voice choir which includes Baldvin in its ranks. The exquisite sound of this choir offers a stark contrast to the ugliness of the relationships in and between the two households – all three sets of couples are at odds with each other. The choir also symbolises just what can be achieved through ‘harmony’ in a very direct way.
As well as the sound design which includes the choral singing, the cinematography in this film is also expressive. Polish cinematographer Monika Lenczewska manages to capture the peculiar light of an Icelandic summer with a subdued palette of colours. Somehow, her visual representation of the two houses and the streets of Reykjavik seems to conjure up an environment as bleak, in different ways, as the snowstorms of Rams. A picnic on the grass by the IKEA car park sums it up really. Under the Tree is a skilled production all round and I recommend it. But do be aware it is a very dark ‘comedy’.
These are my (slightly edited) notes distributed for a screening of the film in 2016.
Rams was a surprise arthouse hit in the UK in 2016. It was promoted as a dark comedy about a pair of brothers who have fallen out though they live close by each other on two separate farms. What brings them back into contact is an outbreak of disease among the local sheep and their farmer’s reluctance to follow government guidelines on disease control. For some audiences the film is dark enough to be a tragedy, but either way it seems to have captured the imagination of UK audiences.
Iceland has one of the highest per capita cinema attendance rates in the world. Whatever the reasons for this (long, cold nights with little to do?), it does mean a vibrant local film culture and a recent history of notable films that have won prizes at international festivals. For example, Volcano (Iceland-Denmark 2011) won the New European Cinema Prize at Bradford International Film Festival in 2012. Although a winner around the world, no-one was prepared to go on and release the film in the UK. The lead in Volcano was played by Theodór Júlíusson, now one of the two brothers in Rams. We should be grateful that Soda Pictures gambled and put Rams into distribution. Perhaps it was the leavening effect of humour which allowed Rams into distribution? The other recent Icelandic film to get a UK release, Of Horses and Men (2013) is also a ‘rural comedy’.
Like most Icelandic film productions (and TV serials like Trapped, on BBC4 early in 2016), Rams is a co-production involving Danish as well as Icelandic public funds. The budget for the film was around €1.5 million (about the same as the average for low budget UK films). Around 10-12 films are made in Iceland each year. The links to Denmark are ‘post-colonial’ in Iceland. They are necessary for such a small country, though after 1945 Iceland began to turn more to the US and the UK (the relationship with the UK has sometimes been similarly tense – note the aside about disease imported with British livestock in the film). Polish involvement in Rams perhaps reflects the fact that Poles are the biggest migrant group in the country. Iceland’s population is only 330,000 – less than Bradford and less than half the population of Leeds. Nearly two-thirds of the population live in the ‘capital region’ of ‘Greater Reykjavik’. Emotional dramas like Rams can be quite intimate. Population density outside the capital region is very low and people know their neighbours well. Family disputes stand out.
Rams was written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, a young man still in his 30s who has made an affecting film about two brothers in their sixties. Hákonarson began his career working on documentaries and he also has experience of working with sheep. An interview with him is available on the BFI Player series (free to watch): https://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-rams-qa-with-director-grimur-hakonarson-2016/
Hákonarson trained in Prague and in the interview he explains that his instinct is to show rather than ‘tell’ as a Hollywood film might do. This means that as an editor, he always tries to cut the dialogue and that as a documentarist he is spontaneous – sometimes shooting scenes not in the script because they might offer something in the edit. For example, a scene in which one of the brothers, Gummi, shovels snow from outside his door was not in the script but now has meaning in the final edit.
Many of the incidents in the film that seem absurd or slightly surreal are in fact based on real incidents, including the trip to hospital and sheep in the basement. The central story is inspired by a true story the filmmaker learned from his father and some of the extras who appear in the film are local farmers. The film does confirm the old adage that the more ‘real’ a filmmaker wishes a film to appear, the more artifice is required. In this case that means a long period of preparation, including a search for amenable sheep (most sheep would simply run away from the filmmakers and Iceland has nearly 500,000 sheep), finding the two houses close together etc. Though the region of Iceland depicted in the film (in the North West) does have heavy snowfall in winter, it was still necessary to spend money on artificial snow (and CGI snow) for some scenes. Two sheep died ‘naturally’ during the filming and through use of CGI the two dead sheep could be used to show a flock being culled.
Tradition and family
Iceland is a ‘young country’ in terms of population profile with a median age of 35 and a high birth rate by European standards. But it is also a culture in which traditions are important as well as close family ties. The director has stated that he sees the ending of the film as symbolic.
Statistics on Iceland from: https://issuu.com/hagstofa/docs/icelandinfigures2015