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San Sebastian Talent: Scott Graham on ‘Iona,’ Fate, Guilt

The director reflects on the true heart of his second feature, in San Sebastian’s New Directors’ Section, now Goteborg

Iona and son Bull flee from a big city, burn their car on an island, cross by ferry to Iona, the mother’s birthplace, off the Isle of Mull. Scott Graham, the director of “Iona,” says he visited the island as a child. There is still a sense of awe in shots of its building, landscapes, its milky sea. But at its heart, “Iona” is not just slow-boiled genre but a portrait of the fateful dynamics of a close-knit religious community, which Iona’s flight, and now return, lay open, prompting tragedy. Graham talks about the sense of inevitability of events. That sense, however, is created by people. The director reflected with Variety on “Iona,” which toplines Ruth Negga (“Agents of S.H.I.EL.D.”) just before the San Sebastian international premiere of his second feature. It has now hit the festival circuit, screening at Goteborg in early 2016.

The film mixes initial elements of genre with the portrait of a close-knit religious community on Iona. But genre and portrait mingle as nearly all the main characters harbor a deep-sense of guilt. I wonder if you could comment.

I was always more interested in the portrait, the characters shared history, the guilt you speak of but which they do not. I dipped into the thriller genre to give some momentum to their journey and to the end sequence that leads to that final shot of them in the sea.

You’ve said that “Iona” turns in part about how violence towards women can have consequences can affect more than just the immediate victim.

Yes, I’m interested in how one person’s trauma reaches another and not just a loved one but anyone, a stranger on a train or in a supermarket. We are the sum of our experiences good and bad and we wear and inflict those experiences on everyone we meet. Bull is both sensitive and uncommunicative so what’s happened to his mother is not something he can outrun. It’s the reason he thinks what happens with Sarah in the barn is something to be ashamed of.

There are things which you ask the audience to decide by themselves, such as to what extent, if any, Iona was really responsible for her affair with Daniel as a teen (though the community and Iona herself certainly seems to think so).

It wasn’t something I felt I needed to assign responsibility to one way or another. The fact of her being a young teenager removes most if not all of the responsibility especially if you examine the history and consider how she came to be living there. At the same time, I needed the relationship to have been loving and of mutual consent, something wrong for her but something she felt she needed to return to. I needed it not to have been abusive as far as she was concerned, just a relationship that ended the way her relationship with her faith ended, with her feeling unloved.

There’s a sense of brooding tragedy in “Iona,” the accident to Sarah, Bull’s actions, the confluence of events that pump up his sense of guilt. Again, I wonder if you could comment.

Yes, and it’s okay if people feel the inevitability of the tragedy. In fact that is the point. Iona resists the Psalm reading about pre-destiny because she feels and has always felt the weight of everything that has happened to her and will happen to her in a way the others do not.

When thinking through how you wanted to direct ”Iona,” what were your key decisions.     

To trust the actors, the script, the sense of place and what that was providing for us. This is a film about a conflict with spirituality and you can feel that spirituality on the island. I hoped that would transcend across the film and I tried not to be afraid of it.

Your cinematography is striking. It’s as if you wanted a naturalist palette which yet brought out the striking colors, the near surreal landscapes of “Iona”….

Yes, that is what the island looks like in late summer when we were there. The color. The quality of light. We didn’t embellish. We couldn’t as we shot all of the exteriors without lights, as small mobile crew.

In his first year as director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, Mark Adams chose “Iona” to close the 2015 edition. What is the significance of the international premiere – I believe – at San Sebastian?

I showed “Shell” here and returning with “Iona” was important for me. Many of the people in today’s screening were there to see “Shell” three years ago and it meant I could talk and listen to them talk about the evolution of my work. They’re an intelligent passionate audience and I will leave here knowing my film better than I did when I arrived. I’m grateful to Jose [Luis Rebordinos] and everyone on the festival team for inviting me back.

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