Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir is an Icelandic filmmaker, theater director, writer and actress. She has had a successful career in theater and film in Iceland. Her leading roles include films such as Silja Hauksdóttir’s “Dís” (2004) and Kristín Jóhannesdóttir’s “As in Heaven” (1992). She will direct the musical “Jagged Little Pill” at the City Theatre of Iceland later this year and is also developing a feature film scheduled to start filming in 2024.
Tara Karajica talks to Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir about feminism and film and her raucous and eccentric documentary, “Band,” about an all-female Icelandic art rock band that make a last-ditch attempt to make it, blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The film premiered at HotDocs in 2022 and is now screening in the Europe! Voices of Women in Film program at this year’s Sydney Film Festival.
Can you talk about making the switch from acting to directing?
Álfrún Örnólfsdóttir: I guess I’ve been thinking about moving more into being a creator from just being this interpreting actor. So, I felt like I had something to say and I wanted to create stories. But making this particular film or going into film actually came from just being in a band that I thought was worth documenting. That sparked the interest in making a documentary. So, the form to actually do it on film rather than on stage or on the page just comes from me feeling like I was living inside a film. I just felt like the band needed to become a documentary in a way.
How did Band come about?
Á. Ö.: So, like I have just mentioned, I am a performer; I come from an acting background. So, I’m very used to being on stage. And then, I’m in this performance art band, making music as well. And, the band members are all quite experienced performers. We all have Master’s degrees, we’ve been working as artists for many, many years. And, we love this band and we love making music and performances, but somehow we were never making it – we weren’t becoming successful. We had a handful of fans that really liked us, but we couldn’t really break through. And that in itself is kind of horrible and really funny at the same time, that we are forty-year-old women with children, and we cannot get paid to play music. And, you kind of feel like a failure when you are not up-and-coming anymore. You have to justify to yourself going away, going from your house, having to pay a babysitter to play in a sh*tty pub and it’s hard for your self-esteem. So, for me personally, the way to justify being on stage with the band that I love was having a camera present, documenting the failure or the triumph or whatever we were doing, because then I felt like it was worth something; that I wasn’t just a complete loser, in a way. So, it’s kind of like a mind trick to be just like: “OK, maybe we’re not really successful, but there is something in the fight. I’m fighting and we are all fighting for our existence. We want to be respected as artists and we want to share what we love to do. But somehow it’s not working.” I wanted to document that process of when is it time to give up something you love, or when should you just keep going? And so, it’s this dilemma that I wanted to document and that’s how the film started.
The film has this mockumentary feeling even if it’s a real documentary. Can you talk about playing with that uncertainty?
Á. Ö.: Because it also ties into what I was saying about survival, because either you cry or you laugh about it – for me, I could see the funny thing in trying and failing. It is kind of funny when you’re facing hardship, and it’s just gone really badly. So, I just look for the humor in the difficult situations. That’s why I think people are not sure if it’s serious, if it’s a real documentary, because it’s kind of funny and it has this humorous tone in it and the band is very unusual. It’s quite quirky. So, it might make people think that it’s a made up band, in a way. It’s the same with the audience coming to see us perform. They’re like: “Are you serious? Are you joking? Are you making fun of us?” But I also love it, as an audience member, when I’m not sure what’s true and what’s false or what is fictitious, so I like playing with this boundary between reality and fantasy. And, for me, fantasy is real. When I am imagining things, it’s part of my reality as well. That comes into the film because it’s about performance. So, you also see the creative process or, all of a sudden, we jump into a music video because that’s part of how we express ourselves. So, the film is always playing with fantasy and reality and that’s why it makes the audience maybe slightly uncertain as to what they’re watching.
Can you delve deeper into this experience of three women who are almost forty, being silly on stage? It takes a lot of courage, actually.
Á. Ö.: Yes, I guess because it’s more normal for guys to be silly and stupid. Historically, women were supposed to be nice, pretty, sexy or strong. But we’re all weak actually. But what if we were just actually playful, funny, silly, stupid? That’s kind of how I feel a little bit. At least, we’re testing boundaries with that.
How were the other band members receptive of the idea of documenting the journey and everything on film because it’s so personal?
Á. Ö.: I think they weren’t sure what they were getting themselves into, in a way, so they were quite happy with the idea to start with. But then, when we actually started making the film, they realized that they needed to be quite vulnerable on screen, that I’m coming into their lives and that I’m asking them to show a part of themselves that is not just pretty or powerful. So, sometimes, I felt like it was difficult for me when they were maybe vulnerable, and I was just, at that moment, keeping the camera rolling, and they’re my friends and all that. But, in the end, I think everyone is OK, but we did have difficult discussions along the way. But this, I feel like it’s part of this dilemma of the director, especially in documentary I guess – you have a real person that you’re filming, and you have to have trust, but you also cannot edit out everything that’s difficult. You’d have to show the whole thing. Otherwise, you’re just showing one pretty façade.
The film talks about success or the lack thereof and failure, and how to embrace that and the wait for the big break. Can you comment on that?
