Ísold Uggadóttir’s debut feature and Sundance winner, And Breathe Normally had its local premiere in Iceland last week. We had some questions for the director
And Breathe Normally by Ísold Uggadóttir, produced by Zik Zak, is a story about two women. Adja is a refugee from Guinea-Bissau who is travelling to Canada but is stopped at the border by an Icelandic woman, Lára. While Lára is a struggling mother herself, a trainee at the airport who is out to prove herself. The film premiered in Iceland last week and we had some questions for the director.
Cineuropa: The film is set in Keflavík, next to the airport, and it feels quite detached from the stories set in Reykjavík and the countryside we’ve seen so much of in recent Icelandic films.
Ísold Uggadóttir: The script made the decision for me. The story had to be set near and in an airport. I’ve grown a bit weary of the romanticism of Icelandic nature– I did a long time ago, actually. I have mixed feelings about it. Some of the images on screen can be sublime, but I can’t force myself in that direction at this moment in time, maybe further down the line. I’m attracted to unconventional beauty. I call the housing estates in Ásbrú my Kieslowski buildings. I like things that look a bit rough and raw and so did the people I worked with.
I also based the hostel where the refugees stay on the actual Fit-hostel where they are housed. Most of the actors in those scenes are former asylum seekers, former refugees or immigrants.
Adja is played by an actress from Guinea-Bissau, Babetida Sadjo. Did that influence her origin in the film?
In the original script I was working with Uganda, based on the Kill the Gays bill that was in the news at the time. Then when I started casting I wasn’t sure I could actually find the right Ugandan actress and I didn’t want to risk getting a non-Ugandan to play the role, in terms of accents and such things. So, we did a bit of research and found out that a woman with this sort of story could be from a number of different countries, including Guinea-Bissau, even if the situation wasn’t as dire as in Uganda. So, Babetida did her homework, which enabled her to do her own research. She provided us with the name of the character and had the chance to develop the character. It gave me more confidence when I could sense that she felt good about the character and was involved in forming her backstory. She studied her homeland a lot and talked to people who had been in a similar situation.
Both of the leading characters are gay but it’s very much under the surface. Was that intentional?
When I started writing I had very specific ideas about how they might connect, I even considered a romance, but then there was just so much else going on with the characters. Lára is struggling with being a mother, being homeless and starting a new job, while Adja is on the run. So even if their sexuality is part of their story, there is hardly room for traditional romance in this kind of situation. Their lives are on hold. How can you plan a romantic date if you don’t know where you’ll be next week? People in this situation can’t apply for work, they aren’t allowed to work, you’re not really allowed to have a real life.
And that’s what I felt when I started thinking about the idea, I was reading a lot about people being stuck, trapped. Not being able to continue onwards, not being able to go back. Just being stuck, with nothing in their lives, no plans, no jobs, no certainty in any way. It was an obvious choice. I was surprised nobody had based a narrative film on this in Iceland, so I figured I would do it.
What does the title refer to?
I was interested in working with the word “breathe” and as I thought about how we use the word, it dawned on me that it is used on airplanes constantly. My film takes place in the vicinity of an airport and features characters affected by airports. During the safety instructions on aeroplanes they tell you to first secure your own mask and then your child’s – and breathe normally. It’s such an ironic thing to ask people to do when everything is going wrong. But we keep insisting on it.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson