From Iceland — Lights! Camera! Tractor!: Getting Real With Award-Winning Filmmaker Grímur Hákonarson

Lights! Camera! Tractor!: Getting Real With Award-Winning Filmmaker Grímur Hákonarson

Published August 16, 2019

Lights! Camera! Tractor!: Getting Real With Award-Winning Filmmaker Grímur Hákonarson
angela rawlings
Photo by
Ari Magg

Farmers are protagonists. Sets are sheep sheds and weather-worn farmhouses. Tractors steal the scene. Someone flings mud and sheep shit out of anger.

Grímur Hákonarson is on the verge of premiering ‘Héraðið / The County’, the much-anticipated follow-up to his wildly successful ‘Rams’ from 2015. He writes and directs social realist films based in the Icelandic countryside; his focus on rural communities and down-to-earth people makes for uncommon cinematic fodder. The portrayal of bleak situations is at times dramatic or comedic, and always heart-stirring—a refreshing vision on the big screen.

Zoom in on ‘The County’

Grímur’s eye contact is unwavering. His countenance is serene and serious. Conversation rolls smoothly. His demeanor indicates no underlying nervousness; surprising given the significance of this moment in his career.

“It’s in most of my films—the conflict between traditional Icelandic values and modern society’s capitalism.”

“I started to write ‘The County’ shortly after ‘Rams’ came out in 2015,” Grímur explains. “When I made ‘Rams’, my future was undecided. When you’re making your first movies, you’re not sure if you can keep on. ‘Rams’ was my second film; my first one didn’t do so well. I didn’t have any plans after I made ‘Rams.’”

The Icelandic and international film industries, however, had other plans for Grímur’s film career. ‘Rams’ won the coveted Cannes Film Festival’s Prix Un Certain Regard, and was selected as Iceland’s entry to the Academy Awards’ Foreign Language Film category in the same year.

“After I made ‘Rams,’ a lot of doors opened for me everywhere, in Iceland and abroad,” Grímur recalls. “The idea for ‘The County’ came up and so I decided to follow up on ‘Rams’ by making another Icelandic movie.”

Freeze frame on revolution

On the poster for ‘The County’, protagonist Inga stares directly at you. Her portrait looms over mountains, farmland, and a sole road. Like Grímur, Inga’s eye contact is unwavering. She means business.

“Inga, the main character, is a dairy farmer running the farm with her husband,” Grímur explains. “She decides to revolt against a cooperative establishment.”

A transplant from the city, Inga operates her farm in the vicinity of the last remaining cooperative in Iceland. Her steely demeanour sets a tone of stolid challenge. The rural revolution will be televised, after all. Inga’s lopapeysa fades into the sky as she towers over a road that heads into the heart of northern farmland.

Pan shot of the cooperative

“In ‘The County,’ the community is suppressed by this one company, the cooperative,” says Grímur. “Iceland’s farming cooperatives used to be part of the cooperative movement from the 19th century. It’s very old, but the cooperative movement collapsed in the 1990s.”

In real life, only one cooperative exists now in Iceland, located in the northern region of Skagafjörður. ‘The County’ is based on the fictional corruption of the last cooperative to endure in contemporary society.

“Cooperatives were originally for the farmers to get higher prices for their products and lower prices for accessories,” details Grímur. “But today, this company operates in almost every business in the area—in the fishing industry, in transportation, supermarkets, everything except hotels and restaurants. The farmers produce for the coop and buy everything from it. It’s owned by a few thousand people and it’s not meant to be profit-based. In its essence, it’s a nice ideal that is meant to be society-friendly. But here we have the good old story; a few people take control and become corrupt.”

‘The County’ was filmed on northern Iceland’s Búðardalur and Hvammstangi farmlands, though place names were fictionalised. Grímur explains why fictionalising the community was important for the film: “Because it is a political movie, we didn’t want to get shooed from anyone. The community in the film is much smaller than the community in Skagafjörður. We made it smaller for practical reasons.”

Close-up on feminist film

Enter Inga, who has suffered a personal loss that pushes her into the revolt. “She is a woman who is not from the area; she’s not home-grown and has a different perspective of the society.” Grímur smiles. “You could say it is a feminist film.”

“I have this fetish to use real people for small roles. We had professional actors for the main roles, but a lot of characters are played by real farmers.”

The idea for her character emerged through Grímur’s friendship with women working as farmers in northern Iceland. “I’ve experienced myself that women are getting into the farming community, taking more control. It wasn’t like that when I was young. It was more male-oriented. Inga’s character is based on a few women I know from the countryside, driving tractors and doing everything by themselves. It used to be more divided.”

His own experiences with Icelandic farmland give him a life-long understanding for the subjects he engages. “I have a background in the countryside,” Grímur relates. “Both my parents grew up on farms. When I was young, I spent a lot of time in the countryside with my grandfather. I have a personal connection.”

Interior shot of rural roots

The complexities of contemporary rural relations play well on the big screen. In a time of growing global population counterpointed by the rapid depopulation of rural areas such as can be seen around Iceland, Grímur’s tales provide refreshing takes on communities that receive far too little consideration from urban dwellers.

“I made a short film a long time ago called ‘Wrestling’ about two homosexual wrestlers living in rural Iceland,” Grímur reflects. “That was my first attempt to make a film in the countryside. The outcome was pretty good. I felt like I had some kind of instinct for the lives of the people there; a good sense for this kind of life and the characters. Most Icelandic filmmakers are living in the city and don’t have the same sense for this kind of life.”

