PRISONERS: Bringing Icelandic Talent to the Forefront

Debuting earlier this year in Iceland and about to hit international screens, Prisoners is your new binge-able series. More than arguably one of the best television series produced in Iceland, the series, which explores Iceland’s only female prison, brings female Icelandic talent to the front, both in front of and behind the camera. Cinema Scandinavia spoke to the three women who not only created and wrote the series but also starred in it. Highlighting not only the small industry of Iceland, but their talent and power also shows how women will power the New Icelandic Wave.

This project started a long time ago. How has it developed with the changes in Iceland and television, for example, the American series Orange is the New Black?

Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir: We had all been busy working in the theatre and this is the first project of its kind that we have worked on. Ragnar Bragason, the series’ director, was involved from early on, but it was still a long process. As we were developing the project, for example, we started to wonder whether or not to make it a documentary. However, it was such a large-scale story that he had to be told in a fictional way.

Margrét Örnólfsdóttir: Overall, it took seven years from the birth of the original idea until the series had finished. There have been ups and downs throughout the series, but we never (quite!) lost our conviction that we were onto something worth seeing through to the end. When Orange Is the New Black came out, we were worried that our series would lose its originality. However, after seeing the series, we knew that ours was unique enough, though some elements had to be changed. In the end, I think we benefited from Orange Is the New Black because it evoked a new global interest in women prison stories. Another worry of ours was that the original Women’s Prison of Iceland suddenly shut down and we feared we might have lost our prime location. In the end, it turned out to work in our favour as we got permission to use the old building and transform it into a fully functioning set.

Unnur Ösp Stefánsdóttir: It did shock us when the series came out. Despite the fact the two are different, there were some striking similarities, and we had to rethink our approach to the script and did some rewriting. That was right for the project because we developed the script with the small society of Iceland in mind and took inspiration from current affairs. We wanted to be very current and relevant. In the end, it became more of a family story than a prison series.

How did you research Prisoners?

NDF: We’d all had children and were walking downtown together after we had read an article in the newspaper about mothers in prison. We were inspired by the article as we had never really thought about that topic before. We called the prison and asked if we can come in for a visit and if anybody wanted to meet us, which they did. This is how the process started. We listened to the prisoners talk about their stories and believed we had to tell their story. Overall, we were in and out of prison researching for a couple of years.

MÖ: We visited the prison many times and spoke to the women there. We also spoke to those who had worked in the prison, whether they be guards, psychiatrists, priests, police officers, etc. We established a good relationship with the Icelandic Prison Service and, all in all, everyone was very generous and eager to help contribute.

UÖS: The prisoners had difficult backgrounds and had reached a low-point in their life. They were angry, bitter, and did not have much hope. We grew to care for them, and through them, we found it important to tell this story. These women were our inspiration. The terrible truth is that many of the women did not live to see the result; they died before the series aired. Hopefully, their sad stories can change something in our society and the way we think about one another.

Did anything shock or sadden you about the women’s prison in Iceland?

MÖ: Many things. I realised that I’d been somewhat ignorant of the conditions of this marginal part of our society. I passed the Women’s Prison on an average of two times a day, five days a week for many years since my children’s kindergarten lies right next to it. I went about my business as usual while the women on the other side of the fence are separated from their own families. Stepping inside the prison for the first time was an overwhelming experience. I was incredibly grateful for the privilege of being a visitor and being able to leave whenever I wanted. Getting to know this hidden ‘universe’ strengthened our conviction that the story needed to be told.

Did you form a personal connection to the prisoners?

MÖ: The things the women and the staff shared with us were quite intimate and persona and we were aware that this was a delicate situation. In general, we developed more of a professional relationship, although the lines between professional and personal can sometimes be blurred in this kind of work.

