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Iceland’s Runar Rúnarsson Chats About ‘Sparrows’

Ahead of premiering his sophomore outing “Sparrows” at Toronto, then segueing to San Sebastian,  Icelandic helmer Runar Runarsson sat down with Variety in Haugesund to discuss his film’s aspiration, themes and the experience of shooting in Iceland. Set in summertime, “Sparrows” is a coming-of-age tale chronicling the journey of a 16-year-old who has been living in Reykjavik with his mother and is sent back to live with his estranged father in a seen-better-days Icelandic fishing village. Sold by Paris-based Versatile, “Sparrows” is produced by Nimbus Film and Nimbus Iceland. Croatia’s MP Film Productions and Iceland’s Pegasus Pictures co-produce. A young yet critically-acclaimed director, Rúnarsson presented his feature debut “Volcano” at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, segueing to a flurry of international festivals where the film collected 17 awards in all.  One of the helmer’s shorts, “Two Birds,” played Cannes in 2008; another, 2006’s “The Last Farm,” scored an Oscar nomination.

You’ve said before that everything you’ve made stems from first- or second-hand accounts; so what inspired you to tell this coming-of-age story?

The main character is in search of himself, like any child on its way to adulthood. In this sense, he could be me. The loneliness and confusion in the kids is something that every one of us can connect to. The whole spectrum of feelings – pain, anger and love – is felt for the first time. The remote setting of this village, a place that I know very well, magnifies everything. Life has a different pace in these surroundings, and we follow the boy on his path of adaptation. So he not only has to deal with adolescence but also struggles with fitting into an environment that he is not used to anymore.

Besides addressing the transition into adulthood, what are the main themes of your film?

One topic is loss, how people deal with it, and the idea that we can find peace by learning that everything passes. And love, of course: The immense strength that it gives us. The main character has a lot to give, and therefore is challenged to do so. And then the father is also going through a sort of transition. He opens up and tries to become what he is expected to be.

To a larger extent, does the film say something about contemporary Icelandic society?

Yes and no. In many ways, the setting is timeless. The problems and feelings are the same as they have always been, and are being dealt with universally. But there are things that speak of a time that is now, namely the gap that is widening between the city and the rural areas of Iceland. The city is growing and the villages are dying, with all the challenges that accompany that.

How did you cast Atli for main character? 

Always when I work with kids or teens I have long casting sessions that I conduct myself. It was during one of these sessions eight years ago that I discovered Atli and gave him a lead in a short film. I’ve been following him ever since and I think he is a remarkable talent.

How did you research for the screenplay and prepare for the shoot in this remote village?

The place we shot most of the scenes in is a place that I have visited many times over the years. An old friend of mine is from there, and his family has always welcomed me as one of their own. In my opinion, it is one of the most beautiful places in Iceland. I had it in mind during the writing period, and it shaped the general feeling of the script.

How did you interact with the local communities during the shoot?

We were on very good terms with the locals. We cooperated with many different people and everyone was open, supportive and sometimes spontaneous. For example, the scene with the small seal. We had just come across it by accident the day prior to the shooting, in a local maritime museum. I basically wrote the scene the night before. In a way, this is how things often happen here, because people are open-hearted and always ready to help.

Where does the metaphor of sparrows come from?

I like indirect titles for films. It started as a working title at an early stage. Then I was thinking about the fragilty of the main characters being represented by this beautiful bird. The title really grew on me, and I started to research the metaphorical meaning of it. The sparrow is often used in the Bible to represent innocence and transition. I thought that was appropriate for our film.

In terms of visual style and mise-en-scene, who are the filmmakers you look up to?

There is a lot of inspiration out there so I don’t know where to start.

What are you working on next?

That’s unsure at the moment. I have a couple of different projects in development that I haven’t been able to choose between.

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