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Categories: Interviews

Thomas Humphrey chats with the Cannes award-winning “Rams” director.

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It is one of the glorious wonders of the film industry that a country with a population of just a little over 300,000 people can, for all the funding limitations that must pose, bring forth a generation of really exciting filmmakers and even go on to win one of Cannes Film Festival’s most prestigious prizes. That is what Icelandic filmmaker Grímur Hákonarson and his crew achieved this year when Rams was selected as the best film in the 2015 Un Certain Regard category.

Rather oxymoronically, though, this film is pretty far removed from Cannes’ summery climes. It takes place in the deep, dark, snowy depths of Iceland’s tough and challenging winter and has none of that festival’s excessively ritzy glamour. Nevertheless, that isn’t to say that Rams is dense or brooding. Instead, it’s a deeply human, well-executed story about two warring brothers living on a small sheep farm in rural Iceland, and it deserved such a prestigious award.

What is particularly wonderful about the very pure cinematic experience it creates is the fact that it often trades in a kind of humour which needs no translation. Hákonarson just allows his actors a kind of very naturalistic kind of space to perform in, and in that space Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theodór Júlíusson deliver wonderful, lightly comedic performances as a maverick pair of warring Santa bad-asses with their excellent, whitish beards and seemingly endless supply of brilliant Christmas jumpers.

That said, the film still focuses on a very serious (often almost true) story: that of an agrarian society torn apart by the news that its sheep have been exposed to the fatal disease scrapie and therefore must be exterminated. Hákonarson takes a very honest look at the emotional impact this has, and you cannot help but feel that it will resonate deeply with UK audiences, especially given the memories of scorched fields and livestock we have been left by the outbreak of Mad Cow Disease in the not-so-distant 90s.

Following the film’s outbreak of scrapie, the bothers slowly begin what can only be described as a journey of hope to conserve a very old, humble way of life, and this is something that it would seem Hákonarson clearly feels a great deal of emotional attachment too. This definitely comes through in the film, and ultimately Rams is as fulfilling as it is moving. This film is also a really great example of the sort of Spartan, naturalistic and darkly humorous Scandinavian school of filmmaking, and it comes highly recommended if you’re in any way inclined to that sort of thing.

What did it mean to you to win Un Certain Regard?

It was certainly a big prize, both for me personally and for all the people who were involved in Rams. Of course it has also helped the film a lot. I mean it’s one of the biggest prizes an Icelandic film has ever won, so it was a pretty good start for us. It’s one of the best prizes to win in the world, I think.

The people behind Rams are also all quite new filmmakers – we weren’t really known before this – so it has been a big deal for us. This is only my second feature and the producer’s second feature, so of course it was a really big thing for us. I can say that maybe things have changed for us since we won this prize.

The film has certainly been travelling all over, and I’ve been living in a suitcase for a while. I’ve only just got back to Iceland recently and I get a little break now, but then I’m straight back in my suitcase. Right on the 1st of January, I’m going out to LA…Winning this prize definitely has opened a lot of doors for me.

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What do you think the secret to your success with this film was? It did seem like you created a very pure cinematic experience, one which is almost always foremost very visual.

I think I was mostly very influenced by a number of really great Scandinavian filmmakers. Directors like Roy Andersen, for example. I think of myself as very much a typical Scandinavian filmmaker in that respect, both in terms of the visual style and type of humour in my movies. You know, I have a lot of that kind of black humour.

Though the visual style of Rams was actually influenced a lot by There Will Be Blood. Me and the cinematographers, we watched that film a lot. It was sort of the look of the film we liked, you know? The sort of cinemascope format it has and the fact that it looks a little bit like a Western, like Amurgh’s Western.

But yeah, all of my films are quite static, and I use a lot of wide shots. I also shoot many scenes in single takes – I certainly try not to cut too much, and I think that brings a kind of realistic feel to the film. It’s important to me to kind of let the whole moment play through in a scene without cutting. I think maybe this accounts for this pure cinematic impression you describe.

Is this also a real influence of your history in documentary filmmaking?

Yes, yes; but I mean even when I was making fiction films at the same time, I always have this same shooting style – it’s present in all my films. But you know, I did make a couple of documentaries also about farmers in similar situations, so that’s maybe where this kind of realistic touch comes from in Rams. When I was directing I was really focused on making sure that everything had to feel real. The set design, the look of the costumes, the acting, the dialogue and the expressions they used, they all had to feel very real.

