Not many Icelandic movies manage to step away from the idyllic scenery of nature and burst into the international scene with great success. Coming-of-age movies and romantically shot films that are set in the breathtaking heart of the Icelandic countryside do well, but they often have to count precisely on their exoticism to capture the eye.
That’s why Ísold Uggadóttir’s latest movie ‘And Breathe Normally’ (or ‘Andið Eðlilega’ in Icelandic) feels like a breath of fresh air. Not only does it simply rely on itself to win the audience over, but it also refuses to play pretend. ‘And Breathe Normally’ is not a true story, but it might as well be, showing a side of Iceland that is not often acknowledged but that surely exists.
Forget the clichés
Set in the town of Reykjanesbær, the municipality in the South West of Iceland that hosts the international airport, the movie tells the story of two women whose lives are changed forever when they meet at border control. One is a single mother, struggling to make ends meet and working for the airport police at the border, while the other is stuck in Iceland, stopped at passport control while she is headed from Guinea Bissau to Canada, trying to avoid persecutions for being a homosexual. The story develops in a refugee camp just outside of Keflavík, sometimes from behind high metal fences.
“We often have this romanticised image of Iceland—the tourist brochure image with black sands and waterfall and the midnight sun—and it all exists but that’s not the everyday life for many Icelanders,” Ísold explains. “So, on some level, I wanted to poke fun at the cliché image that we’ve seen so much of and show what’s going behind the scenes.”
Ísold set an ambitious goal, even more so because the lives of immigrants in Iceland are not often portrayed by Icelandic filmmakers. It’s easy to spot local stereotypes (the brooding Polish guy, the South American dancer—you name it), but authentic stories of what it’s like to live in Iceland as a foreigner are harder to come by.
On fate and responsibility
Luckily, Ísold didn’t let the difficulty of the task distract her. It’s clear that she had a precise idea of how she wanted things to be portrayed. Behind her straightforward tone devoid of frills, I see a strong personality and an intelligent mind, eager to tell a story that simply needs to be told.
“As I was developing that story I found myself reading cases of asylum seekers who were either passing through Iceland or coming here to stay, and sometimes ended up trapped,” she says. “As I read many of these dramatic stories I felt the need to make a film about it. This story just felt ripe with possibilities.”
Thus, ‘And Breath Normally,’ which won the Best World Cinema Competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is not only a story of two women struggling with events that take over their lives, but it’s first and foremost a story that challenges the idea of fate by relying on personal and social responsibility. The more that is unveiled about this life behind bars that is steered by provenance rather than action, the more we learn about what asylum seekers and refugees go through on their journey.
Drawn to rawness
Reality is bleak, in Ísold’s movie, and the environment certainly reflects that truth. The grey urban environment of Reykjanesbær couldn’t have been more apt. You won’t find Northern Lights, growing trees or sparkling rivers in ‘And Breathe Normally.’
Only a melancholic sunset across bare, black rocks that marks the passing time in the lives of the characters. The old airbase blocks that became affordable housing for people of lower income constitute most of the movie’s background.
“During the process, I often visited the town of Reykjanesbær and photographed the area. I wanted to get locations that were true and real so that the logic of the story would also be really accurate, geographically speaking,” Ísold says of her choice. “I’m not a fan of the classic romantic style of filmmaking. I’m drawn to rawness, to social realist filmmaking, and to films that feel true and authentic,” she adds.
In all accuracy
In this foreign environment, the refugee centre slowly becomes the heart of the immigrants’ whole existence. Stripped of everything they own and are, their location becomes their whole identity. But how accurate is it all?
“Very,” Ísold says, nodding. “I’ve had lawyers from the Red Cross both here and abroad confirm that this is the reality for a lot of immigrants. I also had an Icelandic human rights lawyer playing in the film—she is both a trained actress and defends asylum seekers for a living. I wanted to keep it as real as possible, for me and for the Icelandic audience.”
That’s why Ísold employed an international crew of technicians and actors, from Iceland and Sweden to Belgium and Poland. “I tried to involve actual international people, including immigrants and former asylum seekers who play in the refugee scenes,” she explains. “I’d much rather have real people playing these scenes than Icelanders pretending to be immigrants. It didn’t feel true to me.”
A prelude to something bigger
‘And Breathe Normally’ was developed over a long period of time, while Ísold, inspired by the stories of people who lost everything in the aftermath, researched the post-crash social environment in Iceland.
After living in New York for ten years, with four short movies and a feature film behind her, Ísold began applying for funds and grants in Iceland, researching and working on her project to the fullest.
‘And Breathe Normally’ is Ísold’s first full-length movie, and even though she came back to her own country to create it, it feels less of a homecoming and more of a prelude to something bigger. ‘And Breathe Normally’ is different from everything else we’ve seen from Icelanders so far. It’s not a documentary, but it’s challenging—it’s mature in its depictions and heart-wrenchingly real. If there is a movie that can set the Icelandic filmmaking scene on the International radar, no doubt this is the one.