Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir • Director
“I didn't want to compromise the main character’s vision”
by Vassilis Economou
- TORONTO 2017: Icelandic writer-director Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir talked to us to break down her feature debut, The Swan, screening in Discovery
Icelandic writer-director Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir has adapted the acclaimed novel by Guðbergur Bergsson with her debut feature film, The Swan [+see also:
interview: Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir
film profile], a fragile story of maturity and self-exploration, which is taking part in the Discovery section of the 42nd Toronto International Film Festival. Cineuropa talked to the filmmaker about freedom, the role of nature in her work and the challenges of co-productions.
Cineuropa: How hard was it to adapt a novel, and what are the main differences between the book and your version?
Ása Helga Hjörleifsdóttir: The biggest challenge was probably the perspective. The novel is narrated by a nine-year-old girl, the protagonist. The whole world is filtered through her perception, which isn't always reliable when it comes to the story. Sometimes we even feel that she has a profoundly deep sense of the universe, going far beyond her own specific point of view. Through her, we sense that things are happening without knowing for sure what's real and what belongs to her wild, creative imagination. To an extent, the cinematic medium calls for more clarity in terms of what we see, but even so, I didn't want to compromise this vision of hers. I didn't want to kill the mystery of her perception!
I think one of the main differences that readers of the book might notice is that I've drawn the characters of the farmhand and the daughter a bit more into the light, fleshing them out as well as their relationship with the girl.
Why did your coming-of-age story need to take place in the wilds of nature?
I'm fascinated by the parallel that the book draws between nature and human nature. It's a story where the characters are constantly lost (and found) in nature – the wilds of nature around them and the nature of their own hearts. At one point, the farmhand says to the girl, “Think about the fact that nature never asks for permission to do anything. It just does and takes what it wants.” And this is what the girl is learning about life, in a way. How the life of our emotions is that wilderness.
This is a story about freedom and maturity; is there any correct path to follow to reach both?
Yes, it is indeed a story about freedom and maturity, and maturity can maybe sometimes mean deciding how much you want to adapt to a conventional life. In the film, the farmer and his wife stand for the very human desire to "keep house" in the wilderness that is human nature, whereas the farmhand stands for the opposite: a life of chaos and emotional freedom. This conflict is one of the main threads in the film, and one that both the girl and the farmers' daughter are struggling with; this conflict between wanting to be “normal” versus facing your true, complicated nature. The daughter – despite her rebellious character, is trying to do what's expected of her, even if we don't know how it will turn out. She's trying to lead a normal life. The girl, on the other hand, chooses the wilderness. She chooses the unpredictable, potentially cruel wings of desire and creation. I don't think either path is the right or wrong answer – on the contrary, this conflict is probably something we're all struggling with... At least I don't know anyone who's figured it out!
The Swan is the first-ever Icelandic co-production with Estonia; what was your experience of this process, given the fact that this is your debut?
Of course, it can always be a challenge to work with someone new, regardless of nationality. And yes, this being my first feature film, I didn't always know what to expect in general! On a co-production like this, things like cultural differences or different expectations and working methods on set also come into play and create a certain amount of conflict. During post-production, I also spent a lot of time abroad – in Hamburg working on the edit and in Tallinn working on the sound design – and this certainly had its challenges, both geographically and culturally.
That said, I'm so happy with the final result of these collaborations. Because any culture-clash-based conflict that arose resulted in such dynamic, creative conversations that forced us all to be incredibly focused on what we wanted to do with scene X or Y, which ended up enhancing the film so much, artistically. Everyone had a certain freedom that gave us a magical result. Learning the rules but not being afraid to break them when needed – that seems to be the perfect balance.
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