NDF: When we were writing, we took pieces from our own lives and the prisoners’ lives, and we mixed it into the story we wanted to tell. I wanted to tell a story about a life struggle, so it was quite interesting. I wanted to tell a story about what it was like to be in prison when your kids are outside. So many inmates are addicted to drugs, so you really want to hold them and you want to help them, but you can’t.

How are the prisoners viewed in Iceland?

MÖ: As with many countries, there is quite a stigma. For women, it seems to be to an even greater extent, especially since the number of women who serve time in prison is so small. On average, there are around three-five women in prison at any given time. Sometimes there’s just one or two! Still, the ratio is smaller than that of other countries. The smallness of our society is a bit double-edged with regards to this. On the one hand, the benefits are that we have a relatively good support system, but, on the contrary, it’s impossible to be anonymous in a country where everyone knows everyone.

UÖS: Prisoners can be a bit of taboo; especially female ones. We hear so much more about male prisoners. Before writing the series, no one knew about the female prisoners in Iceland.

When writing complex characters like these, is it hard to find a balance between showing them for their wrongdoings and sympathising with them?

MÖ: I don’t experience difficulties like these, since my job as a writer is to give the characters a full life, with all its complexities. I need to understand the character and the choices he or she makes, even if I may disagree with them. Otherwise, I’d just be writing different versions of myself all the time. As a writer, you need to have the courage to access and explore all the darkest places within yourself, and use it as a source to identify with even the most loathsome or painful emotions and the darker side of human existence.

UÖS: With all stories, there is a fine line between understanding the characters and keeping it real. Women in prison have made a lot of wrong choices, but they also don’t get the same opportunities everyone does. They come from broken homes, often have a history of sexual abuse and have slowly ended up in this terrible situation. We wanted our characters to reflect this.

The first half of the season focuses on understanding the complexities of the prison…

MÖ: The prison is the biggest part when it comes to making our series unique from others within the genre. The women’s prison here is situated in suburbia, with a kindergarten right next door. It’s unique. From the outside, there’s little that gives away the fact that it’s a prison, but once you look inside you discover a strange world where women are locked in their cells for twelve hours a day, and the mood is more dysfunctional family than high security prison. The prison can’t hold more than twelve prisoners, but the largest number of women that have ever been in there is eight.

UÖS: It was important to have the series be character driven and not plot driven. We wanted to get under the skin of the characters so their stories would have an impact on us in the end.

You not only wrote/created the series, but you also starred in it! What was it like being on both sides of the camera?

NDF: It is interesting. In Iceland, we have to do everything ourselves. I am used to doing it, and my husband is also a director and has a role in the series. Also, we had a great team, and our production was strong and we worked really well together. The character herself had been with me for such a long time and it challenged me, but I’m glad I was able to tell her story.

Do you think, then, that Prisoners would’ve worked if it had a predominantly male cast?

MÖ: That’s not something I think about. In my mind, gender is not what defines a character. Sometimes I even change the gender of my characters while writing and it’s not very difficult. But for Prisoners, it wouldn’t work with male characters in focus. The story itself would have to change. Prisoners is undeniably a feminist story. All the main characters are female, most of the supporting roles are women, and the point of view is often from a woman’s perspective.

What makes women’s stories so important for the screen?

MÖ: It’s important because for a long time now, or maybe forever, there’s been a shortage of female stories in film and television. We’re so accustomed to watching male dominant films and television series that we’re startled when we see something like Prisoners, where there are more female characters than male. When Prisoners was shown in Iceland a lot of people were astonished that there were that many good actresses in Iceland! The good thing is that now a show like Prisoners has a strong, successful female story, the next series will feel even more normal. Hopefully, one day, no one will remember the time’s people used to talk about ‘stories about men’ and ‘stories about women’ as if it was something contradictory.

UÖS: Most of what we watch in film and television comes from a male perspective. It is our responsibility to write about women and change the gender landscape in film and television. After all, women are half of humanity.