Á. Ö.: I mean, success is quite personal, I guess – what you find successful. But I think it was important to have a goal. What if we just try to succeed? What happens if we just really, really try? But then again, it’s kind of enough that we just made the film. That’s fine. We just made a film about us trying to achieve success. So, even though we maybe are not famous today, it’s not important but, at least, we’re not alone in feeling like a failure, we are sharing rejection. We are sharing because I think most human beings feel rejected over and over again throughout life, but we don’t feel like showing that side of our lives. We tend to hide when we don’t succeed, so I felt like I wanted to see if there was any beauty or power in actually failing or getting rejected. That is the creative material for the music that the band makes – a lot of the inspiration comes from being rejected or from horrible moments in our lives. That sparked a creative energy. So, it’s kind of figuring out how you can use your failure as creative material.
The film is very successful on the festival circuit. Can you talk about this particular success? Do you think that this has made or will make the band successful? Has your friendship survived making the film?
Á. Ö.: I don’t think the band is going to be successful. I mean, I think people will see the film and some of them love the music. Some of them find it very strange and that’s normal; people have different tastes. But I think it’s always going to be an underground band. It’s just the nature of the kind of music and performances we make, but the fact that the film is sort of successful, or is at least traveling all over the world and meeting an audience that would never have seen the band or known about it, I think that’s enough for us. But, I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to spoil it, but making the film and going through this process definitely changed us; it definitely changed the dynamic between the rest of the band members and myself. But we are friends. We are on good terms. Sometimes, we travel with the film and we do a concert alongside the screening of the film and that works out beautifully. But what will happen next with the post-performance, that I don’t know.
How was it to be both behind and in front of the camera?
Á. Ö.: I did actually write a pretty clear script. Even though it’s a documentary, I just really wanted to visualize and know what I was doing. Whenever it changed in my mind, I would just rewrite. It helped me to fantasize about what the film could look like. Maybe it’s also because I come from an acting background that I’m used to fiction and I’m used to scripts. So, that really helped me to write down what I thought would happen. So, I guess I was pretty well-prepared when we started shooting but, of course, some of the scenes I had no idea what was going to happen.
What were the challenges of making this film? And, the little victories?
Á. Ö.: The challenge was sometimes, of course, that I was in front of the camera a lot. So, I would just be running behind the camera and looking at what we had just shot and then keep going and all of this was pretty hectic, but I like being busy. I think I can hold many balls in the air at the same time. So, on the whole, it was pretty enjoyable and I was just learning along the way because I’ve never directed anything before. I have in theater, but not on film. So, it was just listening, learning and going into editing and being like: “Oh, this happens now. OK, so this is how it goes!” But I really enjoyed it.
Do you plan on directing something else after this experience, or is it just a one–off thing?
Á. Ö.: When I finished, I had no plans of making another film. But I always think of myself as an artist and I think it’s always about having a good idea or something that you need to tell the world. So, I just thought if I got an idea to make a documentary or a film then we’ll see… And then, I got an idea. So, I’ve written a script for a fiction film. It’s in development, so we are applying for production funding from Iceland this year. We’ll see what happens.
Are you a feminist? If so, how does it inform your filmmaking?
Á. Ö.: Yes, I’m definitely a feminist! That’s something everyone should be, I think. I think that sometimes all the structures are quite masculine in filmmaking and in other kinds of formats; that people are very used to getting stories from male writers or directors and often women think in a different way. So, I feel like it’s important for women to tell their stories to inspire other women or non-binary and marginalized groups. I think we need to lift people that have not had a voice up. So, I’m just really aware of human rights, not just for women, but for all kinds of marginalized groups. I think the fight is not over and wherever I can help or be aware, I’m always going to be the one carrying a torch for anyone who’s underrepresented if I possibly can.
What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today? How is it in Iceland?
Á. Ö.: I mean, it’s getting better in Iceland, but we still have to be on the lookout so it doesn’t go back. But I think we have a film center that is trying to make a 50-50 policy, and is very aware of the percentage of men and women applying for its grants, so I think it’s definitely getting better. And, I think it’s getting better in Europe. I think it’s still worse in the US and the rest of the world. I think Europe is better at these kinds of things. But we’re still not there. Now, I think it’s like 20% or 23% of women versus men directors. So, I think that we just have to keep going and keep talking about it because it should be equal. Definitely.
Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?
Á. Ö.: I mean, Jane Campion is amazing! I love The Power of the Dog, her latest film. I love Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland and her work as well. There are some amazing Icelandic filmmakers as well. I worked with Kristín Jóhannesdóttir back in the day and I think she has a really special voice in storytelling. She’s making totally different films than any other Icelandic filmmaker. I’m a big fan. And, there are also many, many great women in documentary.
What are your next projects? Can you expand on the new film you have just mentioned?
Á. Ö.: It’s called shitballs. It’s not a swear word. It’s just a green algae, so it’s actually a real plant. I thought I was going to be writing a documentary, but then it kind of turned into fiction. The story is about a woman who is more connected to plants than she is with human beings. She feels safer talking to plants than to people and she tries to save the shitballs from extinction. So, she goes on a journey to try and save this plant. She needs the help of other human beings, too. She needs to reconnect again with the human world. I’m almost finished with the script. So now, we’re just going to start looking for co-producers because Iceland is very small. We need another country.
Photo credits: ©Saga Sig.
This interview was conducted in partnership with: