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Göteborg: Ísold Uggadóttir Talks Sundance Winner ‘And Breathing Normally’

The director’s first feature segues from Sundance World Cinema Dramatic competition for Göteborg's top local honor, the Dragon Award for best Nordic film

GOTEBORG, Sweden —   After winning the Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic section of the Sundance Festival, Icelandic director Ísold Uggadóttir’s feature debut “And Breathing Normally” will now compete for the Dragon Award for best Nordic film, which carries a cash-prize of SEK 1 million ($125,000), at Sweden’s 41st Göteborg Intl. Film Festival.

Also scripted by Uggadóttir, “And Breathing Normally” was produced by Skúli Fr Malmquist for Iceland’s Zik Zak Filmworks, with Swedish and Belgian co-producers, and is being handled internationally by Germany’s The Match Factory.

Although it wasn’t her first time at Sundance – her 2005 short “Family Reunion” also screened there – Ungadóttir especially enjoyed her more recent trip to the Rockies. “There, surrounded by such immense talent, I dared not even think about awards, but now I and my team couldn’t be more thrilled,” she told Variety.

Starring Kristín Thóra Haraldsdóttir and Babetida Sadjo, the film tells the story of the intimate bond between two women, both trying to get their lives back on track – an Icelandic mother and a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, whose lives briefly intersect in Iceland as the result of unforeseen circumstances.

While attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Uggadóttir got her first taste of editing, which she still describes today as: “one of the most exciting areas of the filmmaking process.” It’s also where she got her first job in cinema, editing for documentary films.

“I find myself drawn to telling stories of women, often minorities or underdogs, and I am particularly interested in fictional narratives imbued with a sense of social-realism – sexuality, trust, addiction, economic collapse,” Uggadóttir said. The rest of the conversation below:

How did you get interested in filmmaking?

I was always interested. As a teenager I would avidly document everything around me, trying to make video art with the family’s Super8 camera. With no editing equipment, I would often play dramatic classical music during recordings to emphasize the emotion I was attempting to create.

When I was 20, there was no film school in Iceland, but an evening course made me absolutely ecstatic about cinema. Soon after, I discovered directors such as Mike Leigh and Todd Solondz, with ”Secrets and Lies” and ”Happiness” becoming early favorites; I also learned about Andrea Arnold, whom I still look to for inspiration.

I left Reykjavik for New York City and began studying Interactive Telecommunications. I opted for a program that allowed me to create digital and visual work. This took me into the editing room. This was where everything came together, this was where stories took their final shape.

And how did you get into the industry?

I eventually found a job editing documentary films – working nights, I spent the days at local bookstores browsing through every filmmaking book I could find. I had an insatiable appetite for everything and anything filmmaking related, and soon knew that I had to make one of my own. This was “Family Reunion,” a short shot in Iceland and New York in 2005, inspired by some of my own life experiences.

The film was selected for the Sundance Film Festival, which was a real turning point. Less than a year later, I was directing my second short, ”Committed,” which won the Icelandic Academy Awards. At last I knew that film directing would become my profession, so I went through the master’s program at the Columbia Film School, before returning to Iceland to begin writing and funding my first feature.

How did “And Breathe Normally” come about?

While developing a story of an Icelandic woman struggling to make ends meet, I became a volunteer at the Icelandic Red Cross, where I met a woman from Uganda who was not only struggling financially, but battling the system to be given asylum on grounds of her sexuality. We became friends, and I was enraged and disturbed at what she told me.

Finally, I wanted to bring together two very different female characters , exploring how they would and could influence the lives of one another, and possibly form an unlikely bond, also shedding light on the dire circumstances of asylum seekers in Iceland. We shot the film on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula in 2016, with an international crew of Icelanders, Swedes, Poles, Belgians and immigrant first-time actors.

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