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
Life in a Fishbowl is the kind of film this blog seeks to promote. It has been a major hit in its own territory and won in virtually every category of Iceland’s national film awards. Internationally it has been praised as well – but it has also been dismissed as formulaic and ‘routine’. The Hollywood Reporter review is a case in point. It compares the film unfavourably to two respected Hollywood films and never discusses it as an Icelandic film. This is the kind of thing that really pisses me off. Let me explain.
Life in a ‘fishbowl’ is in some ways an excellent metaphor for what it must be like to live in a nation of 350,000 people which has nevertheless produced international performers in a number of disciplines. It’s perhaps easier to be a big fish in a small pond, but it’s quite difficult to be ‘unknown’. The film has been described as a multi-strand narrative and an ‘ensemble piece’. I’m not sure it is either of these, but I did keep thinking about those Nordic Noir novels and long-form TV serials. The film runs to 130 mins but I could happily have watched it over four or five single one hour episodes. I’ve learned from Icelandic crime novels and a handful of films that there is plenty of darkness in Icelandic stories – but also possibilities of hope.
There are three central characters in Life in a Fishbowl with personal narratives which will eventually overlap. Eik (Hera Hilmar) is an attractive young woman who was a teenage single mother and now has an 8 year-old daughter at 24. She works in a nursery school and supplements her income by working occasional nights as a call girl for local businessmen – trying to reduce her overdraft. Sölvi (Thor Kristjansson) is a handsome young footballer who has had to give up the game because of injury and has been taken on as a banking executive, adding some glamour to the management team. Finally, Móri (Þorsteinn Bachmann) is a poet and novelist who has become a sad alcoholic – but one still capable of producing an important autobiographical novel. These three are indeed familiar characters, but in context they represent much more. While Eik is perhaps the familiar figure of the damaged young woman n Nordic Noir, the other two characters are Icelandic heroes – the artist/novelist and footballer who might be feted in Northern Europe capitals as well as at home, especially in the years immediately before the financial crash of 2008 devastates Iceland. So, we have Iceland on the edge of the precipice with two potential national heroes and stories that delve into a dark past. I won’t give away what happens except to say that all three characters have a link to small daughters. The direct link between the three is that Sölvi has a daughter at the school where Eik works and that he is charged with trying to buy Móri’s house as part of his bank’s redevelopment plans. Móri’s house is near to the school and he likes to watch the young girls playing in the school grounds. That sounds provocative but don’t jump to conclusions. I think this manipulation of what seems like three typical characters in familiar narratives is actually well-worked. The performances are all very good, the ‘Scope cinematography works as does the music. It’s a Nordic melodrama and I had tears in my eyes at the end. If you are a jaded soul who sees everything through Hollywood lenses you might not get too much from the film but for the rest of us, it works like a treat. This second feature by writer-director Baldvin Zophoníasson is one of the films competing for the audience award at Glasgow. It stands a good chance.
This is a riveting 80-something minutes of bravura filmmaking best seen on a big screen in a good-sized cinema (go here to find current bookings across the UK – often single screenings). It’s set in rural Iceland with sea, mountains and rough pasture and accompanied by a terrific soundtrack (including Icelandic choir performances). Described as ‘Comedy-Drama’ by the distributor, the humour is actually very dark. When I was going into the cinema I overheard an argument at the box office when someone couldn’t understand why the cinema would not admit her child (aged under 15). I suspect that the film would be very upsetting for most children – this isn’t a ‘horsey romance’.
There is no strong narrative as such. Instead we get a number of shorter narratives, mostly tragic with elements of comedy, involving the small farmers on the plain. The farmers all in some way live with/by the wild horses of the region, each year rounding up a number of them and breaking them for leisure or commerce of some kind. There is something of a documentary feel to the narrative structure in the way that the stories lead towards the big summer round-up. The community is quite ‘close’ in proximity but individuals are also competitive/jealous/promiscuous etc. The film’s English title (not a direct translation) misses out ‘women’, at least two of whom are also important narrative agents.
I was trying to think of another film that had a similar tone and I began to think of the Basque film Vacas (Cows) made by Julio Medem in 1992. A tight-knit community in a very specific locale with a strong local culture and some almost surreal local practices. At one point, when the various widows/divorcées are angered that one of their number has got her teeth into the most eligible male by teaming up with him during the horse round-up, the other women suggest that there should be more than two people doing the job taken by the couple. “It’s been a two-person job for a thousand years” retorts an older man.
Of Horses and Men is a début film for writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson and as such it is a staggering achievement, winning several international prizes as well as cleaning up at the Icelandic ‘Edda’ awards. One of the roles is played by the Icelandic actor who is best known by international audiences, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, and I recognised at least one other actor from Jar City (2006), the last Icelandic film to get a significant release in the UK. Most of the stories have surprising twists which I don’t want to give away but I was intrigued by the reference to a famous sequence from Jan Troell’s The New Land (Sweden 1972) (what to do when you and your horse/ox etc. are caught in a snowstorm). The relatively few Icelandic films I’ve seen have all had ‘noirish’ features. The short film Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) shares the dark tone and appears to have been shot in a similar location.
I enjoyed the film very much, but I turned away from the screen a couple of times since I’m squeamish about many forms of violence or medical procedure. Will the film please horse-lovers? I don’t know, but I think they will appreciate the representation of the horses (beautifully photographed) and the realism of certain scenes. Be warned, however, that the film ends with the message that all those taking part in the film are horse lovers and that “no horses were harmed during the making of the film”. Some pretty good CGI or VFX then, I think!
Bradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.
I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.
Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.