The oft used phrase “writing is universal” doesn’t mean that it’s all the same or should be. In fact in best examples it means the exact opposite. As a counter-example to the dictum of “write what Hollywood is making” I want to offer a stellar case study for one instance of the successful use of individual voice.
Grímur Hákonarson is an Icelandic writer/director who has released a wonderful film that is getting well deserved festival recognition: winning the prestigious Prix Un Certain Regard at Festival de Cannes 2015, and garnering enthusiastic audience appreciation from attendees at the Telluride Film Festival where I saw the film and met the filmmaker.
His film Rams could be understatedly described as a story about two feuding brother sheep farmers, like saying Shawshank Redemption is a movie about two prisoners. Through desolate landscapes and sparse dialog Hákonarson tells the tale of these two aged brothers who haven’t spoken to each other in decades even though they live next door to each other on adjoining sheep farms. The loving attention to and importance of the sheep for everyone in this Icelandic valley plays a key role in the slowly unfolding drama of this piece. Sprinkled with dry, Icelandic, dark humor the story defies simple genre classification. As both comic and suspensefully dramatic events unfold in the drawn out pace and languidity of the countryside and people who live there, the audience is drawn into the story quite successfully. The European style of leaving an ambiguous ending resolves the issue of how much the audience has been drawn in by how desperately you want to know the answers to what happened next.
Rams certainly doesn’t obviously follow the rules of your run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare.
But make no mistake, Rams is a fantastic film, lacking nothing because it takes a different tack in getting the audience to follow where Hákonarson wants to lead them. He certainly knows what he’s doing as a storyteller.
He follows well the tenets of: Know the rules, but, don’t follow them as rote. Don’t follow those that don’t apply to the story you need to tell. Use the rules as little or as much as needed to support your story best.
It is like building a sheep pen. There are certain parts of the structure that have to be there for the pen to be an effective barrier to keep the sheep contained as well as provide the needed elements to keep them fed and maintained. Most sheep barns are designed very similarly because achieving the conventional needs of any sheep farmer, certain commonalities apply. But when you find a reason to construct a pen in an unusual place, some of those accepted conventions no longer apply and would get in the way of achieving your goal in the new environment. Knowing how to adapt to best execute your desired results is a key to success in building a sheep pen or writing a movie.
Hákonarson knows the particular rules of storytelling. His previous dramatic and documentary work give him the basis of understanding the necessary framework that needs to be there in order to tell a unique story that compliments his intended vision. It is very obvious in his plot development and use of narrative structure.
But he is also intimately knowledgeable about his setting. The desolation and remoteness of Iceland as well as the peculiarities of the fascinating people who live there are integral to the story he chose to tell. Recognizing that the interesting bits of his tale would get abandoned with a traditional Hollywood style telling, he found a way to use the rules that applied best and forge out in unexpected directions. The end result is refreshing and rewarding for the audience to experience.
This is not to say that he had to invent cinematic approaches to create his storytelling. Hákonarson admits his influences include other Icelandic filmmakers, the Coen brothers as well as the Romanian New Wave. He told me that he pieced together the elements of Rams from many different ideas, both real life events (the delivery to the emergency room is based on an event that actually happened) and realistic portrayals and dialog reflecting what life is like in that part of Iceland. He knew he needed a strong storytelling base underlying all the elements he brought to the party and developed the story and structure in tandem until it was just right to tell his story the right way.
Next up the plan for Rams is a showing in the Contemporary World Cinema section of the Toronto Film Festival followed by a few more festivals here and there leading to a limited release in New York and Los Angeles in February and hopefully a slow roll out following. If you get a chance to see it, by all means do. It is a refreshing take on storytelling and entertains in a new way. It will give you the beginning of an understanding of what it’s like to live in Iceland as well as a bit more respect for sheep (and sheep dogs.)
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