I mean, when you’re making documentaries you’re filming real people and real circumstances, but I guess I’m really influenced by that when I’m making fiction films too. Perhaps I feel the same way when I’m directing both. To me the only difference when you’re filming fiction or documentaries is that with fiction you just have a lot more people working on the set and you have actors. I do try not to think about that, though, and I just act like I’m filming something real.

Still, I’m also a very spontaneous director, because when I’m making my documentaries, you have to maybe follow these kinds of real-life characters in the real world and then you really don’t know what’s going to happen next. That would mean that you would have to make a lot of spontaneous decisions as a director when you were filming, and I guess I’ve carried that over a lot to when I’m filming fictions also.

As well as being spontaneous, though, you also draw on lots of static, lingering shots of the beautiful Icelandic landscape.

Yes. In Rams, though, we’re not going out of our way to just show shots of how beautiful Iceland’s landscape is. When we film landscapes, it’s always because it has some kind of reason or serves some kind of purpose. There’s a lot of landscape shots in the film, because the brothers are living a very isolated lifestyle. So the use of landscape in Rams always has some kind of reason or emotional significance. There not just establishing shots there for no reason.

In fact the main reason we chose this location was because it was so well-suited to the story. It’s a beautiful but also sobering place, and I believe it really helps to create this strong atmosphere in the film.

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Beyond the landscapes in your film, your characters also seemed very distinctive and pronounced. Do you have quite a clear philosophy of how you go about creating characters?

Not so much. These characters are just humans, you know? There just human beings. Like all of us, they’re not perfect, they just embody a certain lifestyle and certain values. But the message of the film is that they even if you’re the most stubborn person in the world, we still need each other. We need other people. In the end, we can’t live without others. That is really what the general message of the film is all about: the importance of human relationships. And this message in particular is a universal one. It’s the same with every generation and with every different kind of person, I think.

Your film does focus heavily on an older Icelandic generation, though. Do you think this is a generation that you or your generation is starting to identify with more as you grow older?

Not so much. I think people seem to be getting more open, now. Today they will talk more about their problems in a way that my characters never would. I think that that’s already a big difference just between me and my father’s generation. I mean, he’s not like the brothers in my film, but I do think he’s quite different from my generation.

I mean when the kinds of scrapie cases that you see in my film came up in the 90s, there was nobody the farmers could talk to even if they had wanted to. That kind of psychological assistance just didn’t exist then. When people had to go about slaughtering their sheep, there was nothing like that. These days everyone would be offered treatment for their shock, or something like that.

So society has changed quite quickly and quite recently. Maybe we do pay more attention to this kind of psychological factors in people’s lives, so I guess my film would relate to that change. Maybe we do it too much, though [Laughs.] Sometimes, anyway.

Are you also very interest in the concept of masculinity in your films, or even that of the masculine crisis perhaps?

Rams is definitely this very masculine kind of film. It’s very much about this old generation of Icelandic men who never share their emotions. Instead they are stubborn, proud and very guarded of their feelings. They always want to be independent and not rely on other people, so whenever possible they don’t want to look for help.

I mean the brothers in my film probably could resolve their conflict quite easily, but they are these types of men who don’t want to reach out for help or go and see a psychiatrist or anything like that. So I was very interest in exploring this kind of older generations in Iceland who are a little bit like this. I suppose that’s also a bit of a universal trait in old people too, though.

And do you have other similar projects already in the pipelines?

Yes, my next film is also going to be shot in Iceland and in Icelandic, and it’s going to be a rural lesbian story. It’s about a housewife who is a process of self-discovery in a small, rural community in Iceland. The kind of community that tends to be kind of a little bit conservative. This film will have a similar tone to Rams, but in a way it will be more political and also shot in a bit more of an industrialised part of rural Iceland.

I will be working with the same team I worked with on Rams, because we did work really well together and I would like to keep that going with them. But we can definitely promise you this one film is going to be different: it will be pretty different from most lesbian films you have seen before.

Rams is out now in select UK cinemas. 

Thomas Humphrey

A freelance film journalist and acting director of the Nottingham Alternative Film Network. This network aims to champion short films, and tries to bring great features which UK distributors overlook to the city.

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Posted on Feb 8, 2016

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