Moving shot of a pure heart

Another early project, Grímur’s documentary ‘Hreint Hjarta / A Pure Heart’ (2012) follows small-town priest Kristinn Ágúst through daily life. The film opens with Kristinn’s admission that being a priest is considered more a lifestyle than a career, as “you give up a part of your private life and assume a certain role.”

The documentary’s tension between private life and assumed professional roles proves a solid forebear for Grímur’s future films ‘Rams’ and ‘The County.’ Though these subsequent films are fiction, they are drawn from true stories.

Montage of dichotomies

‘Rams’ posits a public sheep-farming calamity amidst the intimacy of life-long brotherly struggle, inviting the viewer into a tender and complex reality.

“It’s really nice to film in rural areas. People want to help us.”

“These brothers in the true story, they died in the 1990s,” Grímur recalls. “It’s a pretty recent story. My father told me that story,and I based ‘Rams’ on it. There were two elements: the story of the brothers and the conflict of the sheep’s scrapie disease.”

Grímur elaborates on his penchant for embedding true-story struggles in his filmic fictions. “In most of my movies, there are conflicts between these kinds of old farming societies and the newer urban society. It’s in most of my films—the conflict between traditional Icelandic values and modern society’s capitalism. With ‘Rams’, it’s the romantic sheep farmer—the traditional Icelandic sheep farmer fighting against the educated veterinarians who want to kill the sheep. The veterinarians come from the city with all their regulations from the European Union and enter this farming community. It’s about that conflict.”

P.O.V. is political

‘The County’ is also based on true stories collected by Grímur. The film bases its conflict in subsuming patriarchy and corrupt business practices, Grímur explains. “In ‘The County,’ the elements I’m mixing are a modern farming woman who steps up from the male-oriented community, and then this society where one company has the destiny of all the people in their pockets and everyone is dependent on that.”

His interest in true-to-life drama informs the ethical explorations embedded in his film fictions. “There is always some kind of political angle in my films. ‘Rams’ is maybe not my most political film, as it’s much more about the relationship between the brothers. But ‘The County’ is much more focused on politics in society.”

Grímur pauses, his eye contact honest and steady. “I wouldn’t like to make a film about a story that doesn’t have any kind of societal or political point of view,” he admits. “I would never do such a film. It’s not that I’m preaching; I’m just interested in subjects. In ‘The County,’ there are these two perspectives and I try to give both perspectives a depth.”

Exterior shot: back to life, back to reality

Following true stories led Grímur to seek out film locations on actual working farms in the Icelandic countryside. ‘Rams’ was filmed in Bárðardalur, a long valley between Akureyri and Mývatn. ‘The County’ was filmed at farms around Búðardalur and Hvammstangi, with special focus on the ice-cream dairy farm Erpsstaðir.

“We had a very pleasant experience both in Bárðardalur and Búðardalur,” Grímur notes. “To shoot in Búðardalur, it’s possible to drive back home. In Bárðardalur, if it was a weekend, you couldn’t get back home to Reykjavík.”

The cast and crew involved in filming ‘The County’ on location created a makeshift community. “It’s really nice to film in rural areas,” Grímur recounts. “People want to help us. This family in Erpsstaðir, they were really kind to us.”

The farming community provided not only sets and sites, but also actors. A distinct aspect of Grímur’s directorial style is that he has, as he confesses, “this kind of fetish to use real people for small roles. We had professional actors for the main roles, but there are a lot of characters played by real farmers. It was a real experience, this sense that people in the area weren’t thinking about money; they were more interested in helping us and being a part of something, not to profit from it.”

The location and casting weren’t the only convenient aspects of the filming process. “With ‘The County,’” explains Grímur, “we had a higher budget. ‘Rams’ was mainly made from Icelandic money; it wasn’t really a high budget and it was more difficult to do that film. With ‘The County,’ we had more grants from abroad. We had more time to film and do some reshoots. Everyone got paid the wages they should get. That was convenient.”

Long shot of Toronto and beyond

Anticipation for public reception mounts as Grímur prepares to premiere ‘The County’ in Iceland. “It’s nice to start with the Icelandic premiere, and then take the film abroad. We actually already got into some festivals, and the film has been sold to 30 countries already.”

‘The County’ is slated for its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. Grímur brought ‘Rams’ to TIFF in 2015. “Returning to TIFF is an honour; it’s an A-Festival, especially good for marketing the film. It’s really important for the US market. We don’t have a North American distributor, so this is a good festival to get US and Canadian distributors. It’s not a festival with a competition, but it’s really important.”

Off-screen: birth of the new

Grímur shifts his eye contact to gaze out a window. “I’ve been doing ‘The County’ and another film simultaneously. The script is ready and we’re working on casting. It could possibly be shot next year. I’m trying to do both, keep on doing Icelandic movies but also make this.”

It turns out the other project is his first English-language film, which is set in the United States. “I’ve always made Icelandic-language films, so it’s going to be my first in Engilsh. But it’s a risky business in this English-language world. You are never sure if things are going to work out or not. It’s a project that might or might not happen.”

Grímur has always written his own films, but for the English-language project he collaborated with an Australian screenwriter. In addition to co-writing and bilingual expansion, the introduction of a new family member will necessarily shift his relationship to writing. “I just became a father three months ago. I have a baby girl, so now I’m looking for a writer to work with me on the next film since I won’t have the same time to write.”

With new parenthood, the premiere of ‘The County’ and seeds for collaborations sown, Grímur’s future portends a bountiful harvest.

Info: Grímur Hákonarson’s new film ‘Héraðið / The County’ premieres in cinemas throughout Iceland on August 14th, and at Bíó Paradís with English subtitles.

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