Rakel Jónsdóttir, Hanna Jónsdóttir, Helena Jónsdóttir, Ólöf Birna Torfadóttir, Lovísa Lára Halldórsdóttir and Vala Ómarsdóttir

Rakel Jónsdóttir, Hanna Jónsdóttir, Helena Jónsdóttir, Ólöf Birna Torfadóttir, Lovísa Lára Halldórsdóttir and Vala Ómarsdóttir are all filmmakers hailing from Iceland, but one other thing they have in common besides that is that their short films have been selected for 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 respective works, women in film and their next projects.




How did you get into filmmaking and what inspires you to make films?

Rakel Jónsdóttir: I started making video works and installations when I was studying Visual Arts. I was experimenting a lot with the medium and continued to do so after graduation. Eventually, I focused solely on making films, which had always been my passion. The magic of cinema captured my heart early on and I became a cinephile when I was introduced to Charlie Chaplin’s films as a child. With a background in dance, I later started working with choreographers and dancers. The film IIOII is the first example of that kind of collaboration, which I have continued to do. I think it is the quality of expressing emotions and ideas without words that drives me to make films. Using an art form like dance is an interesting way to do that. I want to inspire people, touch them and urge them to notice the magic that is all around us. Film is the medium of the people open to everyone regardless of their background or education.

Hanna Jónsdóttir: I started working as a PA in 2008 – pretty late, as I was twenty-nine years old, but I immediately felt I was finally where I should be in life. At thirty-five, I went and studied film and have never doubted this was my passion.  To me, inspiration comes from people I never cease to find interesting; people I know or meet, or stories of people I have never met.

Helena Jónsdóttir: Film and television have always been a part of my life. I started very young in front of the camera and later moved behind it as a choreographer. When I took the camera in my hand, it came as a natural thing to make my own films using the language of movement as dialogue. After my first film, I started calling it “Physical Cinema,” inspired by the silent film genre. We all understand each other without words by using the universal language of images, sound and movement. Movement of opinion, emotion, camera and body. Pina Bausch said: “I’m not interested in how people move, but what moves them.”

Ólöf Birna Torfadóttir: I actually started out as a makeup artist for films and TV. When I had been doing that for a little while, I really wanted to make my own stories, which eventually led me to the Icelandic Film School, where I studied Screenwriting and Directing. What inspires me the most to make films is a great story and people. I love writing comedies and I think the funniest ones are of real people in real situations that can be hilarious even if it is a little dark at times. To see the humor in everyday things.

Lovísa Lára Halldórsdóttir: I have always loved movies since I was a kid and as soon as I could, I got a job at a video rental and watched everything. I always wanted to be involved in filmmaking, but never even thought of becoming a director. In my mind, directors were middle-aged men with gray hair and so, that thought never crossed my mind.  When I went to film school, I wanted to study Screenwriting, but in the Icelandic Film School, Screenwriting is paired with Directing, so I had to study Directing as well. There, I realized that I could be a director and it actually is a job that fits me very well and I’m very passionate about it. What inspires me to make films is just the fact that I have so much going on in my brain that I can’t process. Whenever I read something, see something, talk to somebody about something that is too much for me to handle, I store it away somewhere in my brain and when the pieces start to fit together, I have a story and I have to make it in order to process it.

Vala Ómarsdóttir: I got into film making about six years ago. My previous background is in theater and performance making and I got my degrees at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and at the Goldsmiths, University of London. After working as a performance maker and director for ten years in London and Reykjavik, I became interested in filmmaking because my interest in storytelling was very visual. I felt the need to approach acting in a new way and even though I still love theater performance and the live aspect of the art, I feel, at the moment, that the stories I am interested in do need to be told with this medium.

Can you talk about your respective short films?

