‘ANNA’ Sets A Contemporary ‘Anna Karenina’ In Iceland

‘ANNA’ Sets A Contemporary ‘Anna Karenina’ In Iceland

A fresh, fifteen-minute retelling of the fabled epic

Published December 17, 2014

In new Icelandic short film ‘ANNA’, artist and filmmaker Helga Björg Gylfadóttir masterfully merges love, lust, bisexuality, politics and majestic landscapes. The film is a bold and intriguing take on one of the most celebrated novels of all time, Leo Tolstoy’s canonical ‘Anna Karenina’. And it works! The fact that Tolstoy’s masterpiece is a tome of some 900 pages, makes director Helga’s feat of extracting its essence into a fifteen-minute short (with very sparse dialogue) seem all the more impressive.

Helga moves the setting from late 19th century Russia to modern-day Iceland—November of 2013, to be precise. Anna (played by artist Lilja Birgisdóttir), is married to Katrín/Karenin (Vigdís Másdóttir), Iceland’s Minister of Culture, who happens to be madly in love with actor Veturliði/Vronsky (Arnmundur Ernst Bachman). Inevitably Anna’s passion puts a tragic sequence of events into motion and her world is thrown into chaos.

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Messing with tradition

Helga tells me that she felt it important to portray Anna as a character that defies categorization. Indeed, her interpretation sees Anna emerge as a complex and somewhat dark character. On that note, the film seeks to defy any kind of binary duality between love and lust, nature and culture. ‘ANNA’ captures the tension of when the raw meets the refined and explores the wounds and beauty of love.

“I wanted to mess with the text a bit,” Helga says, “since it’s story that has been retold so many times. I asked myself: how can I make this old book fresh? I first read it when I was 22, and the character of Anna Karenina spoke directly to me. She reminded me how important it is to make your own independent decisions, even if it means going against the grain. I also wanted the film to be a commentary on what it is like to be a woman in Iceland today.”

“And, maybe, I also had this desire to rewrite her fate.”

Encounters with Russian culture and religion

During the filmmaking process, Helga met with the envoy of cultural affairs at the Russian embassy in Iceland, along with the minister of Iceland’s Russian Orthodox Church. She tells me these representatives met her inquiries in a positive and interested manner, despite the potentially flammable sexual politics embedded in the script (which she read to them at their meetings).

This support pleasantly surprised Helga, especially since the impending Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics saw Russia heavily scrutinized by Western media; with manifold reports published on rampant violence against LBGTs and Russian culture’s seemingly intrinsic homophobia. To wit, the minister provided Helga with various props for the film, including seven prayer candles and a Russian language copy of ‘Anna Karenina’.

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Haunting soundscapes

It was very important that the film—despite being set in Iceland—would retain a strong feel for Russian culture, Helga says. The exploration of Russian life in Iceland proved a big inspiration, along with her collaboration on the film with rising composer Páll Ragnar Pálsson and his wife, Estonian soprano singer Tui Hirv.

Páll provides the film’s main score, and does an admirable job of it; his haunting soundscapes perfectly fit the world constructed by Helga. Tui also proved an important source of knowledge on mannerisms and everyday life in Russia, and the Russian language, Helga says.

The film furthermore benefits from the work of designer and stylist Hilda (Milla Snorrason), who also strove to capture the Russian spirit. “In many ways the project took on a life of it’s own during the whole process with different people contributing,” notes Helga. “I think it was my role to allow it to happen. I wanted to find the essence or spirit of the book and convey it.”

Bíó Paradís will host a special screening of ANNA—FREE OF CHARGE—on Thursday, December 18, at 6 pm.

Follow Anna here.


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