Grímur Hákonarsson

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After the showing of Grímur Hakonarson’s movie, Rams, I introduced myself to him and arranged to meet him the next day at Victoria’s quintessentially British emporium, Murchie’s tea room. For the next two hours we discussed not only the making of Rams but also his films that I’d been able to watch on Icelandicfilmsonline.

He started by saying that his parents, Hakon Sigurgrimsson and U. Stefansdóttir, were from Flói. They had grown up in the country but like many Icelanders had moved to Reykjavik. As a result, Grímur had grown up in Reykjavik but was often sent to the countryside during the summer to live on a farm and when he was seventeen, he was sent to a farm where he lived and worked for strangers. It was part of the Icelandic growing up ritual. He learned about sheep. More importantly, he learned about the relationship of sheep farmers to their sheep. He said that many sheep farmers have a special relationship to their animals, particularly their sheep. This isn’t surprising since in Iceland, where the only crop was hay–no grain would ripen–the welfare of the sheep was paramount. The sheep provided milk and meat plus skin and wool for clothes. As well, he has relatives who were sheep farmers who had to deal with scrapie, a deadly disease that was brought to Iceland by an imported English ram in the 1800s. Like many experiences that influence a writer, these events lay waiting to be assembled and developed until he was ready to fit them into the story of two brothers who raised sheep in an isolated valley.

He writes and directs his own scripts and does it successfully. That, in itself, is quite amazing to me. I’ve had a dozen radio dramas produced and have sold a couple of TV scripts. As well, I’ve had a number of my stories made into films and, in my experience, most film makers cannot write a decent script. Grímur is a happy exception. He has a sense of narrative and understands the needs to link events together in a causal chain. As director he has an eye for detail and its use to express human emotion.

Writers have been compared to ravens who collect shiny objects to put into their nest. That image doesn´t do the writer justice in the sense that it implies the nest will be filled with brightly colored, happy baubles. Those shiny objects might also be finger bones or teeth or observed images that capture some aspect of a person. An example of Grímur’s ravenness is a scene in which a character cuts his toenails with a huge pair of scissors (one person suggested that the scissors were so large that she thought their actual purpose must be for sheep shearing). Grímur said that he had seen his grandfather cut his toenails with scissors like this and had tucked away the image.

Like all successful writers, he’s also got an eye for observing people’s behaviour and how they act out their emotions. A notable moment in his film, Wrestling, was after the two male lovers had quarreled over no longer keeping their relationship secret. The married farmer who had pushed the idea and was rejected is seen driving his tractor towing a large tank spraying liquid fertilizer. When I said to Grimur that I thought it was a perfect example of his ability to create a visual expression of someone’s repressed emotion, he laughed and agreed.

When he was a teenager, he started to make films along with his friends. He made two short documentaries. He then went to FAMU, the Czech film school. He made a short called Slavik the Shit. The plot is simple, there isn’t much dialogue, and the technique Grímur will develop is apparent as he focuses in on the tight scenes in which the setting reflects the internal life of Slavik. There are closely framed pictures of the bareness of Slavik’s work place, including one in which he is trying and failing to repair a toilet seat. In these scenes, it is the carefully modulated facial expressions of the main character that shows us what he is feeling. It is not mime because mime exaggerates, is larger than life to make its point, but with Grímur taking advantage of the possible intimacy of film in close ups, he is able to show us how his characters feel rather than have them tell us. If he were not a close observer of people and the tiny behaviours that reveal their controlled, repressed emotions, he could not do make his close up scenes so revealing. He does this exceptionally well in Rams with both his main characters: Gummi and Kiddi. They are externally stoic elderly, Icelandic farmers, but seethe with emotion, hate, fear, rage, jealousy, and since it is not revealed in dialogue, it has to be shown in their faces and in small actions.