H.J.: My co-director, Vera Sölvadóttir, and I had been talking for some time to make a film together.  Then, the right time and place came. Vera got the beautiful house of our Nobel prize winner, Halldór Laxness, and his wife Auður Sveinsdóttir, in Gljúfrasteinn in Mosfellsdalur. There, we shot the film with our amazing crew and our performer Ingvar E. Sigurðsson in one day. In the beginning, I wrote the script under the title “A Wonderful Day,” a reminder to enjoy and appreciate each and every moment of the day. “Who is living your life when you are away?” Ingvar, as the performer, being in the house as an imposter, playing around in each room as if they were his own. Then later, when I started working with the Belgian editor, Yves Betrand, it started to get even more layers. Is the character an imposter? Is he Halldór Laxness or the spirit of a person who has passed away? The last layer gave us the title Gone.  To emphasize this, we made a few empty frames here and there in the film. I also worked with the sound designer to make the house a living and breathing creature that is trying to push out this unwanted visitor. The music by Valgeir Sigurðsson binds it all together in a journey that each and every one of us can experience in our own personal version, depending on where we are in life.

L.L.H.: I’m Sorry is one of those films that was a subject matter that was very hard for me to process. A dear friend of mine, actress Ingunn Mia Blöndal, contacted me as she was finishing her degree in Drama and wanted to make a film as her thesis project. She had an idea to make a film about abuse in a queer relationship. As soon as she told me her idea, my brain started to scan for unprocessed information and I realized I had a lot to say about the subject matter. I remembered a conversation I witnessed about a gay friend who was always fighting with his boyfriend and the way it was talked about was so casual and almost humorous. I remembered thinking: “Are they saying he is abusing his boyfriend? Why are we not appalled by that statement? This would not be talked about so casually if we were talking about a man abusing a woman.” From there, the story came naturally. We had an amazing crew with us – most of them were still in film school at the time – and everyone was so motivated and respectful of the hard subject matter.

V.Ó.: Daughters is a short film about a single mother and her two daughters. I wanted to tell a story about how we, as parents, often pass on our habits to our children. Being a mother of two daughters, this subject is very close to my heart and I am currently developing it as a concept for a feature film although the story has changed a lot and is going in a new direction.

Ó.B.T.: Last Summer is a great example of seeing humor in a very serious situation. It is based on a real event that happened my family and me in 2015. It deals with the seriousness of depression and how one’s decision can lead to so many ridiculous events that it becomes unreal and even stupidly funny. Split was the first film I made after graduation. I really wanted to improve as a director for actors, so I wrote the film with that in mind – that it would all come down to the work and relationship between the leading actress and myself.

R.J.: The title of the film, IIOII, is a symbol. Its main inspiration comes from a dream, where symbols appeared on the dreamer’s skin. The movements and positions of the dancers are inspired by these symbols. Two bodies taking symbolic forms in a dance, alternating between attraction and repulsion. Like magnetic poles in an electronic sea, choreographed with precision in phase with the abstract visuals and soundscape. The main character is a traveler in-between the conscious and the subconscious and moves silently in a vast dark vacuum. The costume she is wearing is inspired by one made for mediums in the early 20th century. They were used in Albert von Schrenck-Notzig’s research on the phenomena of ectoplasm or materialization where mediums were dressed in these strange clothes before a séance. They also resemble old diving costumes which are connected to diving into inner realms. First and foremost, the aim of the film is to create a mesmerizing experience and urge the viewers to cross his rational barriers, allowing themselves to be immersed as in a dreamlike state. References to Franz Mesmer’s ideas about animal magnetism as well as Jung’s notion of the collective consciousness are intentional.

H.J.: Behind Closed Curtains is a story of the feeling of being different and how to tackle that.  The film portrays three characters, all dealing with their inner struggles and who cross paths, but who are very different from each other. It’s a film about being scared of not fitting in with others, which I think most people can relate to one way or another.

How do you see the short form today?

Ó.B.T.: I think the short form is a great way to learn and improve as you move forward. It can be a powerful thing as well if you have an important message you want to convey and need a platform to do it.

H.J.: The short form is so important for up-and-coming filmmakers to test themselves and learn the steps of the craft and for those who are planning to make a feature film, it can seem terrifying to start with, as well as very expensive. In that sense, short film can come in handy to get recognition as well as have something to show for – to be able to apply financially to make even bigger projects.

R.J.: Shorts can be seen today as a strong medium for getting voices to be heard, influencing and awakening people. The short form today is more accessible than ever to people through the Internet and its circulation is therefore different from that of feature films. Also, filmmakers are fusing together the video music form with the short form, which has yet another circulation. This gives filmmakers an opportunity to connect with broader audiences and deliver their ideas and visions to groups that maybe would not usually go to film festivals.

L.L.H.: Short films are a perfect way for new filmmakers to introduce themselves to the world. It is also where you discover your voice as a filmmaker. They are, of course, limited to what you can go into and explore because of the short time frame and it can be a challenge to make characters that people care about in such a short time. You can’t have much character development or growth, so it is quite challenging, but it gives you an opportunity to explore ideas or concepts that you can’t in a feature film.

V. Ó.: I really enjoy working with the short form. Short films to me are like poems. It can be very challenging to tell a story in only fifteen minutes but, at the same time, it forces you to be even more creative and honest to the essence of the story.

H.J.: I see it getting stronger each year and it has not yet reached its potential. The old story is that the short film is an “exercise or pilot” for the feature film. I don’t see the short film like that. I see it as an art form in and of itself. Now, we are surrounded with shorts or at least the short form is all around us. Many episodes, YouTube clips or videos on social media are like shorts. We look at shorts every day, all the time around us. Our attention span has become even shorter, so the short film fits this state very well.  We need to get away from looking at the short film so “conventionally.” One of my favourite films, Perfect Human, by the Danish director Jorgen Leth, has had a huge impact, not only on myself, but on many other filmmakers as well. Take a look at the documentary The Five Obstructions, where Lars von Trier made a deal with Jorgen Leth to remake the short film five times. It’s a wonderful documentary, not only about the film Perfect Human, but also to see the possibilities of stretching the rules of filmmaking and taking the format more into the experimental world – even reinventing the short film and having more courage to take the possibilities of the camera even further. Be braver – both the filmmakers and festivals! Film funds – be more open to support filmmakers who want to research and expand the ways of storytelling! I find the short films to be our “future films.” We are all storytellers and short film is a storyteller; it is one of the fundamental tools to share our stories.

What is your opinion on the situation of women in film today?

H.J.: Women are getting stronger by the minute in the film industry – finally! But there is still a long way to go.  The broader the group of storytellers/filmmakers we have, the more voices and their stories we get.  One way of getting more female voices in storytelling is putting quotas in funds divided between male and female filmmakers as well as film festivals such as the RVK Feminist Film Festival where female voices are being highlighted.

H.J.: Uff… Where to start! I think this festival, the Reykjavik Feminist Film Festival, is a great platform to talk about our situation in film today. We can talk about Alice Guy-Blaché, a great visionary who experimented with Gaumont’s Chronophone sound syncing system, colour tinting, interracial casting, and special effects from 1896 to 1906. What would have happened if the times were different for women throughout History? There is a lot to talk about. In short, we are just starting…

V.Ó.: It is great that at least there is this a discussion, but it is still a battle for women to be seen as equals in filmmaking. For our short film, ÉG//I, we had an all female crew, but before production we were asked if we really thought it was possible. It just goes to show that even though a lot is changing, there is often this misconception that many positions in filmmaking are more for men. We just have to continue to support each other so the stories we hear and see have more variety.

L.L.H.: I do recognize that things are changing and women are getting more opportunities in film, but I am impatient and quite frustrated with where women stand in filmmaking today. We have more women than ever directing finally, but still, there are no women nominated for Best Director at the Golden Globes and no films by women nominated for Best Picture. Women don’t get the big bucks to make films and if they do, there is no room for error; they are held to a higher standard and that’s unfair. There are so many stories being told over and over again from the same perspective. Aren’t we tired of it? We have new stories, we have other experiences, new perspectives, we have so many stories to tell. I want to see something new in the movies. I want to see films about women, all kinds of women, told by a woman. And it doesn’t have to be the best film in the world – it can be bad even – but I want to see it because it’s a bit of me.

Ó.B.T.: I do believe it is getting better every year. But we still have a long way to go. The bigger sets are still very male-dominated when I know for a fact that there is a large group of women out there who can fill all those positions as well.

R.J.: Women are becoming more and more visible in the film industry today. Things are changing and I think that we are seeing the progress of works of organizations like WIFT here in Iceland. It is important and empowering for women to support each other and speak out about issues concerning gender in the film industry.

Who is your favorite female filmmaker and what is your favorite film by a female filmmaker?

