A soulful, deadpan look at humans’ equestrian escapades
Benedikt Erlingsson’s theatrical debut is a mosaic of several stories that centre on people’s colourful relationships with their horses. The film, ‘Of Horses And Men,’ which came out in late August of last year, has received glowing reviews from critics and it has picked up several awards on the festival circuit, such as the Kutxa-New Directors awards at the San Sebastián Film Festival, and the Best Director Award, at the Tokyo Film Festival. We spoke with Benedikt about his love for storytelling, cinema and horses.
Why did you decide to make a film about horses?
When you’re starting out in a new field, I think you have to work with a subject that you know well. I had trouble getting the film financed, as it was considered difficult and farfetched. People suggested that I make a more conventional drama set in Reykjavík, but I’m a horseman. Horses are part of my life. The subject matter is very close to my heart.
What is the concept behind the film?
You know, you wouldn’t ask a poet that. [He laughs]. ‘What’s the concept behind this poem?’ The poet would be offended. We feel compelled to create labels for everything. Whatever the concept is though, it seems to be working globally. It’s a local, but it is also global. It’s about human nature.
Sometimes I’ve said, somewhat flippantly: ‘It’s a film with sex and death in it, and then there’s a happy ending.’ These elements are what all good films need.
BECOMING A HORSE
Have you always personified horses?
A friend of mine tames horses, and he always thinks about that process from the horse’s point of view. This is part of man’s knack for abstract thought. And it’s inherent to the method of acting. We, the actors, go into a given situation and we become a character, or in this case, a creature. I think you have to, if you’re making this type of film. I guess I have done so, from an early age. We could go into further Freudian analysis, dig deeper there.
Is this a sort of family film, from your perspective?
It’s a bit of a cliché that a director’s first film is a coming-of-age story. Often it centres on a young character taking his first steps into the adult world. If this is my coming-of-age film, which is pretty far-fetched mind you, we could argue that I’m the Swedish girl [Sigríður María Egilsdóttir]. I identify with her character.
I’m fascinated by these Swedish, Danish and German girls who come here to be with the horses and fall in love with them. Elsewhere it’s often too expensive, difficult or simply uninteresting to work with horses. They come to Iceland, and get to be in close proximity to the horses. They will do anything to make that happen. They’re like absolute nuns. Nuns are married to Jesus Christ. These girls are married to the Icelandic horse. These are often our best horsemen, our horse whisperers.
How do you put yourself in the mind-set of a Swedish girl?
She’s a guest in a new, fascinating society. You need to learn the language, which goes beyond words, as there’s a distinct way of communicating, a certain sociological pattern. And she wants to belong, to be accepted. This is her story, and she is the only truly “heroic” character in the film, proving herself worthy. I care a lot about her, and the idea that men accept her. They embrace her as one of their own, and there’s nothing remotely sexual about it.
I’m a feminist, of course, because I have a lot of daughters.
The film is mostly silent, correct?
Yes. And I’m all for making a silent film again. I believe this is the way to reach a broader audience on a global scale. Of course there’s sound, music and dialogue. But there are very few conversations. And they’re not integral at all to moving the narrative forward.
Do you give your actors a lot of direction?
I have a strong sense for what I DON’T want. What I’ve learned is that if something is working, I try to interfere as little as possible.
How would you describe the humour in the film?
There is an English word that applies, that I find quite beautiful: understatement. When you downplay what’s taking place. You don’t acknowledge the joke, but you hold onto the drama, the pain that lies beneath. Sometimes in comedies you will see an acting style that signals that, ‘hey, this is a comedy.’
Was it important to you that ‘Of Horses And Men’ have a theatrical release?
Yes. It mattered to me. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I think it should be experienced on a grander scale, on a big screen with high quality sound. Coming from the theatre, I’m naturally obsessed with the collective experience.
I heard you talk about DR’s [Denmark’s national broadcasting corporation] philosophy of entertaining the audience first, THEN enlightening them. Is that something you’ve try to adopt?
I think all storytellers are aware of this idea. Sometimes I think I’m too much of a moralist, in the sense that I feel there should be some sort of point to what you’re doing, a sense of purpose for moving around onstage, for calling attention to yourself, or going into a production.
You will hardly find more waste in an industry than in the film industry—all that money and time spent, all that work to produce a sort of “firework” that last for a few seconds, figuratively speaking. The only thing that remains are people’s memories. Thankfully, a film is the sort of firework that you can light again and again. There has to be a seed, an edge, some sort of core to a film, so it stays with you, for there to be any point to all of this…
It’s all footprints in the sand, of course. But wait, no, no, because here we have compliments in bronze form [Benedikt signals to a handful of awards in the windowsill behind him].
Concrete—the concrete fruits of my labour that will be thrown out one day.
These awards are a part of some larger cultural tapestry though. There’s that award called the “crystal phallus” [award for ‘Best Director’ at the Tokyo Film Festival]. You have to wonder what thought went into making that thing. Is it part of some samurai tradition or some strange way of compensating for a physical deficiency?
The Japanese. Craftsmanship and crystal. There’s a quality to it. But there’s a lot of sexism in Japan—which was shocking to encounter. The festival had a “muse,” which was a beautiful doll that they displayed. It was all men, handing out awards, and then to the sides there were these girls with bouquets. This is the pinnacle of this male centric, academic society. It can be a bit tragic, especially when the things look like penises. Adorned penises.
Then there’s a whole political aspect to these festivals and the awards. A lot of intrigue.
Does that concern you at all?
No. I’m aware of it, but haven’t seen much need to be resentful.
THE WEATHER GODS ON HIS SIDE
Did you expect the film would win any awards?
No, but sometimes I was pissed, momentarily. We were up for an award, in the amount of 16 million ISK. I didn’t win that, but I won the critics award AND the audience award. The 16 million went to some Norwegian. I was not happy with that. There’s tremendous suffering behind this all and I’m extremely bitter [laughs].
You had to compete with three Hollywood films for Icelandic crewmembers, and Tom Cruise…
…Stole the snow. All the fake snow in the country was sold out. I was left with potato meal and flour. There was ‘Noah,’ ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ and Tom Cruise. There were tussles over getting crewmembers. We weren’t offering the biggest paycheques, but in the end we wound up with the best people. I think that my film has, as it happens, received more awards than any of those other films—with whom I had to fight. BUT, I had nature on my side.
Yes, well. The RIGHT weather. Almost all the time. Even when we went to shoot in Kaldidalur, it snowed right before so the mountains were white. It helped us with the lack of snow.
It rained on the day of the funeral scene. And when we buried the mare it rained. We prayed for rain and we got it.
If you want to know more about this and other films playing at Bíó Paradís, read our interview with Programme Director, Ása Baldursdóttir.