“Iceland is a young nation, and with that comes a certain hardness”: Runar Runarrson on Sparrows

A wave of Icelandic cinema has been sweeping the international festivals, with films like Of Horses and Men, Virgin Mountain and Rams winning several awards. In a period of economic downturn and lack of money, small, insightful and often funny films have gotten attention the world over. Yet 39-year old Rúnar Rúnarsson stands out, with his subtle, gentle dramas Volcano and Sparrows. As his Golden Shell winning Sparrows had it’s Danish premiere, Cinema Scandinavia met him to a talk of poetic realism, analog vs digital, and the struggle to be the best man possible.

The director looks stylish in a shirt and tie, and his short gray hair. At 39, he has ‘only’ directed two feature films, but has been creating short films for a long time, since he was 16 years old. The Last Farm, from 2004, got nominated for an Academy Award, and Two Birds played at Cannes. The Last Farm, especially was important to the directors style. Until then, his film-work had been highly political ‘forms, constructions, political Molotov cocktails’ as he calls it. ‘But the only people that finished watching through the short films were people who shared my beliefs in the world order, and I didn’t have any influence whatsoever.’ But with the short from 2004 he tried to forgo the political for something more emotional, and was delighted by the result: ‘By being honest or trying to be honest about emotional and co-human elements. If you can get somebody to think about life in a different way, then he’ll act a little bit afterwards.’

Rúnarsson went to film school in Copenhagen from 2005 to 2009. His debut film, Volcano, was supported by the New Danish Screen project to help more experimental cinema, and debuted in Director’s Fortnight section at Cannes in 2011. Four years later, his second feature, Sparrows, won the Golden Shell from the main competition at the San Sebastian Film Festival, one of the biggest triumphs of Icelandic cinema ever. The film is about 16-year old Ari, who, after his mother travels to Africa with her new husband, has to leave Reykjavik to live on the coast with his father, in a small town, dominated by the fishing factory on one hand, and by alcohol and drugs on the other. The travails of young Ari is depicted with an at times unflinching seriousness, but also a sense of poesy and empathy for every character.

This emotional ‘poetic’ honesty flows through every aesthetic element of Rúnarsson’s oeuvre. Both Volcano and Sparrows were done on 16mm, and his reasoning is steeped in emotions – the sharpness of the digital image gives no room for tenderness for instance. ‘I think there’s a more poetic touch to imagery on film. My creative team and I are working with realism, but it should not just be a kitchen sink realism, we’re trying to achieve some kind of poetic realism. And the film is better for that.’ He goes on to explain the science behind this: ’A study on how the brain receives analog and digital signals shows the analog signal goes to the emotional side of the brain, but the digital signal is more captured by the rational side. It makes 100% sense that the news is being broadcast in high definition, but if you want to move people, film will help you.’

A large part of the poesy in Sparrows come from the music score, composed by former Sigur Ros member Kjartan Sveinsson, which was integrated in the film. The main character, 16-year old Ari, is a soprano singer, and some of the most poetic scenes depends on him singing the newly composed pieces by the Icelandic composer. Getting this exactly right proved challenging, though. The cast playing singers all took singing lessons so as to get their mouth and throat movements all right, even though the singing is all overdubbed. To create the sound of Ari singing, a young girl was recorded, then mixed one and a half tone down to sound more like a boy. The sound was then mixed with ambiance and the breathing of young actor Atli Oscar Fjalarsson, ‘all for the great illusion of cinema.’  This slight illusionary realism, at times approaches the realm of the unreal. Very few 16-year olds retain their youthful voices, most male voices drops down into the lower register in the few years before. As with the celluloid it’s a poetic touch, working through emotions rather than any strict sense of truth.

The slight sense of retro-ness, the analog sensibility, it also comes through in the plots of the films. Both Volcano and Sparrows – as well as Rams and Of Horses and Men for that instance – deals with men and the changing world they live in. In Volcano, grandfather Hannes must deal with his pension and his wife’s illness, while in Sparrows, the drama arrives from the clash of young Ari with his father Gunnar, and the small, crumbling factory town in which he lives. The clash of young and old, of past and present, and of man and nature is prevalent in all of Icelandic cinema.

I ask why so many Icelandic films have titles taken from nature – animals, mountains – and Rúnarsson shrugs. ‘It’s a part of our reality, I guess. We have one city, and it’s the smallest city in the world. There are mountains all over.’ This created problems for the beginning of Sparrows: To illustrate the difference

between Ari’s hometown Reykjavik and the small town where he moves in the beginning, they had to find an image of the town that would give a sense of urbanity, not just to Icelanders knowable about the capital, but also foreigners. The solution was a shot of the seafront with the Harpa music hall, designed by famous Danish architect Henning Larsen and Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson in collaboration. The building gives such a strong sense of modernity that the director used it four years ago in his debut feature as well, when it was still being built.

Modernity still hasn’t entirely taken root, though the island has developed at an almost dizzying rate. According to Rúnarsson, his great grandfather bought himself free from serfdom, back when Iceland was a colonial part of Denmark. His father, born in 1942 when the island was occupied by American forces before the Germans who had occupied Denmark could take it over, grew up without running water or toilets. It’s no wonder that the characters in Rúnarsson’s films, be it old Hannes or young Ari, seems at ease on the cliffs and mountainsides of the rugged country. This seems to be the central subject of the new Icelandic cinema, the Icelandic man and his struggles to adapt.

In some ways, it’s conspicuous that the Icelandic films are always so male focused. The new directors, Rúnarsson, Benedikt Erlingsson (Of

Horses and Men), Grímur Hákonarsson (Rams) and Dagur Kári (Virgin Mountain) are all men. Seeing as so many of these films are about problematic men, and often sees the female characters as stronger and less awkward, why is it still male characters and directors who dominate cinema? ‘With a young nation, as Iceland certainly is, there’s a certain hardness, and society tends to be coloured by masculinity in a certain way.’ Rúnarsson explains. He goes on to say something that relates closely to the Icelandic man on film, and perhaps it’s directors as well: ’Masculinity is such a funny modern thing as well. The modern man that we are supposed to be. We want to be something and it’s demanded from society that we are something that we aren’t. We really try to be better, but it’s tough when you aren’t. And of course this takes generations to even out.’ He smiles.

Things are changing though. As Rúnarsson tells it, amongst the pioneers of Icelandic cinema were several women, but there came a period where no women were directing or being educated as directors. ‘I don’t worry that there won’t be good Icelandic women voices that are making films in the future, because the new generation of young women, they’ve just started.’ Two women are making their debut movies at the moment – ‘I’m extremely excited to see them’ Rúnarsson says – and two others are studying at the Danish films school as Rúnarsson did ten years ago.

‘There is a generation on its way, and there’s a general understanding of nurturing them.’ ‘And as a realist, albeit a poetic realist focusing on emotional truths, Rúnarsson wants to see these women’s stories:

‘Those stories should be told as well, because all relevant stories of our society should be told.’

Frederik Bove

Frederik has studied History and Cultural Studies at University of Copenhagen and University of California San Diego. He is currently working for Copenhagen Architecture Festival x FILM.