By Amir Ganjavie.
Rams (2015), an Icelandic drama directed by Grimur Hákonarson, received the prize for the best movie in the Certain Regard category of Cannes Film Festival. The movie tells the story of two peculiar, single brothers who have spent forty years not talking to each other, despite being neighbors who both raise sheep. Their situation changes after the arrival of a deadly sheep disease, when the two men must face a new reality. During Cannes I had an opportunity to conduct the following interview with Hákonarson in a beautiful location named Scandinavian Terrace (between the Marriott and Carlton).
Why did you become interested in the lives of sheep?
Well, my parents are from the countryside and I have some roots and family ties with the countryside, such as when I was younger and worked a little on a farm. So I’m familiar with this sheep farming culture and have met some interesting characters in connection with that. I also have a good sense for stories like that and the two brothers are based on the true story of two real people.
So your inspiration was real historical fact and your personal background rather than being shaped by other movies?
Why did these brothers not have any relationship for forty years? Why did you use that number?
The real story is famous in Iceland. It was forty years there. So I used it.
So it was based on true facts.
And forty years is a long time and a little bit funny as well.
But how it is possible that two brothers living near each other for forty years would have no real connection?
For some reason, it is very common in Iceland and I’ve heard many stories like that. Maybe it has something to do with the mentality of Icelanders since they are a little bit stubborn, tending to think “this is my land.” It depends on the people you know. They are also from Iceland’s older generation, so they are not going to call some psychologist for advice. Maybe a younger generation would go to see a mediator or something.
These two brothers seem not to be married. Is that because of their farming lifestyle? Is that a common thing in the area?
Yes, it’s a common thing in the countryside, where the farmers’ sons get stuck on the farm and the daughters go away, perhaps because agriculture is a more masculine type of job. Then they live very isolated lives and don’t have many chances to meet women. In every part of Iceland there are farmers who are family people and farmers who are not.
The funny – or maybe tragic – thing is that the two brothers finally come together because of a catastrophe, so I wonder if you want to say anything about this terrible event. Because it often happens that an earthquake or other negative event suddenly makes people remember their relationship with others. Are you trying to look at the catastrophe as something similar?
When the sheep disease comes up it provides a good opportunity to make a change in their lives and to develop the story by making the brothers start to communicate. However, I’m also telling the story of the symptom – what happens when this disease appears and people lose their source of income.
Given that you have made some documentaries, why did you use professional actors for this film?
I use some amateur actors for the smaller roles, like the chief who was actually from the same area, so there is a mix of professional and amateur actors. But for the other roles I could not trust myself to use amateurs, instead trying to make the actors into believable farmers. I took them to the countryside, where we spoke to farmers, they met some sheep, and had sort of sheep rehearsals.
There is some nudity in the movie.
I see the nude scenes as [a way] to get closer to the characters because when people are alone they walk around naked.
At Cannes this year I saw a couple of movies that focused on animals. I’m curious to know how easy is it for you to work with animals when you have a flock of sheep?
It was much easier than I expected it to be. I was a bit worried about directing the sheep but we found very good, beautiful sheep, which is good for the story because the sheep are supposed to be like a special livestock, but they were also kind of relaxed.
Some of the sheep just run away if you come close to them but the sheep that we used would come to you and you could talk to them; they did a great job. I got some assistance from two farmers in the valley who took care of the sheep and even when we were shooting very complicated scenes, like the snowstorm: when I called action the sheep went into character and did exactly what I wanted!
The sheep didn’t cause any problems for you?
There was a sex scene in which the ram is fucking a sheep. We had to wait because he was not ready and was not horny enough so we had to spend a little time on that.
As you said, you tried to show the lives of these people in the local environment and you tried to be as authentic as possible. But you also bring in professional actors and they sometimes make the scene seem funny. Didn’t you have a feeling that maybe these funny moments would cause problems for what you want to say? How did you try to balance between tragedy and comedy?
I was very aware of these mistakes and was really focused on not letting the humor take over because if it became too funny then we would have lost what we wanted to convey. But there’s humor in all of my films since it feels natural for me have humor. I want to make serious films but I also want to entertain and make people laugh since it’s good relief. Every movie should have some [elements so that] people can laugh a little bit.
