A recent American film suggests that no one cares about dentists. Much the same can be said about border guards, who at best force you to unpack in front of them and make you forget your wallet at security before going on holiday, and at worst destroy your hopes and dreams of a better life in a safer land. Yet, a new Icelandic film, Andið Eðlilega (And Breathe Normally), asks you to care about their plight while at the same time worrying about the fate of refugees. Can this be done?
The stakes are high from the beginning. Lára, a single mother and former drug addict, has lost her job, her house—everything but her son. An offer to work as a border guard is her last chance to get her life on track. Adja is a single mother from Guinea-Bissau who must get to Canada via Iceland to see her daughter. Her girlfriend was killed for her sexual orientation and Adja may well suffer the same fate if she goes back. Lára, by doing her job, can’t help but ruin Adja. Both characters are human beings, stuck in a difficult situation in a harsh world.
Ever since Iceland was “discovered” in the 1990s, foreign characters have been a staple in local cinema, as love interests or tourists showing us our quirks from a new point of view. But very few films have been made about immigrants here (barring the odd Serbian gangster) and virtually none at all about asylum seekers. For this reason alone, ‘And Breathe Normally’ is a game changer.
Sure, it can feel a little heavy-handed at times. For the state to bill a refugee for her legal defence is brutal, but we don’t really need her lawyer talking about fine wines on the phone to make the point. And Adja is almost too saintly, doing everything she can to help the woman who wrecked her life.
But these are minor gripes for a major film. There are many heart-rending scenes, such as the one where Lára, sleeping in her car next to the airport, tells her son she has never been to another country. There are the Gestapo tactics of dragging people from their beds in the middle of the night to deport them. And Adja’s attempts to escape are more gut-wrenching than most Icelandic action films have managed.
Mostly, the film is made in the best Nordic social realist tradition, with every scene serving a specific purpose. At times, it almost slips into docu-drama, with the human rights lawyer being played by an actual human rights lawyer, who also acts as legal council for the film.
The setting is refreshing. We don’t see cool 101 Reykjavik, nor do we get wide shots of natural beauty. Most scenes take place around the airport in Keflavík or at the cargo harbour. Iceland may be an island, but it is an island with borders, and not so welcoming to all as the ad campaigns might have you believe.
Most refreshing, though, is the focus on the downtrodden—both foreign and domestic—whom politics sometimes seems to put at odds, despite having more in common than is often acknowledged. The great film critic Roger Ebert said that movies are machines that generate empathy. By that criteria, this is as good as it gets.
‘Andið Eðlilega’ is available in Icelandic in various local cinemas. Check out the full schedule here.