Published September 25, 2017
It’s early Monday morning when I meet Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir, the latest director to shake up the Icelandic movie scene. Only a couple of days have passed since the premiere of her first feature-length film at the Toronto Film Festival—the intensely tragic “Svanurinn” (“The Swan,” in English) produced by Vintage Pictures. Ása is tapping away on her computer when I arrive at the café. She seems serious at first, but she has manners that put you right at ease. “I do watch comedies too, you know,” she says with a chuckle.
A vivid debut
Ása’s creative child isn’t set to come out in Icelandic cinemas for at least another four months. It will be a true homecoming, but while she’s nervous about how its reception here in Iceland, she’s also very excited about the reception it received in Toronto. “It exceeded all my expectations, but what I loved the most was that people developed their own private relationship with it,” she explains candidly. “In cinema, you have this dark room where the lights are turned off and it’s just you and the movie, and people are allowed to bring in much of their past, or their own baggage. It’s such a private experience.”
Shot in Svarfaðardalur in the north of Iceland, “The Swan” is a melancholic account of emotions and experiences seen from the eyes of Sól, a nine year old girl who spends the summer working and living in a farm far away from her parents as punishment for shoplifting. Sól’s inner emotions, as well as the tragedy going on around her, are intricate. While the plot isn’t groundbreaking, it’s precisely those emotions and their expression that make the movie. Every visual detail has a function within the story, adding depth to the characters, as well as unsettling the audience. Stepping into its folds isn’t a matter of escapism: it’s an opportunity for the tragedy to engage in a dialogue and resonate with the audience.
The appeal of the unsaid
Sometimes the movie takes this dialogue to a literal level. Diary-writing and out-loud-reading is a crucial feature of the script, both marked by a poetic depth that cuts right to the heart. Ása’s passion for language, which was originally channelled towards a degree in comparative literature at The University of Iceland, is reflected in her characters’ obsessions with words, often scribbled in red ink. It’s almost jarring to witness her ability to hop from page to screen in such a fluid, non-declarative way.
“I love words, but I also love what’s behind them, and the things that are unsaid,” she says pensively. “The unsaid can be drawn out so beautifully in film. I’m not saying that books can’t do that, but the way cinema can do it really appeals to me.”
The fact that her biggest inspirations are Ingmar Bergman, David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky doesn’t really come as a surprise. Ása plays with light with a sense of wonder, setting some of the most intense scenes in those dim-lit nights that only Icelandic summers can offer. It’s that moment when everyone is asleep and the promise of day is comforting enough, as the night casts a grey blanket onto the world, blurring shapes, muffling sounds. It’s precisely the light that gives this movie the quality of a dream—one that still clings onto you even after you wake up.
Of light, nature and life
Where the light highlights the delicacy of a scene, nature emphasizes its vibrance. In a certain way, then, Ása’s naturalist approach allows her to take advantage of her surroundings in a way that goes beyond the frame. “What I was interested in was to use the nature shots to help us understand the characters’ psychology,” Ása explains. “For example, when the little girl has frustration or anger growing inside her mind, I decided to cut from her close-up to the river at night—powerful and angry. Of course, farmers need nature to live, but on an existential level this is a story about the parallel between nature and human nature—on how our emotional life is wilderness.” A wilderness that in this is movie rarely kept restrained.
“The Swan” is not the first Icelandic movie that juxtaposes beautiful shots of nature against a powerful story. Iceland’s beauty is often not only celebrated, but sought after by audiences who expect breathtaking views of wind-battered mountains. One can’t help but wonder whether Icelandic cinema can ever escape the popularity of its landscape.
Ása agrees, with a laugh. “Even though I know about a few projects-in-development that have an urban setting, I don’t think we can ever really escape nature, even if we want to,” she says. Indeed, if cinema mirrors life, the presence of nature is almost a given, and when it’s done in such a poetic way, it only needs to be cherished.
The emotional flux of life
Ása’s movie is actually an adaptation of Guðbergur Bergsson’s eponymous novel. Ása read the book while she was in school and instantly fell in love with it. Although she didn’t know it at the time, she admits the novel was crucial to her decision to become a filmmaker. “The fluid emotional lives of the characters had in my mind a sort of cinematic quality to them,” she says. “Later, when I was in film school, I took a class in adaptation and we were all adapting something from page to screen. I chose ‘The Swan’ and I knew that this was going to be more than a school exercise.”
Adapting a story from the page to screen is no easy job—anyone who has ever loved a book from the bottom of their heart knows that. We all think we can do it better. However, condensing an entire book into a two hour visual work requires practical and emotional skill that allows you to analyse a character from all angles, and portray every detail without being declarative about it. Be it a close-up, a fraction of a movement, a gust of wind—the devil is in the details and so is divinity. Perhaps it’s her deep love for books that allows Ása to let the two mediums coexist so beautifully.
It’s all about chemistry
According to Ása, however, it is not just a matter of portraying a character’s whole range of feelings in a single moment, but rather to suggest a continuity of spirit that transcends time on screen. “I think sometimes in cinema there is some kind of finality to emotions,” she says. “When characters achieve their goals in a movie they are either happy or they are sad—the end. But my experience in life is that emotions are fluid. I don’t think there is this finality. More often than not we are in a state of emotional flux, and I definitely want to explore this more in my films.”
