A pleasant surprise at last fall’s Reykjavík International Film Festival was the screening of Icelandic filmmaker Ísold Uggadóttir’s début short, Family Reunion
The bilingual flick tells the tale of Katrín, a young Icelandic artist in New York who travels back home to attend her grandfather’s 70th birthday and faces the task of coming out to her seemingly square family. It features a clever plot, as well as some distinctly “Icelandic” moments that are far removed from the traditional tourist/landscape fare. It has been very favourably received, and was recently selected to appear at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Uggadóttir took the time to answer some of the Grapevine’s questions.
Family Reunion is shot in two separate locations, with New York represented as a sunny haven for the mild mannered protagonist, where she revels in being in love amidst the atmosphere of a bustling city in springtime. Your Reykjavík, on the other hand, has a gloomy feel to it. You’ve lived in both places; does the film represent your views on the cities, or is the contrast in how they are portrayed meant to indicate the feelings of dread Katrín has for coming out and facing her family?
It was a very conscious decision to portray these two places as complete opposites. The portrayal is not necessarily a true representation of New York versus Reykjavík, but precisely an expression of how our lead character experiences her own environment. In order to convey this, we processed the film for the New York scenes using a process called “skip bleach”, which resulted in a more grainy and grungy look. The colours turned out a bit more saturated than in the Icelandic scenes. We also shot handheld in New York while in Iceland the camera was often in a fixed position. Iceland was made to look more boring and traditional, in order to get in the head of our lead character and view it through her eyes.
There is a scene where Katrín faces her excruciatingly dull family in their new jeep on the way from Keflavík, unremarkable news blaring from the speakers, surrounded by a bland landscape. It is extremely funny. I’d think anyone returning to a mundane life after a period of adventure could relate. Is it, and other parts of Family Reunion, based on personal experience?
Well, just like any artist, you take moments that you have lived or heard about and build upon them. To start with the landscape in Keflavík is just so incredibly odd; when I was younger I always felt a bit sorry for the poor foreigners that were under the impression that they had landed on the moon, when they had actually expected this hip and cool hotspot of the north. I was drawn to creating an environment to which the lead character could not relate at all, and have her be very at odds with everyone around her. But most of the film is fiction. My father doesn’t actually know anything about cars, nor does my mother talk about potential dates. She is an artist, so we can relate on the struggling artist front. She is currently selling the DVD of Family Reunion at her store Kirsuberjatréð, Vesturgata 4, for her indebted filmmaker daughter.
Is there a message or a topic that you’re especially interested in conveying?
I am not sure I ever set out to convey a specific message. If so, I would hope to have done it in a subtle way. I don’t really like to tell people how to be or what to think, unless they are in grammar school. But if people take something from the film and perhaps think about it the day after, then I am happy. The original purpose of the film was to make a film. I had wanted to make a film for years, but never took the full step until now. I did want to make a bit fun of typical Icelandic birthday parties, ideas of homophobia, racism, materialism, etc. – just not in a preachy way. Perhaps I was inspired by the fact that Iceland has become the aforementioned hip and cool hotspot of the north, and wanted to show foreigners another side of Iceland.
One of the things that surprised me about the movie is how you managed to cram a lot of different aspects into a 20-minute short. On one hand it’s quite comedic, but there is a much wider spectrum of emotion involved. Was there ever an instance where you thought about expanding the short, perhaps to further explore some of the sentiment it evokes?
The strange thing with films is that either they are “short films” – often defined as 30 minutes and under. Or they are “feature films” – defined as 90 minutes and over. There is really nothing in-between. In order to expand the film I would have had to add 70 minutes to it, and with my limited funding and resources, it would never have been possible. But I also really just wanted to make a short film. I wanted to practice, see if I could do this, and if I enjoyed it.
There were times when I realised that I might have material that could potentially work for a feature film. I have heard these types of comments at screenings in the past few months, and some people have encouraged me to take the plunge and redo the short into a feature. I am flattered to hear these comments, but right now I would like to make something completely different and take a break from the Icelandic sing-alongs, “bread-cakes” and dozens and dozens of extras. But it is not out of the question that I revisit the topic in the future.
Being a writer/director, are you more interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking, or plain storytelling?
Everything about filmmaking interests me. I am a complete nerd. I have books on everything from directing to budgeting to screenwriting to lighting to editing to camera assisting to film-festival guidance. In my perfect world, I could try every job on the set once. But unless I am happy with the story, I wouldn’t want to direct a film. It’s true what they say; the only things that really matter in a film are the script and the acting. Anything else is just a bonus.
Could you name some of your influences?
I think everything in my environment unconsciously influences me. But I am conscious of my appreciation of Susan Bier’s Elske Dig for Evigt, Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, Lukas Moodysson’s Tilsammans, Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale, Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen and Phil Morrison’s Junebug. These are movies that make me want to make one too.
Family Reunion comes off as a very DIY project. Was putting it together much of a hassle, was it difficult to finance; would you do it again?
Oh, it was a complete hassle. It’s neverending. At this point, I’ve probably become obsessive and can’t quit. Getting the film onto 35mm prints has been latest endeavour and involved many sleepless nights. But I think I secretly like to be swamped over my head. It makes me feel like things are happening, that there is progress. Sleepless nights are really the story of my life. I seem to be drawn to them. Knowing me, I will do this all over again. Many times.
What can you tell us about your next project?
I believe my next film will also be a short. This time I hope to have more real funding and less chaos. Although I do believe that filmmaking will always involve some sense of chaos. There is really no way around it. I promised myself to start shooting the next project in the year 2007. That is all I will say for now. Oh, and there will be fewer extras and no sing-along songs.
Family Reunion was recently selected for Sundance Film festival, which is essentially a showcase for independent filmmakers. How important do you perceive the opportunity as being in terms of your career and the film’s distribution? Are there many breaks at such a festival? And is there anything in particular you would like to accomplish by taking your film to Sundance?
To be quite honest, being selected for Sundance is a dream come true. Although I don’t think it will “make” the career of a short filmmaker, I believe it can provide one with the credibility needed to fund upcoming projects. Sundance will also help with finding distribution for a short film, but short films are actually never made as a means to make money. Their primary function is to act as a “calling card” of a director or the production company behind it. By going to Sundance I hope to get a better understanding of how this business works, meet interesting people and promote my film. I’d love to sell it all over the world.
Is there anything in particular you would like to accomplish as a filmmaker? And any specific topics you would like to tackle?
I think I will always be drawn to topics involving everyday life. Relationships, aging, happiness and struggles are themes that I see myself working with. I also like to see the humorous side to topics involving unhappiness.
Finally, do you see yourself as operating as a filmmaker in Iceland?
I see myself operating as a filmmaker in Iceland, New York and hopefully all over.