Icelandic film-maker Ísold Uggadóttir knows how to write strong female characters and direct a compact drama on migration and everyday struggles in the context of an island named Iceland. Her feature debut And Breathe Normally is a great example of cinematic craftsmanship that proves once again that Icelandic cinema has a lot to offer. So it is no surprise that Uggadóttir was awarded Best Director at Sundance in January and the film won the FIPRESCI prize, given by the International Federation of Film Critics, at the Göteborg Film Festival in February.
Lára is a single mum living in a tiny apartment with her young son. From the start, it is clear that life hasn’t treated her so well, so living from one day to another really has really become a norm for them. However, the arrival of a letter brings changes to their lives and gives a tiny glimpse of hope that things might just be okay. The border security forces offer Lára a traineeship that might lead to full-time employment providing that she keeps up the good work during the entire period. The airport is the place where she sees Adja for the first time. Adja is tirelessly trying to fly from Reykjavík to Canada to apply for asylum there, but her life seems to be stuck in limbo when she is denied to get on the plane at the Keflavik Airport. Spending some time in prison and then waiting for the results whether she is given asylum in Iceland or not, she cannot do anything but try to keep herself busy. When walking around in Iceland she meets Lára’s son and realises the devastating situation they mother and son are in; after loosing their flat, they are sleeping in a car. She provides them with shelter at the reception centre for people seeking refuge in Iceland. They gradually become friends, start building a support system and help each other out whenever they can.
Ísold Uggadóttir’s feature debut is a top-notch drama that focuses on two strong women fighting to finally live a normal life. Looking at the bigger picture, And Breathe Normally reflects on current political and societal issues, but instead of taking a stand and discussing them explicitly, it hides those within the story of the two women representing seemingly two different worlds that meet at Keflavik International Airport. That place represents both hope and despair for both women, and, symbolically, it is also a wall that is difficult to cross. By the beginning of October 2017, “the passports of all passengers crossing the Schengen borders must be scanned” to strengthen the external border of Iceland and the EU, meaning to prevent illegal immigrants, many of whom are coming from war-torn countries, from crossing the border and fly to Canada to find refuge there, for instance. It is the moment when Lára points out, while doing her job as well as she can, that Adja’s passport is probably fake. This is what sets the action of drama into motion, and the airport occupies an important role both at the beginning and the ending of the film. It creates a framework for all the events that comprise the plot and presenting the story of an unlikely friendship between Lára and Adja.
Duality is definitely a key element in the film as it distinguishes and brings the two worlds together – in other words, it breaks downs walls and builds relationships. It is the base for the audience to be able to sympathize with the main characters and understand their motivation. However, events after events, it comes to light that differentiation should stop and likeness should be noticed in terms of the characters’ lives. Although their past remains in the shadow, at least for the audience, their personalities and some important aspects of their previous lives are unfolded through their way in which they handle their personal belongings, namely what they keep and throw away, their actions and gestures. And Breathe Normally does not rely on the power of speech but on facial expressions and other forms of body language. The truth always sits in the eyes that can tell much more than words are capable of. Still, there are plenty of long shots in the film, making sense of the wideness of nature where humans can be easily lost and saved. It feels that distance is kept and while the emotional identification can certainly occur, viewers stay outside the field and they are only observing what is happening. This is a clever move, especially thinking about the actual situation where most of the people exclusively look at the migrants, asylum seekers, refugees or the members of the lower class of the respective society from far away without establishing any kind of relationship with them. However, Uggadóttir questions this conception and proposes the question: What if people would meet and talk to each other to finally realise they are not so different after all?
Uggadóttir’s drama might tell the story of two strong women struggling to reach their dreams and goals, but it is also a microcosm of society. The title, And Breathe Normally, refers to the safety instruction performed by flight attendants before every single flight, as Ísold Uggadóttir revealed during the Q&A after the film screening at the Göteborg Film festival. It is indeed a perfect title that could be discussed concerning several parts of the plot, such as the significance of the airport and flying in the narrative. When talking about the film, some have mentioned Ken Loach who is known for portraying the life of the (British) working class, and this comparison might be a valid one actually. Uggadóttir has dealt with similar issues in her award-winning short films Revolution Reykjavík (Útrás Reykjavík) or Clean as well. There are probably more motion pictures to come to smash the stereotypes and encourage critical thinking, and show the other, less-known side of Iceland.
This review is in the March issue of Cinema Scandinavia.