Foreign Contenders: Sparrows Explores Modern Icelandic Masculinity on Beautiful 16mm

MovieMaker’s weekly series “Foreign Contenders” features interviews with the heavyweight helmers behind their respective countries’ entries for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Each week, we’ll explore the subjects, issues and modes and means of production that have placed moviemakers’ foreign features in the running for international Oscar gold. The Academy releases their shortlist in December and will announce the eventual nominees in January. This year, a record 85 films have been submitted.


Having a baby seal as a pet. Hunting by shooting at swimming creatures from a boat. These are two fascinating peculiarities that make Rúnar Rúnarsson’s characters in Sparrows unquestionably Icelandic, though they never compromise the universality of their experiences as human beings.

It’s in that threshold, between what’s uniquely specific and that which is utterly relatable, that Rúnarsson’s works find their magic. The filmmaker has an affinity for the turning points in an individual’s life, and he exploits them for their emotional value trough powerful silences and unspoken conflicts.

In his 2011 debut feature, Volcano, which was also submitted for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award, Rúnarsson dealt with an older man feeling deeply disconnected from his children. Now, in his follow-up, the protagonist is a teenage boy taken away from familiar sights and people and forced to adapt. In Ari (Atli Oskar Fjalarsson), we discover a curious hero battling resentment, abandonment and outdated views on masculinity, as he is sent from the city to a rural town to live with his father, a failed role model who drinks to avoid intimacy and blames his ex-wife for his precarious emotional state. Vast vistas, old crushes, brutish bullies and misleading friends make for a cocktail that confuses the valiant young man even further.

Rúnarsson is already acquainted with brushes of Oscar glory, given that the director was nominated in the Best Live-Action Short category for “The Last Farm” over a decade ago, but the acquaintance hasn’t yet been sealed with a win. Following his recent visit to Los Angeles to reconnect with Hollywood, MovieMaker has the chance to chat with Rúnarsson about his choice to shoot on film, the pleasures of international cinema, and how accolades can help achieve longevity.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The film revolves a teenage male adapting to a strange place and to a father that has been absent for a big part of his life. Are there elements of your personal experience, during your transition into adulthood, that made into the film? If not, what are the sources?

Rúnar Rúnarsson (RR): I’m a writer-director and I base all my characters on first and secondhand experiences, mixed with fictional elements. Before, I used to tell [interviewers] what parts exactly were part of me, but then I realized that for the people that I know and love who are leaking into my films as well, it was unfair to reveal to my sources. Before making this film I decided not to do that, because it’s not their fault that I’m making films. In a funny way, people never really see themselves in the films. Maybe because in the end it’s all me. It’s my interpretation of people that I know and love and their situations that come through, therefore, people don’t see them in the same way as a other people see them.

MM: Music is present not only in the form of Kjartan Sveinsson’s score, but also as the protagonist’s defining talent as a singer. How crucial was this in the film’s inception?

RR: What started the project was that I wanted to work with my composer in a different way. I wanted to integrate music into the narrative. That was the ignition to get started. Sparrows is my second feature and I’ve made a lot of shorts, either about the older generation or the younger generations. My first feature was about an old couple, and a handful of shorts before that were about people leading up to a working age—they were pre-work. The same with Sparrows: All those shorts I did about kids or young adults were one way or the other thematic research for this film. These transitional periods in people’s lives really interest me. I’ve also always been interested in these voices, and I was raised on choir music. It came natural to me to work with that element with the composer.

in Sparrows

Atli Oskar Fjalarsson plays Ari in Sparrows

MM: Ari comes from the city and is out of place in this small town. Would you say this also reflects the divide between rural and urban Iceland in general?

RR: There is of course a contrast between these two. Iceland is a young nation, and everybody used to be closed to nature. Even if you lived in the city there were mountains all over, and everyone survived mostly on fishing. Now, the general income in Iceland tends to be more modern, so to speak. There is a lot of creativity. I think now only 20 percent of the national income comes from the fishing industry, but when I was growing up it was 90 percent. Nature was always a big part of all Icelanders’ lives before, but slowly, because of the pace of modern society, the people in the city are losing more and more of this connection.

MM: The construct of masculinity is present throughout Sparrows in Ari’s relationship with his father, what boys his age are expected to know about, and ultimately who he wants to become. Is this a subject that intrigues you significantly?

RR: Definitely. That’s one of the themes we portray in this film, and one way or another it has become a quite repetitive theme in my films. It was a big theme in Volcano as well. These ideas about masculinity define our societies. Western societies are changing to embrace the modern man, who is supposed to be open about his emotions and can allow himself to be vulnerable, but many men don’t have the background or the backbone to do that because they were raised in a different way, so they end up somewhere in between. They feel like they should do things differently, but they always end up somewhere in between. Sometimes this is simplified as black and white, but I’m trying to link them together with a grayscale. That’s one of our attempts in this film.

MM: There are several sequences in which the characters are carrying out seemingly common activities, but they are presented in what appears to be authentically Icelandic fashion. It’s a universal story that shines because of its cultural specificity.

RR: All stories more or less are universal, but it’s where they are being executed that gives them a nationality. There are really strong Icelandic elements in the film. Instead of a dog there is a baby seal. If you live in Alaska you might go into the woods to hunt, but not on a boat like here. There are cultural nuances and that’s what I like as well about international films. It’s not only getting to see films that I can relate to—all stories are universal because of the human element—but it’s so nice to get a window into another culture. Seeing how these nuances handle the same problems in a slightly different way, and even how people do simple or small things in a different way. Watching an international film is almost like watching a narrative film and a documentary at the same time, in a strange way.

Hunting on a boat in Sparrows

An Icelandic boat ride in Sparrows

MM: You have already been nominated for an Oscar several years ago. Do awards push you to work more diligently or make things easier when trying to develop a new project?

RR: It paves the way for getting financing to continue. It’s a luxury to get recognition for the hard work of the crew that made the film with you and it makes it easier for future projects to be financed. There are more and more films being produced every year, and you have to have something to stand out. It’s not enough to have a good script; you have to prove or give some kind of security that you can actually execute this in the right way. Acknowledgements like awards or fancy nominations make that possible.

Tech Box

Camera

RR: Arriflex 416. That was the best one we could get on our budget. We got a great deal from [Danish camera rental house] Kameraudlejningen in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Lenses

RR: Zeiss Ultra16 lenses, for a couple of reasons. When thinking of lenses for the film, we knew we had a softness to the film automatically through the more or less natural lighting exteriors, as well as the fact that we decided to shoot on 16mm. So we wanted to get some sharpness into that but keep the overall softness feel. We had a small lighting package so the extra stop on the lens was great to have in some tricky situations, so we could work with the soft light interior as well without having to set up big lamps.

Film Stock

RR: VISION3 250D mostly and then some 500T.

Lighting

RR: It was a small lighting equipment set (especially for shooting on film with 250 ISO) and the biggest light was one Arrisun 4k, and other HMIs was Arrimax M-lights (M18 being the biggest). Then a couple of tungsten Fresnels and Kino Flos. That was it, more or less. The M-lights because of their capacity, even when the actual size of the lamp is pretty small. That was great when we had a small gaffer crew consisting of two people. Also, another reason for all that was the budget.

Sparrows was shot on 16mm

Sparrows was shot on 16mm

Processing

RR: Regular processing and 2 K scan

Color Grading

RR: The work was done by Eggert Baldvinsson at RGB Iceland, on a Mac-based DaVinci Resolve, using a 2K DPX scan of the film. A DOLBY PRM-4200, 12-bit reference monitor was used to accurately monitor the details in the image. We graded for 10 days. MM

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