As far as old clichés go, ‘better late than never’ is one of the easiest to doubt. Sigríður Níelsdóttir may have spent much of her life putting off what she wanted to do, but in the later years of her life she did indeed put the skepticism to bed and went for it.
Sigríður is the subject of ‘Grandma Lo-Fi’, a new documentary by first-time filmmakers Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir (also known as revered electronic musician Kira Kira), Orri Jónsson (of the band Slowblow) and Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir (of Seabear). Over the course of seven years, the directors shot Sigríður in the process of making music in her home, which she only began doing at age 70. They watch in fly-on-the-wall style as she records on her electric organ (which she affectionately nicknamed ‘the entertainer’), makes DIY instruments out of kitchen items like an egg-slicer and a hand blender, and the physical process of putting each of her CDs together by hand. When one considers that she self-produced 59 albums before passing away last year, it’s quite a humbling proposition.
The film itself is a work of lo-fi beauty. Mostly shot on Super-8 film, it is an intentional stylistic tool that melds perfectly with their featured subject and her music, never seeming cloying or desperate. Added to it are montages of cut-out art, photography and naïve animation that complement the collage work that Sigríður shifted to as her primary art form after she felt satisfied with music. Within several of these montages are performances or narrations by local artists who she inspired, including Mugison, Sin Fang, Kría Brekkan and Hildur Guðnadóttir.
Indeed, her infectiously catchy and well-crafted songs match her tenacity in pursuing her goals.
However, her life was not always so peachy. In the movie, we are given a glimpse of her life and upbringing, which had its fair share of hard times. In one animated sequence, she recounts how she disobeyed her father when she married her husband: “No daughter of mine will marry a sailor!” Her husband subsequently drowned in a shipwreck, never to be found. She describes having many regrets and spending much of her life trying to make up for lost time and chances. Even in its cutesy approach, the visual aspect appropriately conveys the tone of Sigríður’s entire story without a trace of saccharine, both in the happier and sadder times. A strong element of Sigríður’s later life resided in her Christian faith, from which she drew much of her positivity.
At her core, Sigríður can be described as a true outsider artist. She was rather unaware of the impact on local music she had until she was approached by the filmmakers to play a show, which she declined, but a sort of super-group band performed her songs instead. She made her music as a form of spiritual catharsis with no intention of distribution or even a sense of artistic purpose behind it. Everything she did, she did to survive.