I found Grímur particularly fascinating because he has the ability to make both documentaries and dramas successfully. Again, he bridges a gap many cannot cross. He admires traditional Icelandic life and wants to render the lives of the characters in an authentic way. Our lives are made up of small details, small events. We live in patterns. In Rams he has a sequence of scenes in which one of the farmers brings the main character a leg of lamb. Gummi cuts up the leg, makes a lamb soup and we watch him dish it into a bowl. The attention to detail is exquisite: the kitchen, the preparation of the food, the eating of it. It is in small scenes like this that Grímur allows the audience to get to know the character and care about his fate.

In his drama, Wrestling, we see the same techniques at work. Here, he chooses as his central image, glima, a form of Icelandic wrestling. Glima is little known outside of Iceland. In it, two men each wear a harness around their waist and under their crotch. They face each other and grasp each other’s harness on each side. Face to face, as close as if they were dancing as a couple, they begin to move in unison, attempting to find a moment when their opponent is off balance and can be thrown down. Wrestling’s plot turns on the fact that the two main glima contenders are gay–even though one is a married farmer–and lovers. Scenes of glima are repeated and choreographed so that a room full of men practicing looks like they are dancing. He has taken a traditional Icelandic activity and infused it with a modern dilemma and gradually reveals through details that might as easily have been in a documentary the lives of the two main characters.

There is about Iceland, a stately beauty. The land is stark. It has been a country of endless tragedy through historic violence, natural calamity, political oppression and disease. And yet, in the Icelandic sagas amidst the carnage and chaos, there is humour, Grímur says about himself that he has a dry sense of humour. He sees the fact that something which is admirable can also be ridiculous. In Rams, it is obvious that he admires the battling brothers, but he also makes it clear that their behaviour is absurd, even childish.

He crafts his narratives carefully. It took him three years to write the script for Rams. He knows that his toughest audience are the people the story is about. For them, the details must be accurate. The central scene in the film is an annual local competition to judge the best sheep. Not only is this scene about what goes on in the local valley and so must be accurate but Grímur deliberately chooses local people for roles. They know whether something is being portrayed correctly. He says that the stable of professional actors in Iceland is small so he is always looking for people outside this group. The main characters will be professional actors but many others can be local people. His concern for local people is apparent not just in  his attention to authentic detail but in his saying that he hoped the film would bring tourists to the area where the film was made.

His desire to get things right is apparent in the fact that a year and a half before the film was made, Grímur started working with Sigurdur Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson, the two actors who played the brothers in Rams, giving them books to read, writing a back story about the lives of the characters they would play. That way they would be able to act in character. As well, they had to learn about dealing with sheep and how to drive a tractor.

Something admirable In Grimur’s films is his willingness to take the risk of silence. That forces the audience to pay close attention to the visual images, the landscape, buildings, people, animals. When there is a lot of dialogue, visual detail is reduced to background. When there is silence, visual detail is foreground. In Rams, the film opens with the landscape of a farm in an isolated valley. It is important for the film to establish the possibility of isolation and to place the focus on the landscape, the sheep, the main character and the adjoining farms. This is all done in near silence.

Grímur emphasized that he wants a balance between humor and drama. In Rams, two elderly brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, who have adjoining farms have not spoken in forty years. The behaviour of the brothers is absurd but not uncommon among families and authentic in that Icelandic farmers have historically been known for being contentious. There is no attempt to explain the cause of the conflict. Grímur says it is unnecessary. It simply exists. However, there are hints in the film such as when we hear that Gummi actually inherited both farms because his father didn’t trust Kiddi. This domestic drama is shot through with humour. There is the dog that carries messages between the brothers when they have to communicate. There is the unorthodox use of a front end loader as an ambulance.

In his documentary, Viður Goes to Europe, he follows Viður in his search for the finest of Europe’s buskers. The documentary is gritty, its focus close in on the buskers, many aging, facing an environment that is becoming less and less friendly. Although aging, they are filled with romantic, youthful notions, they keep trying to live out their image of themselves as troubadours. Somehow, Grímur shifts from this gritty rending of reality to his short dramas such as Slavik the Shit and Wrestling, to keep the elements of the documentary while at the same time letting the necessity of the drama take over the story line. If he didn’t have that ability, instead of making Rams, he would simply have made a historic documentary of the effects of scrapie, the tragic sheep disease in Rams. Although the appearance of scrapie is the precipitating factor in Rams, Grímur knows that the real drama is the relationship between the brothers and their lifelong conflict. Few, if any of us, will ever face having to kill our sheep because of scrapie, but nearly all of us suffer from sibling rivalry. It is that which makes the film universal.

As a side note but with an implication of Grímur’s willing to take risks and overcoming them was his decision to have sheep play such a large part in Rams. Having animals in films is a big risk. Their behaviour is unpredictable. He says that he first tried to work with sheep from one farm and found that they were not used to being around people and difficult to manage so he used sheep from another farm.

In less sure hands, Rams would be a documentary or a character study but Grímur’s ability as a script writer means that he subtly works out the implications, not just of the brother’s conflict, but the implications of the appearance of scrapie for the sheep farmers.

The success of Rams has opened doors for Grímur. Not only has the film won a major award, Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes Film Festival, it is being widely distributed. It appears it will do the impossible, that is not only be critically acclaimed but actually be a commercial success. With the attention the film is receiving, Grímur is getting numerous offers to make films. The offers will pose their own challenges. With the possibility of money for larger films for larger audiences, will he be able to stay true to his desire to create films about the people he admires and loves?

Rams–Movie Review

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There isn’t a lot of money in Iceland to finance the making of movies. No big costume dramas, no casts of thousands, no endless special effects because they all cost a lot of money. That means Icelandic movies are inclined to be dramas about the daily lives of people in Iceland. In spite of the financial limitations, Icelandic movies have regularly won prizes in Europe but they seldom make much money because the audience is limited.

Rams, by Grímur Hákonarson, will break this pattern. It is set in Iceland and it is about the daily life of Icelandic people. The main characters are two elderly brothers, Kiddi and Gummi, living in an isolated valley on adjacent sheep farms. Old animosities have meant the brothers haven´t spoken for forty years. They are the quintessential Icelandic sheep farmer-bachelors: independent, argumentative, difficult to get along with, and proud. Anyone who knows his Icelandic literature, on seeing the brothers as the movie begins, can’t help but think of Bjartur of Summerhouses in Independent People. And Grímur said in his comments on the night the movie was shown at the Victoria Film Festival that he had read Halldor Laxness´s Independent People five times so it is not surprising when similarities to Bjartur appear.

The film opens with one of the brothers in a field with farm buildings and houses in the distance. The opening is admirable for its use of imagery rather than dialogue to establish the basic elements of the narrative. It places the story in an isolated valley with more sheep than people. The farmer is walking toward the sheep. He stops to tighten the fence between the farms. He also stops to rub the head of a ram. In this largely silent landscape, the major elements of the story, the farmer, the sheep, the separation of the two farms, is laid out. This is a film filled with significant but unobtrusive detail. The attention to detail in every frame comes from Grimur’s experience in making documentary films.

Then the focus shifts to a sheep that has something wrong with it. The farmer picks it up and carries back toward the buildings. It is the first hint that something might be wrong in this bucolic landscape. It also is the beginning of a plot in which small details that seem insignificant will begin to turn the story toward the final outcome. In a successful plot, every event must cause another event. There should never just be a series of events without causality. Rams with its subtleties, its hints and suggestions, carefully fits the causes of each coming event into everyday life so that what happens is both logical and necessary but not obvious.

The use of silence emphasizes the importance of the sparse dialogue, makes the audience pay attention to every word that is spoken. It also forces the audience to pay close attention to actions, whether it is one of the brothers eating mutton soup or a prize ram impregnating a group of ewes.

A central scene is a local sheep competition in which Kiddi‘s prize sheep edges out Gummi‘s. Although this is only an annual local event to determine the best sheep, it provides opportunities to demonstrate how important it is to the participants. Gummi‘s reaction to his prize sheep being relegated to second place makes clear the intensity of the competition. The story line moves slowly because this is a story of local, personal values that the viewer must come to understand. For the film to work, a non-Icelandic audience has to understand the role of the sheep in the lives of the local people.The precipitating incident is the discovery of the disease scrapie. It attacks the spine and brain of sheep and there is no cure. With careful layering of scenes, the film prepares the audience  to understand how serious an event this is and validates the behaviour of the brothers.

Since there is no cure for scrapie, the local veterinarian decrees that all the sheep in the valley must be killed. When that happens, it not only means that the valley’s sheep farmers will lose their livelihood but it will be the end of a breed of sheep that has existed back to Iceland´s earliest history. Anyone who knows Icelandic history knows that sheep made the continued habitation of Iceland possible. In a country with only one possible crop, hay, the sheep provided milk, wool, and meat for both local consumption and trade goods. Although Iceland has urbanized, its rural traditions are still strong. The end of sheep farming in the valley is emblematic because it is not just the end of a way to make a living but the end of a way of life.

In a different context, the conflict of the two brothers might have seemed trivial; the scheming and planning to defy the order to kill the sheep, absurd. However, in the context of the film, the events move the narrative toward tragedy. With sparse dialogue and no large physical events, the intense focus of the film is on the two brothers. Gradually, although the viewer is shown many rams, it becomes clear that the rams in the title are the two brothers. At loggerheads over some long distant conflict only hinted at when it is revealed that both farms are in Gummi’s name because their father didn’t trust Kiddi’s judgement.

The movie has a solemnity about it. The landscape, the conflict, the seriousness of the situation for the local people all contribute to the mood. However, the film is shot through with wry Icelandic humour. Although the brothers haven’t spoken to each other for forty years, they do communicate by a collie that carries messages back and forth between them. There is also an unusual use of a front end loader that brought startled laughter. This stage business is amusing and enjoyable. At the same time the humour is more than stage business. The situation of the brothers is, in some ways, ridiculous and the ridiculous can be amusing, but Grimur takes some of his directorial cues from the sagas where a bleak humour is often mixed with  the most horrific events.

The stars are Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodor Júlíusson. With their ferocious beards and weathered faces, they might be Viking chieftains during the time of the great conflict of the Sturlungs. Much is demanded of them as actors because so much focus is on their physical expression rather than their dialogue. They began preparing for their roles a year and a half before the film was made. Grimur developed back stories for them, that is the lives of their characters before the time of the film, so that their character’s actions would be logical and consistent with their current lives as elderly sheep farmers.

The attention to detail in the visual images and in the characters, the fitting together of the incidents that comprise the plot, unifies and intensifies the film. Grimur spent three years writing the script. His attention to detail in all the film’s aspects–characterization, plot, setting, dialogue, and theme–give the film the sense of reality that might be found in a documentary while, at the same time, create a narrative voice that can be trusted.

Because of the intense local rendering, in less adept hands, the film might have been parochial. Instead, the story takes on universal implications. It is about men and sheep at one level, about rural displacement at another level, but at the most important level, it is about the fierce family resentments between brothers. The film explores the forces that separate us but also those that bind us.

When Rams was shown at Cannes, it won the Un Certain Regard prize. It has been selected for the 2016 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar. The film has been sold to more than forty countries. It has the distinction of being an Icelandic film that not only will garner prestigious prizes but might actually be commercially successful.

Shown at the Victoria Film Festival, sponsored by the Richard and Margaret Beck Lecture series, and introduced by Helga Thorson, the head of Germanic and Slavic studies, Rams played to a sold-out house.