Kristín Jóhannesdóttir, Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir and Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir are all seasoned filmmakers hailing from Iceland, but one other thing they have in common besides that is that they were on the Jury of the “SISTER” Competition program at the very first edition of the Reykjavik Feminist Film Festival.
Tara Karajica caught up with them and discussed their relationship with filmmaking and the short form, their thoughts on the Icelandic film industry and women in film as well as their next projects.
How did you get into filmmaking and what inspires you to make films?
Kristín Jóhannesdóttir: It was in 1969 that I decided to go to France and study cinema. I was well into my PHD in Film Theory and Analysis when I decided to study Film Directing. Why wait so long for something I had decided to do even before I went to France? At that time, in Iceland, it was out of the question for anyone to make films and totally absurd for a woman! So it took me all those years to gather the courage to take the necessary steps. I was then studying films by women, active in the ‘80s, like Agnès Varda, Chantal Ackerman, Marguerite Duras, Ulrike Ottinger, etc. I was looking to see if they had something in common even though they made different films. I came to more or less the same conclusion as Maureen Murdock in her Heroine’s Journey from 1990: Women tend to express an inner journey, that is not especially linear and the structure, most often in a spiral movement. I found Agnès Varda’s formulation: “I’m not interested in seeing a film just made by a woman – not unless she is looking for new images.” I was blown away by the extraordinary new vision of these women. It was a new, innovative point of view that rhymed with my ideas. Chantal Akerman’s film Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles was a major revelation. A critic said: “The first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of cinema.” The film was a powerful sign of a decade when feminism erupted in cinema. Chantal Akerman introduced a point of view outside the story with frontally centered images, elliptical and disjunctive images, telling the story about the role of all women for generations. One day, I was listening to an aria from an opera when suddenly, I had this strange streaming of images. I instantly realized it was a film. It was Rainbows End. From that moment on, there was no turning back.
Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir: In 1985, I got into University of California, Berkeley wanting to become a journalist. After about a year, I was disillusioned mostly with the American Media and the prospect of pursuing journalism. I decided to go and study photography at the California College of Arts and Crafts, now CCA, as I had done a lot of photography in my teenage years. I shortly thereafter got into video and filmmaking and there, I found my niche. Documentary filmmaking became my thing. I had my independence yet it was associated with journalism and the ideology of being able to affect people with my films and sometimes hopefully instigate change. I am inspired by people and a lot of my films are driven by personal stories. I am also inspired to make films to reveal inequality or situations that I believe need changing. I also love to make films about History or people who would otherwise be forgotten. Like my latest series, People Like That, a five-part documentary series that tells the history of the struggle for equal rights for gay people here in Iceland. I have been documenting for twenty-seven years this part of history, making sure to interview people, many of whom are now gone. If had not made this five-part series, there is a good chance this part of history would have been forgotten.
Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir: After working with director Ragnar Bragason on the films Children and Parents, there was no turning back. Having worked in the business for decades, I wanted to evolve. As an actress, I’ve worked with numerous directors, screenwriters and artists in filmmaking who all have either their own style or approach. I’m now finding my own voice as a director and the urge to tell a certain kind of stories. Making films and TV is a labor of love.
How do you see the Icelandic Film industry today?
H.G.: The Icelandic film industry has reached maturity. The crew and directors are really qualified and make good, solid and sometimes interesting films. Also, there are now a lot of women working in the industry and we are struggling towards equal division there.
N.K.M.: It’s blooming, but it needs more capital. The funding is not in line with the expenses. This is a situation that will not be solved overnight, but by making funding for film and TV projects separate would be a huge step forward.
K.J.: It is amazing how lively Icelandic cinema is if we take into consideration that Icelanders are a bunch of 360.000 people. That does not make any sense, but it is probably the sense of greatness of Icelanders. To be an independent nation, we have to do things that any other nation would do. Good things and bad things – we have it all!
How do you see the short form today?
K.J.: The short form badly needs a platform. There are no real distribution possibilities. The tendency is that young people start making shorts as a learning process for feature films. But, in fact, it is a very difficult form and it needs great experience, but the sad thing is that producers, mature directors and authors always aim for feature films. It’s a sad destiny for a great form.
N.K.M.: I see it as the current way of storytelling. With the busy modern audience, shorts are well suited to get your story across.