In Iceland at the moment, there is a new ‘Icelandic wave’ of feature films and television series doing well abroad. However, practically all of these releases are male stories by male directors…

NDF: Oh my god, don’t get me started! Well, it’s been quite new for Iceland, but the topic has been around for quite a long time. I also think that the girls haven’t had much of a chance. Part of it is a trust issue, and it is also the fact that fewer women have been studying film-making. Now, I think it is changing. In Iceland, we are seeing more feature films being made by female directors. Overall, the issue comes from a combination of things. I hope that things change, though. We have been fighting the system politically so we can have equality in film.

UÖS: This is a big question. Why do most films in the world seem to be male stories by male directors? This was a part of the reason we thought our series was so important.

MÖ: It’s a fact that male directors still outnumber female directors in Iceland, even though it’s slowly changing. However, this doesn’t explain the greater gender imbalance. It has been a hot topic in Iceland for a while now, as in the rest of the Western world, and I believe we are finally getting to a place where we can recognise the need to do something drastic about it. It’s not only women directors that are deprived of the opportunity to use their talent and do their work, the audience is also missing out on a more diverse film-making that reflects life as it is, with almost an equal number of men and women living in the world.

Many films from Iceland tend to take place in rural locations, yet Prisoners is very city-orientated and follows conventions of the crime genre. Why do you think that is?

UÖS: Most Icelanders have a strong connection to nature and artists have used this connection through the years in art, literature, and film. Nature is a big part of our life here in the north and a strong drive in our storytelling. I think it is important to tell stories that you feel are relevant and personal.

MÖ: I believe the answer can be explained by choices made by the Icelandic Film Fund. It seems to tend to fund a particular type of arthouse filmmaking, whether consciously or unconsciously. The danger is that people might change their projects to meet this demand and get funding. Don’t get me wrong, these films are delightful and worth every penny, but the downside is uniformity. The nature in Iceland is one of a kind, and therefore tempting to make use of it to create captivating images. But we must also recognise the fact that most Icelanders live in the capital and urban areas – we are modern day people whose closest relationship to livestock is most often limited to choosing a leg of lamb in the supermarket. But we need a fair amount of both, I believe, nature and the supermarket.

Do you believe we’ll see a rise in women’s films from Iceland finding as much success around the world as the male films?

UÖS: That is my dream, and I believe that will happen. A lot of women are working on their films now in Iceland, and this year the gender balance is much better.

MÖ: I think it’s just around the corner. I’m very optimistic and looking forward to it. There are at least three feature films written and directed by women that are now in post-production. In addition to that, quite a few films and television series where women are the lead characters are currently in development. I sense that there’s a growing awareness that mending this imbalance is a benefit to all, and it will bring us a healthier filmmaking community. The audience longs for it as well. We experienced this first-hand with Prisoners because of the strong response we got. It was as if people had been thirsty without realising it until they are handed a glass of water.

How was Prisoners received in Iceland?

MÖ: I can honestly testify that it was beyond our wildest dreams. The ratings were exceptional, more than 50% of the nation watched it and we received endless messages and positive responses from all around. It really moved me when I heard about workplaces that couldn’t fully function on Monday mornings until people had discussed last night’s episode. That just filled me with gratitude, because it made me believe we weren’t wasting people’s valuable time. Social media blew up when something dramatic happened or when the characters gave an exceptional performance; it made my jaw many times to see it happen. We also got a positive response from the prison system. One person who had worked in the Women’s Prison had a hard time watching it because it felt uncomfortably authentic. Of course, our prime goal was to make good drama and our story is pure fiction. But it seems to have felt real enough to people and evoked a lot of public discussion and special interest in the conditions of prisoners in Iceland and how we as a society handle, or fail to handle, these matters.

Are there any plans for a season two?

MÖ: We’ve started work on season two, and there is a plan to shoot it in the winter of 2018. We can promise a more intense season. That’s a promise to ourselves as well since we haven’t finished writing it yet!

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.