I haven’t yet watched your documentaries, but when we think of them as very serious since they are about showing reality. However, I know that there are different types of documentaries. How do you find the transition from documentary to fiction? Was it easy for you? What was the impact or influence of documentaries on your vision for this movie?
I have made some documentaries and I have made some fiction films. I try to do both and I get inspired by the documentaries and use some ideas from them in my scripts but the biggest difference is the crew size. Feature films cost a lot more money, and [you are under] more stress and pressure. Documentaries are easier and sometimes I’m just alone with a camera. But for me they are the same thing since you’re telling stories with pictures and working with people. The only difference is that the actors get paid.
Usually in documentaries you have some goal – you want to achieve something or you’re looking for something. As a filmmaker with a documentary background, do you have any goals or do you have any ideas to convey with this film?
It’s a personal film, you know. I’m making a film that is kind of about the older generation of Iceland, the farming society that is declining a little today, and sheep farming that is fading out. Icelanders were originally farmers. Hundreds of years ago we were all farmers but now we are city people and I’d like to point out there are some values this way of life.
That has been lost?
This specific sheep disease came from England. Does it being something from outside of Iceland mean that we can see this as an impact of globalization and the fact that you want to show how globalization might impact local life?
No, I think that’s a bit far-fetched. That wasn’t my intention, but of course you’re right that it’s like an external thing that comes into the society and destroys everything. Like you say, it’s like capitalism or whatever. You can see it like that, but it was not my intention to make a film about that.
So your intention was to show a local culture that has been lost [and] to provide a space for this local culture to be represented and conserved, right?
Yeah, and it’s also that there have been some Icelandic films about farmers that I don’t think presented the right image. I try to keep it like a good, right, elaborate image of how these people think and how their society is. It was also a personal thing for me to make a realistic rural film.
The landscape is beautiful and mesmerizing. Can you tell me more about the location and setting in your film?
The whole film was shot on location, and I picked this one because of how the farms look. They are kind of close to each other and there is a fence between them, as you maybe saw at the beginning, so it is visually interesting. The farms are also very isolated and close to the highland areas, which is good for the second part of the film when they take the sheep there. It’s a bit far away from Reykjavik so it was not practical and it would have been cheaper to do it closer to the city. Thus, the main reason was these two farms, as well as the farm of Gummi, the main character. There were no people living there but there were people living at Kiddi’s farm so it was good for us and we had more freedom to change things, like painting the walls.
What is the relationship between your work and contemporary movies like Kitchen Stories?
Kitchen Stories is like a black comedy about bachelor farmers who can’t speak to each other despite being in the same room. So there are some elements from Kitchen Stories that I might have used. I think our films are nothing like the Icelandic new wave but I think they are a little similar because they are kind of low key. But I consider myself to be part of the new generation of Icelandic filmmakers.
I realize that in some contemporary Icelandic movies we see issues about animals, such as in Of Horses and Men (2013). Why are Icelandic directors so interested in representing animals?
I think it’s a coincidence. I started to write the scripts of Ram before Of Horses and Men was released so one explanation might be that after the economic collapse in 2008 when all the banks went bankrupt, Icelandic filmmakers started to think more about our roots, and nature, and the old countryside. There are more Icelandic films now that are shot in the countryside than ever before. It used to be that more films were shot in Reykjavik.
What do you think about the success of this movie in Iceland?
I don’t have a clue if it is going to be a big blockbuster in Iceland. Maybe it helps that the film is in Cannes and is getting good reviews. I think my target group is the older people, fifty plus. Of Horses and Men was very successful abroad but not so much in Iceland. Sometimes some films go to a lot of festivals and travel a lot [but] maybe Icelandic people don’t go to see them. Maybe [they’d] prefer to watch some crime film.
My last question is about your future projects. Are you currently working on any new scripts or projects?
You know, I had some light years but at the moment I’m kind of busy making a documentary in little Moscow. It’s about Chinese Icelanders, which was ruled by communists for fifty years. So I’m doing that film right now but after getting into Cannes it will be easy for me to get funding. I’m also thinking about making a rural lesbian film.
Yes, with lesbians we think about big cities, but in rural areas it’s very hard.
But this is just a light year. I haven’t decided yet or started to write.
Miad Moarref assisted with this interview.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He has recently co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.