H.G.: I made a few short films in my early career, which was a really good experience. Many of them were experimental. I wish there were more experimental filmmakers and people more interested in the form rather than the content. Unfortunately, here in Iceland, people use short films to practice for the feature they soon want to make and I think that is a pity. The short film form is not really used as the art form that it really can be. I also think that many feature length films have been made here that could have been a great short film such as Héraðið and Undir trénu. They were good films, but I felt like the “wool had been pulled” a bit to make it long.
What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today?
H.G.: Right now, I wish there were more female sound recordists and I wish there were more women DPs. This is where we are lacking in equality in the film industry. I think there are a lot of great female directors, to name a few: Ísold Uggadóttir and Ása Hjörleifsdóttir and probably Silja Hauksdóttir, although I have not seen her latest film. I think the film industry right now is facing and has been facing lots of changes. The lack of audiences in the theaters, online platforms and the abundance of audiovisual material available to us at every turn. Also, the push towards making series. Netflix has had a huge impact on filmmakers and women. There are all too few women’s voices being heard on an international level. We have a special initiative by the Icelandic Film Center that I helped shape, but I am not sure it is enough. It is often said that men don’t go to see women’s films. Women go to see men’s films, but not vice versa. Until that changes, things will not take off. The male gaze is still the predominant one in the film industry and that has to change. Also, women are getting their chances to make their feature debut way too late like Ásthildur Kjartansdóttir and Guðrún Rögnvaldsdóttir who made their first features in their sixties and fifties.
K.J.: The good thing is that all the films made by women in Iceland today are so wonderfully different. What is very noticeable is the sudden increase of women in film the last few years and I really hope that it continues. It is of great importance that we never forget that a woman’s point of view is the foundation of balance in the world versus the male one and sine qua non the opening for the growth and prosperity of all societies. That will probably not be gained by the mimesis of the male gaze or the myopia of social realism.
N.K.M.: “Less is more” does not apply to that subject. We need more women in all the positions of the filmmaking process. But, most importantly, women need to be listened to and given the opportunity to take chances. Even if we fail, that’s an unavoidable part in the creation of art. That’s how we grow and get better, just like all the men before us.
Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?
K.J.: Of the women directors alive today, Claire Denis is my favorite one. Claire’s film White Material is of a rare importance as an example of a feminist point of view. A woman alone, owner of a coffee plantation in Africa, finds herself in a hostile environment when the civil war becomes a threat. A great metaphor. Jane Campion is also a favorite, especially her first films. Marguerite Duras and her India Song is still a milestone in the history of cinema.
H.G.: It is a hard question to answer. Hmmm… My favorite female director… In Iceland, I think my favorite filmmaker and one of the most promising ones is Ísold Uggadóttir. I really liked her film And Breathe Normally. I really love Maya Deren’s work and an all time favorite is her film Meshes of the Afternoon.
N.K.M.: Most female stories told by women fascinate me, probably because I am a woman myself. There’s the extra touch I love; it can be a feminine delicate touch, but just as raw, tough and precise in the storytelling. That being said, that is not necessarily the right way; it’s just my taste.
What are your next projects?
K.J.: I am in post-production of my film Alma, a film about a young woman suffering from a childhood trauma and being very vulnerable since. She is easily and severely manipulated when twenty-five years later, she finds herself locked up in a forensic institution for murdering her boyfriend. Being mute she is particularly sensitive to her inner self that is in a state of suicidal turmoil. But the voice of her unconscious mind tries to warn her of the perilous situation she gets involved in when she finds out that her boyfriend is still alive…
N.K.M.: As my series, Happily Never After, has thankfully had critical acclaim, I’m lucky to be writing a sequel. My next directorial outing is now in post-production; episodes of the TV series The Minister will premiere in the fall of 2020. A family musical film with the working title 12 Hours to Destruction is in pre-production. I am forever thankful for my life as a filmmaker.
H.G.: Right now, I am trying to figure out my next steps for my own films. I am directing a couple as a hired gun. One about Andre Jónsdóttir titled Rokkammann – Rock Granny, produced by Anna Hildur at TATTARRATTAT and a film about Sigurbjörn Bárðarsson, rider and specialist in Icelandic horses. I am producing a film made by Barði Guðumundsson called the Farmer and the Factory about a farmer who has horses who have been dying due to fluoride poisoning, which I am really excited to bring to the screen. Then, there are a few things brewing from my own pot, which I am not ready to talk about yet.