L.L.H.: I am a huge fan of Andrea Arnold. She is such a brilliant artist. Her voice and perspective shine through in everything she does. I have so many images burned in my brain from her films and she inspires me as a director. I also want to mention Penelope Spheeris because I tend to forget her when talking about female directors because her films do not feature women in the frontline, but she has directed many films I grew up with and that were my favorite films at that time, such as Wayne’s World, The Little Rascals and Beverly Hillbillies. Wayne’s World is one of my favorite movies of all time.

R.J.: Maya Deren was one of the first filmmakers I fell for and who changed the way I perceived the medium. Her films resemble a dream where you are swept away into another realm with another kind of rationality. Her films turn your focus inward to the psyche. It’s hard to pick one film by her, but I think The Very Eye of Night and Ritual in Transfigured Time have had the most effect on me. I also have to name Agnès Varda as one of my favorite filmmakers, especially her film Cleo de 5 à 7. What grabbed me was the feeling of the film, with its flow of everyday life and how it reflects the inner life of the protagonist.

Ó.B.T.: I have so many favorite female filmmakers that I am keeping track of. If I can only choose one, I will have to say Guðný Halldórsdóttir because she wrote one of my favorite comedy films, Stella í orlofi, or Stella on Holiday, which was directed by Þórhildur Þorleifsdóttir.

V.Ó.: For example, I really like what Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold are doing. I don’t have a favorite film, but I remember when I saw Gasman, a short film by Lynne Ramsey, I was very inspired by how she tells a story with all the little details.

H.J.: Alice Guy-Blaché, a film pioneer and most likely the first female director who worked for the Gaumont Film Company in France at the time when cinema was being invented. She created La Fée aux Choux (1896). My favorite film… mhmm… It is difficult to choose one! I have to say Maya Deren’s film Meshes of the Afternoon. It’s inspiring to see what she is doing there; her own vision, her own voice, using the moving image.

H.J.: I can name Mary Harron and her film American Psycho.  She has a poetic approach with a heavy yet whimsical seriousness.  I am inspired by Norwegian ladies in documentary with films I love – as I studied in Norway – like for instance Margreth Olin and Aslaug Holm who made a beautiful film about her sons, shot over a period of eight years.

What are your next projects?

H.J.: I want to make my first feature film and I am planning to do so in the next few years.  I am currently working on productions and getting to know so many wonderfully talented people who work hard on making films here in Iceland.  And I am so lucky to be able to participate in their work and I am learning immensely on that journey.

H.J.: Making more short films and working on video installations. Working on a script for a feature-length film. Running my film festival Physical Cinema Festival in Reykjavik, a platform for shorts and docs, by all kinds of artists from different creative fields. A festival to experiment and explore the genre of filmmaking. The next festival is in 2021 and a collaboration with the Stockfish Film Festival. And last but not least, extending my teaching of “Physical Cinema” that I have been doing for the last fifteen years: Physical Cinema – the language of movement, mind and body, using sound and music as the narrative, editing as the choreography and the camera as my favourite dance partner.

V.Ó.: At the moment, two short films I wrote and directed are touring film festivals. The most recent one, ÉG//I, which I wrote and directed with Hallfríður Þóra Tryggvadóttir, has been travelling to many festivals and getting awards, which has been wonderful for the film. Additionally, I am writing a feature film about a teenage girl, Júlía, who is very codependent on her single and struggling mother. I wrote and directed the short film Daughters as part of the process for the feature film in order to get to know the characters and see where the heart of the story is. It has developed a lot and has now a stronger focus on the teenage girl and her world.

Ó.B.T.: I directed my first feature film during the summer of 2019 and it is now in post-production, so I am mainly focusing on that for now, but I am also working on a few TV series with my friend and fellow screenwriter and director, Lovísa. We actually have one project that is now in pre-production, which is a comedy about adult siblings who are forced to fend for themselves for the first time after their parents kick them out. Then, we have a few more series still in development, a horror-comedy about a women’s sewing cycle, a time travel/historical series about Icelandic women through time and a teenage ghost drama.

L.L.H.: What Ólöf Birna has just said! I am also the director of a Horror Film Festival here in Iceland, Frostbiter: Icelandic Horror Film Festival, that is held at the end of January, so that is my next immediate project.

R.J.: I am currently working on a poetic documentary film script about memories. It’s in an early stage. I’m also starting another project this winter in connection with my Master’s in Applied Studies in Culture and Communication program – a documentary where I intend to bring to light the magic of everyday life.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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