Shades of Grey: A Conversation With Rúnar Rúnarsson

Photo Sophia Olsson © Nimbus Iceland, 2019

Since Rúnar Rúnarsson’s first two features so deftly deployed a poetic-realist style to tell clear-cut stories, it’s a bit of a surprise his third one is both formalistic and plotless. Echo is comprised of (according to the press kit) 56 shots: seemingly unrelated scenes, filmed statically from a tripod. All of them take place in modern-day Iceland during the holiday season. Among very much else, we see mount Esja from the shores of Reykjavik; a fishing boat rocking to the waves of the sea; people in private and in public, conversing, arguing, singing a Christmas carol, playing a board game, exercising, passing time at work; a birth, preparations for a funeral service. The characters range from the young to the old, the superrich to the poor, immigrants to natives. There is also great variation in composition and dynamics: some scenes show straight-forward action, some none at all; several plays with off-screen space and movement, some show nothing that moves.

The film has no score besides one part of Kjartan Sveinsson’s sublime opera Der Klang der Offenbarung des Göttlichen, in the opening and closing scenes. There is no discernible theme or topic that explains all that we see; the viewer is invited to infer back-stories and meaning from the implications of snippets of dialogue and the way the characters look, act and interact with each other. The scenes add up, in a non-schematic way, to a very unassuming portrait of contemporary Icelandic society.

A few days ahead of the film’s world premiere at the Locarno Festival in August, Rúnarsson explains what led him to abandon the style and form of his earlier work and, as he puts it, enter new turf. “I was getting bored with my own writing after Sparrows (2015). So eventually I revisited an old idea to work with ‘fragments of life’ that didn’t necessarily even have a story to them. It was about emotions put in context with other emotions. When I started writing that, I really felt alive as an author.

The new approach is grounded in Runársson’s dissatisfaction with the way cinema is currently treated, from the financing stage to the audience reception. Dwelling on his own experiences, he says: “There is a demand on authors in modern cinema to have one single message. People often ask me in Q&A’s what my message is, like they expect a kind of biblical story. But that’s too simple. I try to work with different layers of emotion and reflection.

What we see as art-house cinema has mostly devolved into ‘straight’ storytelling. The audio-visual narrative is downgraded, the emphasis is on the story. I understand why that’s happened. When you meet a funding committee or producers to discuss a project, this is the language everyone understands. When things become more abstract, there’s a lack of common language to talk about them. As a film commissioner, you’re supposed to write notes justifying your decision to participate in a project or not. You can’t just say you have a good feeling about a project, but that should be enough for authors who have proven themselves.

It’s been this way since I was 16 and shot my first short film. But what I love about cinema is that all art forms come together in it. It’s painting, photography, music, sound installation, literature. Literature isn’t only straight stories. I think the most interesting things in cinema at this moment are happening in the documentary form, not fictional films. There’s more experimentation and the form is more open to developing film language.

Echo (2019)

In this light, it makes sense that the original plan was to shoot a straight-up documentary made up of unrelated scenes. But the project eventually developed into something more fluid: “In the end, it became shades of grey. What are you seeing? Is it a documentary or fiction?” As it turns out, the lines even blurred on the level of the acting. “There are quite a few trained actors in the film, but most of them are not professional actors today. Whenever you hear a name, it’s the actual name of the person in front of the camera. Some of the trained actors actually play themselves. For example, the greenhouse farmer is actually a farmer.

Rúnarsson has used first-time actors in previous films, and describes his philosophy on acting which informed these choices: “I’m a firm believer in that all of us can act or exist in situations. We all have a spectrum of emotions that we can project from. The better an actor you are, the bigger that spectrum is. If you can’t be yourself, then you have tools to portray something that doesn’t come naturally to you. It’s about finding a person’s spectrum and not insisting that they portray something outside of that.

Echo‘s seasonal setting was not part of the original plan, but he found it helped him shape the film. “The Christmastime setting became a sort of amplifier. In the holiday season, lines become sharper; there are more social demands on our behaviour. Whether they like the season or not, people more aware of their surroundings. I stumbled upon this idea and thought it would benefit every scene.

The title refers to what the writer-director wanted to show: “echoes of postmodern society“. But there are ample references to current political, social, and economic issues specific to Iceland. Asked about the degree to which Echo is about his home country, he says: “We’re on the edge of the Western world, and we barely manage to be a part of Western society. There are some nuances that come with giving a film a national identity but it still represents Western society and human emotions. I think most situations in the film could happen in any other Western country. Locating it in Iceland gives it a sense of identity and some flair.” Like his other films, Echo has several scenes that feature churchgoing people and clergy in a respectful way, despite the fact that Iceland and the rest of Scandinavia famously have low religiosity and church attendance. But Rúnarsson stresses the importance of religious beliefs in shaping Western society at large, believing Christian values “are a big part of our daily life, whether we realise it or not“.

There is ample proof in recent world cinema that a formalist strategy for a take on modern can easily lead to partial or complete pretentiousness. The pitfall didn’t worry Rúnarsson. “My main working rule is to always try to be sincere. Maybe it sounds narcissistic, but the people in front of the camera represent me, one way or another. Sometimes what you see is based on my own experiences or those of the people I love. In general, there is more than one angle to a situation. Something beautiful can have sadness to it as well. Often in films, the lines are drawn so sharply. If we try to be truthful to ourselves and the situations we portray, we’re minimising pretentiousness.

As for Kjartan Sveinsson’s music, it turns out the choice for the opera, which exists independently of the film, was borne of both preference and economical consideration. “Sometimes I use his music, often unreleased work, as temp music while he’s working on a new composition. But I never use music unless I know I can use it in the end. This time, it was a perfect fit. And it’s a big score; I could never have afforded to record a full orchestra for a film budgeted at 1 million Euros. There was no reason to replace something that’s perfect.

Echo is currently touring the international festival circuit and will premiere in Iceland on 29 November.

This Interviews article was published in October 2019