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Audience q&a for Prisoners

Please tell us about the writing process for Prisoners.

It’s been a very long journey. Ten years ago, Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir & Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir were on maternity leave and read an article about the women’s prison in Iceland. The main topic of the article was about the prisoners who were missing their children, and they were deeply moved by this. Perhaps this tells you something about Iceland and its short channels of communication, but these two women were inside the prison having coffee with the staff just four hours after reading the article. They were very inspired and eager to do something about this. They spent a long time doing research, and five years later the decision to make a television series was made. I came on board as the head writer then.

Did you have many encounters with the prisoners?

Many of the characters are based on women that we met during the research phase, but the television series is purely fictional. There are a lot of stories that inspired the characters but we never used a story straight. Iceland is a very small country and on average we only have four to five women serving prison sentences at a time and I think the highest number ever was eight women, so in our series we exaggerated a bit. It would’ve also been easy to recognise real women with the characters in the story, and we didn’t want to do that.

Did you have a personal connection to the prison?

The prison is situated in the suburb I live in. The kindergarten right next to it is the kindergarten where I sent my children. When you stand between the two buildings, you can almost touch the fences of the jail and the kindergarten. When I was asked if I wanted to be part of this I didn’t need to think twice because I have passed the jail twice a day for the last five-six years, and I was doing the same as everyone else by turning a blind eye. I was interested in the jail and going inside was an overwhelming experience. Inside the prison, you can hear the kids outside in the kindergarten and some of the women mentioned it was very hard for them when they can’t be with their children.

What has happened to the jail since?

The prison has closed as it was deemed unfit. It was a bit of a shock because it happened a year before we went into shooting. We were worried they were going to tear it down, but after a lot of lobbying and begging we got permission to use it. It’s still standing with all our set in there and we are hoping that they will keep it so we can use it for the next season. They have since opened a new prison that is very modern and high-tech, but already there’s a romantic feel in the press about the old prison.

Do you feel this series is like Orange is the New Black?

When Orange is the New Black came out, we were worried that it would affect us because there were some similarities, so we had to change the story a bit. However, I think the success of that show is good for us because it shows people are interested in these types of shows and the Icelandic prison system is different from the American prison system so it doesn’t affect us in a bad way.

How has the reception been in Iceland?

We got a lot of feedback via social media and there’s been a lot of coverage in the press. The audience seems to be a broad spectrum of kids, teenagers, and even the elderly. We are quite happy with the reception and the ratings are very good. We have around a 50% market share for our timeslot.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.