Finding actors that can truly see your vision as a director and put it forward onto the stage is a challenge. Great actors can do anything, but not all good parts are born for the same person. More often than not, it’s about chemistry. “It’s like love,” Ása explains. “You can have terrific actors come in for a part, but for whatever reason they’re not right for the it. And then someone that you truly don’t expect to fit comes in and breathes unexpected, wonderful life into the character and you feel like some kind of magic is happening. And then you know you’ve found the one.”
Gríma Valsdóttir, who plays Sól, was the magic pawn in this game that made everything fit. Her almost deadly stillness clashes with her outbursts of rage, in a performance that is heart-wrenching. Together, Ása and Gríma have set fertile ground for even more experimentation.
Looking up to Denmark
This sort of exploration, however, can be costly. While Icelandic writers and painters can apply for a national grant that provides a so-called “artist salary,” filmmakers cannot, even though the process of researching and writing a screenplay can take years. Artists of any calibre can apply for the grant and if they are successful they receive around €2,850 a month for a year. Instead, according to Ása, the Icelandic Film Fund grants barely cover any living expenses, especially for artists with children. That means that, inevitably, filmmakers need to develop a second way to make money and survive, which might go from teaching to becoming tour guides (as is the case with many popular actors and musicians), often sacrificing time for their creative endeavours.
The support given to art by the Scandinavian countries is almost proverbial. Yet, according to Ása, the amount of money spent in a country like Denmark makes the Icelandic funding look like peanuts. “People are always talking about Danish cinema, about how good it is and that the standards have become so high,” says Ása. “But that’s also because the Danish government has put a lot of money into the industry there, as well as into the Danish Film School. In other words, there was a choice made in Denmark to support filmmaking. Something similar would need to happen here if we want film to become a more integral part of our artistic identity.”
Putting a pricetag on art
Artistically speaking, Iceland is wide awake. The involvement of young people in any form of artistic endeavour is astonishing for anyone who hasn’t lived in this country their whole life. It’s enough to look at the vitality of the music scene or the interdisciplinary collaborations between artists from all backgrounds. Whether one favours a more classical approach or prefers experimentation, the space given to art in our daily life is of great importance, both for those who perform and for those on the other side of the stage.
While the value of art in itself does not need to be justified in a vis-a-vis conversation, it might have to be reconsidered at a bureaucratic level. Nevertheless, Ása is optimistic. Considering how much investment goes into Icelandic music—albeit mostly private—and the booming success of the young filmmaking scene, she has no doubt that things will soon improve.
“The Swan” was funded mostly by the Icelandic Film Fund, but also by German and Estonian institutions—a much appreciated aid, but one that forced Ása to hire a certain percentage of the crew from those countries. Undoubtedly, international cooperation is positive: “But in the long run, if production companies in Iceland are always forced to outsource certain key crew, the local talent here loses so many work opportunities, as well as the opportunity to hone their craft,” she clarifies.
A lack of role models
Besides the lack of funds, Ása admits she has it pretty good. New projects are lining up for her, both in Iceland and the US, where she lived for five years when she was a child, long before her Ivy League comeback. Despite her recent success, the realisation that she wanted to be a director didn’t come easily to Ása. For a while she had been preparing to go to drama school straight after her graduation, but she realised acting wasn’t quite for her once she began auditioning for plays in Canada. “Maybe it was partly due to lack of role models,” she says. “There weren’t many female directors working in Iceland, and just not as many films made in general.”
Ása has later found inspiration in the work of foreign female directors such as Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, and Lucrecia Martel, and while she deeply admires their aesthetics, it’s the tenacity with which these women pursued their careers in a male-dominated world that truly made an impression.
Just another boys’ club?
It has often been said about the Icelandic hip hop scene that, while ripe with fresh talents, it’s more gender biased than other industries. Similarly, the filmmaking scene has been a boys’ club for a very long time, according to Ása. “I certainly didn’t feel like I had easy access when I was starting out,” she explains. “My feeling is that I gradually forged my own way into this industry here in Iceland—and I’m still doing so—but increasingly counting both men and women as my peers and collaborators.”
Perhaps it’s precisely this lack of female editors, directors and producers that spurred the few women who are currently making films in Iceland to show a sense of camaraderie and solidarity to one another. “They’ve formed a community of their own, and I’ve found a truly invaluable support amongst many of them,” she adds. “But I also want to add that I feel very lucky to be starting my career now and not twenty years ago. Thanks to the decades of battles fought by my foremothers in this industry more money is being put into films made by women. I’m very aware that my generation of female filmmakers is reaping the benefits of this long battle.”
It’s hard to say where life and cinema will take Ása in the next few years. It won’t be long before she herself will become a female role model for young entrants into the Icelandic filmmaking scene. Ása’s experimentations with channelling tumultuous, contrasting sensations into a single frame add a tragic touch to the sharpness of modern Icelandic cinema. “The Swan” is pure poetry in all its colours and fading lights, and while it’s slightly painful to have every detail of a movie clench your soul in a melancholic hug that never wants to end, that bittersweet feeling is like a drug. We simply cannot wait for more.