One issue links four of the five contenders for the Nordisk Film & TV Prize this year, including “Sisterhood.” Given ease of travel and cost, co-produced series are four times more likely to be crime, thriller or suspense titles than any other genre, according to Ampere Analysis. The challenge then, is to stand out in this highly competitive field.
Nordic Noir achieved that over a decade ago, bringing a chillingly darker edge to comfy European procedurals. Yet almost as soon as it was consecrated, its founding fathers attempted to broaden its reach, adding a marked social edge (Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, creators of Canal Plus-SVT hit “Midnight Sun”); setting it in London with an iconic British actor (Hans Rosenfeldt’s “Marcella,” starring Anna Friel); or opening up to issues such as international terrorism (2018’s “Bullets,” from “The Bridge” producer Peter Nadermann).
In ”Sisterhood,” first fruit of development-distribution alliance between Sky Studios and Iceland’s Sagafilm (“The Minister”), now part owned by Beta Film, lead writer Jóhann Ævar Grímsson (“Stella Blomkvist,” “Thin Ice”) simply stands Nordic Noir on its head.
In the title credit sequence, the camera zooms slowly in to eerie music on a deep, sinister black gully. Part of the remains of a 14 year-old girl, Hannah, are discovered there, 25 years after her disappearance.
Yet that’s about as Noir as “Sisterhood” initially gets. The murderers are near instantly known. They are women, moreover, and ordinary criminals: one a prim and proper curate who teaches teens ethics; another a put-upon chef; a third a nurse and a nervous wreck. Yet their guilt still corrodes, 25 years later. “Sisterhood” drills down on its multiple facets. Above all, it insists on the emotional weight of the past, a sentiment any audience can attest to.
“Sisterhood” stars Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir (“Trapped,” “Sense8”), Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir (“Happily Never After”) and Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir (“Trapped”), a suggestion of the caliber of its acting. NBCUniversal Global Distribution handles international distribution.
In the runup to Göteborg’s TV Drama Vision, where “Sisterhood” competes for the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize for best screenplay, Variety e-chatted with Grímsson, also Sagafilm’s head of development, who teamed with Björg Magnúsdóttir (“The Minister”) as co-writer and Silja Hauksdóttir (“Agnes Joy”), who directed all six episodes.
The series establishes from the near get-go the identity of the murderers and that all three deeply regret their action. It seems no coincidence that two have chosen to serve their community, as a nurse or curate. This may of course be to create personas as distant as possible from the idea of criminals. They have in a sense, however, served their time. That creates an ambivalent sense in the audience who want justice served but are discomforted by the seemingly inevitable exposure of the trio. Could you comment?
This duality of emotional responses is the core intent of the series and the engine that pushes the narrative forward. Our chief aim is absolutely to invite the audience to empathize with these three women. They have a terrible secret to hide, but knowing their secret we hopefully gain a more complex view on their actions and thoughts as the story progresses. Most people have an innate sense of justice but as soon as you add nuance or intimacy with the guilty parties, the idea of justice immediately becomes more complicated. Have they lived good enough lives? Have they repented enough? Do they deserve our sympathy? That is for each individual audience member to assess, but that journey is the crux of the drama.
What writing process did you employ to write “Sisterhood”?
I wrote the first notes for what would eventually become the series at the end of 2014 and then slowly gathered more and more pieces over the ensuing years. It was a very organic process and when I felt that I had a whole and coherent piece on my hands I got Björg Magnúsdóttir to work with me on a detailed treatment where we mainly focussed on research for each character and the story evolved naturally out of that process. As we moved into the script phase there was a strict adherence to exploring the normal and the everyday, and a conscious pushback against “traditional” hyper-dramatic elements or tropes.
The three characters process the discovery of the body in markedly different ways: A determination to remain free; a desire for confession; breakdown. With them there’s a sense that you’re deconstructing various facets of guilt which often work at one and the same time, including a sort to self justification. Could you comment?
Oh, absolutely. Guilt is a fascinating subject, and a key component of the human experience. Through guilt we learn the idea of right and wrong in relation to others and it is a fundamental building block of society and some would argue the root of virtue. There are myriad ways in which guilt is processed but the three main pillars represented in our main protagonists were: projection, diversion and avoidance. But those were simply the fundaments on which more complexities were piled on top of. Life tends to be infinitely more complicated than the boiled down ideas we use to understand it and real people behave sometimes selfishly and altruistically at the same time – hopefully that makes for fascinating drama.
There’s a sense of ordinariness to the characters which plays through to the police work and camera direction, with no stylistic flourishes… Could you comment?
I wanted a realistic, almost mundane portrayal of normalcy and to use that to anchor and juxtapose against the immensity of the main narrative. There are plenty of stories where murders are sensationalized or mined for entertainment. Instead, we wanted to explore a human tragedy and that demands a sense of decorum and respect. This runs through every facet of the characters, the setting and even the police work.
The series is a first fruit of a Sagafilm deal with Sky, commissioned by Viaplay and distributed by NBCUniversal Global Distribution, I believe. Did working with some of the biggest companies in Scandinavia, Europe or the world change in any way how you normally write?
It was a pleasure and a privilege to get such good support, and an honor to be shown such trust. There was no immediate effect on the writing of the series, and instead we had ample space and time to explore the story and felt supported and encouraged all throughout.