That certainly does not apply to my film, says director of award-winning film “And Breathe Normally”.
And Breathe Normally, the first feature film of multi award-winning director Ísold Uggadóttir, had it’s premier in Iceland on March 9th. It had already been screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where Ísold was awarded with the best international director award, and at the Gothenburg Film Festival, where it got the international critics award as best picture. Written and directed by Ísold and starring Kristín Þóra Haraldsdóttir, Babetida Sadjo, and Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson, the story details the connection made between a refugee on her way to Canada and a border patrol officer struggling to raise her young son on her own. Where did Ísold get the idea for this story?
“I started working on the script back in 2012,” Ísold says. “Then I had just moved back to Iceland after living ten years in the U.S. and I got preoccupied with poverty in Iceland and the daily struggle of single mothers to support themselves and their children. I wanted to tell the story of that struggle and how it affects their whole life.”
“And Breathe Normally and Rift are first and foremost stories of human feelings and interaction and I think it might be time to stop categorising films by the sexual orientation of their protagonists.”
The other protagonist in the film is a refugee from Guinea-Bissau which has had to flee her home country because of her sexual orientation, where did her story come from?
“When I was writing the script for And Breathe Normally I spent a lot of time in town Reykjanesbær where the other protagonist, Lára, lives and as there was a lot of discussion at the time about refugees who were living in a refugee center in Reykjanesbær and how they were stranded there, not able to leave, not able to stay, I got interested in somehow combining the stories of these two struggling
women from different corners of the world. I registered in the friends program of the Red Cross in Iceland and through them got to know and befriend a woman from Uganda who had been forced to flee her home country because she was a lesbian. It seemed important to show how in some countries your life can be in danger just because of your sexual orientation.”
In the film Adja is not from Uganda but from Guinea-Bissau, why did you change her homeland?
“Because the actress who plays her is from Guinea-Bissau,” Ísold explains. “The film is partly financed by Belgians and we worked with a casting agency in Brussel to find the actress to play Adja. We got 13 actresses to audition and Babetida Sadjo’s performance just took our breaths away. She was exactly what I was looking for. When we started working together she shared stories of homosexuals in Guinea-Bissau who had been forced to flee their country and we interwove those stories into the script. So even though Adja had been from Uganda in the original script we decided to change her country of origin to Guinea-Bissau.”
It is obvious why you choose to make Adja a lesbian, as it is the reason for her status as a refugee, but why did you decide to make Lára a lesbian as well?
“I’ve gotten that question before,” Ísold says with a sigh. “It was not really a conscious decision, no more so than making her a brunette. She just is a lesbian. That’s not an issue. You could just as well ask me why she has dark hair.”
Watching the film one can see what Ísold means by that answer. A Breathe Normally is not a “gay film” by any stretch of that definition, even though both the main protagonists are lesbian. But given the fact that lesbians have been a rare sight in Icelandic movies in the past and that recently the film Rift, by Erlingur Óttar Thoroddsen had a gay couple as protagonists, we press the point. Has the trend for gay mainstream films finally reached Iceland?
“I don’t know,” Ísold says. “My short film Family Reunion from 2006 had a lesbian protagonist, so it’s not unheard of in the Icelandic film industry, but it’s true that it has not been common here. Abroad it’s been happening for quite some time, as homosexuality has become more normalised, and in my opinion it is no longer any issue. Films like Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name are mainstream films which may have opened this genre – if it even is a genre – up to the public, but they as well as And Breathe Normally and Rift are first and foremost stories of human feelings and interaction and I think it might be time to stop categorising films by the sexual orientation of their protagonists. It most definitely does not apply to And Breathe Normally at any rate.”
“ She just is a lesbian. That’s not an issue. You could just as well ask me why she has dark hair.”
The scene stealer in And Breathe Normally is Patrik Nökkvi Pétursson who plays Eldar, Lára’s son. This was his first experience as a film actor and Ísold says that when he auditioned in a scene where Eldar is looking for his cat she instantly knew that he was the right one for the part.
“We had been looking for children to act in the film for quite some time when Patrik Nökkvi came to audition. He just nailed it in one take. Showing such determination and dept of feelings looking for an imaginary cat in a shed that we just knew we had struck gold. And his bonding with the cat, when we started shooting for real was exceptional. One of the advice that aspiring film directors usually get is not using children and animals in their first feature film, as they are really hard to direct, but I had directed children before and I wanted to tell the story of this boy and his mother – and the cat, of course, the cat is essential.”
Even though Ísold is a Columbia University MFA graduate her film, And Breathe Normally, has a strong European aura. Does she look more to European film makers than American ones?
“Yeah, maybe I do,” she muses. “Even though I studied in New York and lived there for ten years I don’t really find American films representing the things that speak to me most in films. So I guess you could say that my film making is more in the European vain. And I admit that my favorite film makers are European. Also I spent quite some time in Europe while writing the script besides the film being a multi national European cooperation and the head of cinematography is Polish, and that might have had some influence on how the final outcome looks.”
And Breathe Normally had it’s world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January where it got rave reviews and Ísold won the award as best international director. That was followed up by the film getting the international critics award as best picture in Gothenburg. Was she expecting such enthusiastic receptions?
“I was not really thinking about the reception the film would get at that point,” Ísold admits. “All the energy went into getting the film ready for screening, gathering my cast and crew to be in attendance at Sundance etc. and I had not spared a thought for how the audience would react. When they read my name out loud as best international director I was simply stunned and it took a while to register that they meant me. But of course I’m very happy about this honour and grateful to the judges both in Sundance and in Gothenburg.”
“When you are telling a story it has to come from your heart. You really have to live and breathe in the world of the film while you’re working on it. If you are only doing it for money and fame it always shows in the outcome.”
Now the film has had it’s premier here in Iceland what will be the next steps?
“We will take it to a feminist film festival in Stockholm later this month and it will be shown in cinemas all around Sweden later this year. Our distribution company, The Match Factory in Berlin, is working on it’s promotion and distribution and we’ll just have to wait and see where that takes us. This all takes a very long time in this business, but after this unbelivable start we are optimistic about it’s future.”
With all these awards under her belt Ísold has been getting propositions to direct films by other writers, is that something she would consider doing or is she set on telling her own stories?
“That’s one of the things I’m thinking about these days,” she says with a little laugh. “I’m not really sure if I want to be just the director. I would at least have to choose the film very carefully. When you are telling a story it has to come from your heart. You really have to live and breathe in the world of the film while you’re working on it. If you are only doing it for money and fame it always shows in the outcome. I don’t think I would ever be able to tell a story I didn’t believe in with all my heart.”