Katrin Ottarsdóttir: ‘Loneliness gives me strength’

Pioneering filmmaker Katrin Ottarsdóttir tells The Local about Nordic cinema, making the Faroe Islands' first feature film, and why she has no desire to make it in Hollywood.

Katrin Ottarsdóttir: 'Loneliness gives me strength'
File photo: Katrin Ottarsdóttir

Liza Minelli started it all.

“It was Cabaret by Bob Fosse that first got me interested in film,” recalls Katrin Ottarsdóttir.

It was the 1970s and there wasn't a whole lot to do in her town on the Faroe Islands.

“When I was growing up we didn't have TV there, so we went to the movie theatre a lot,” she says. “And Cabaret … it really made an impression on me. The colours, the music, the way it was filmed – it felt so exclusive. Exclusive and explosive.”

At first Katrin Ottarsdottir wanted to be an actress. Instead she became the first Faroese filmmaker – but she brought Minelli's explosiveness with her. And a bit of that dark, Cabaret grunge, too.

Faroese baggage

“I’m not afraid of pathos – of depression, emotion, crying openly,” she says. “Sometimes the Danes struggle with that in my films.”

For though Katrin has lived in Denmark for many years now, she says she will never be Danish.

“I have Faroese baggage,” she laughs. “I have problems connecting with the Danish film industry. But it’s a gift in many ways, being from the Faroe Islands. I will never be Danish, but I speak Danish and I have lived here and I have learned the Danish way of thinking. I have the perspectives both of someone on the inside and the outside.”

And her films aren’t Danish either – although Denmark is where she learned her craft.

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“At the time there wasn’t any higher education in the Faroe Islands, so we all went to university in Denmark. That’s just what you did,” Karin explains. “So I started studying Danish and literature. But university … it was nothing for me.”

And then she discovered the film school.

“When I discovered it I was too young to get in. But it was all I could think about. I attended film science while waiting to get old enough. Every Tuesday I went to the movie theatre and watched movies from 9am until late in the afternoon. And as soon as I turned 20 I applied.”

'I was different'

In retrospect Katrin realizes there were probably good reasons for the age limit, and that she probably should have been even older.

“The whole point is that you’re learning to be an educated film director, to be in charge. And in order to take on that role you need to have some life experience and be able to listen to other people and take care of other people. And I discovered it was hard to be taken seriously at my age.”

She was the first person from the Faroe Islands to study at the National Film School of Denmark. She was young. She was a woman in a society not quite as gender equal as it is today. And at first, things were hard – though she says she wasn’t really aware of it at the time.

“Being that young, and a woman – it was a bad combination,” she chuckles. “When I reflect I realize how much easier it would have been for me back then if I was a man. People found it strange, a young girl from the Faroe Islands asking for money to make movies. It was different. I was different.”

She recalls that once a director of a local bank called around to double-check if he should take this odd young woman seriously.

“But things like that have just made me even more stubborn,” Katrin says.

Indeed, when Katrin didn’t get the money she needed for a film, sometimes she would just start making it anyway.

“When shooting my first film, Atlantic Rhapsody, we didn’t have any money to give the actors,” she recalls. “There were more than 100 of them and not one got a salary. I didn’t either.”

They did it anyway, not for money, but for the chance to be a part of something greater.

“It was the very first Faroese film – it was a once in a lifetime chance. We were about to host the Nordic Film Festival, too, and I wanted to show what we could do and have our own film there. And everyone rallied behind the cause.”

And it's all paid off. Atlantic Rhapsody won first prize at the German film festival Nordische Filmtage in Lübeck. The director and producer now has a dozen films – short, feature, and documentary – under her belt and has received multiple honours and awards for her work.

“It’s an incredible feeling, to receive an award – it helps you realize you did the right thing, holding your course through the storm. For making the film of your vision a reality,” Katrin says.

Clean air, clear skies

These days she rarely goes back to the Faroe Islands. Her mother passed a few years ago and since selling the house, she doesn’t have much reason to visit often.

But her homeland features heavily in her films, and she knows exactly what she’ll do the moment she’s back.

“The best thing I know is to sit on the cliffs down by the sea,” she says. “The nature there is dramatic and speaks to me. In the clean air, looking up at the clear sky, wandering up in the hills… I seek out that loneliness. It’s where I get my inner strength.”

That kind of desire to be alone out in nature is typical for the Nordics. A while Katrin says her films definitely aren’t Danish, she adds there’s no denying that she, and they, are Nordic – whatever that means.

“I think it’s unavoidable,” she says. “Of course, Danish films are Nordic, too. And mine are Nordic in a different way.”

While there definitely is something, some hard-to-define quality that makes a film “Nordic”, it’s not a catch-all. There is massive variety within the Nordics, Katrin says.

“The Icelanders talk more, for example,” she quips. “I think there is a Nordic…tone. But there are many variations of it, and I think it’s visible in my films even if I don’t think about it.”

But what is this Nordic tone which subtly embodies itself in all of Katrin’s work?

“I think being Nordic means to dare to be deep, dark, and heavy,” she muses. “Of course we can be cheerful too…but we dare to be dismal.”

Nordic noir might not be the kind of material that gets you to Hollywood –  but that’s not Katrin’s goal, either.

“Never, never, never,” she laughs. “I’ve never even considered it. Hollywood films are so predictable.”

As far as Katrin’s concerned, she has already been successful.

“Success, for me, is being able to make the movies you want to make. You don’t have to make a lot of them. You just have to make that vision a reality so you don’t go to the grave with your dream unrealized.”

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This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers.


How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic

A front-line Swedish nurse is getting some Covid downtime with a week of private screenings of the Gothenburg film festival, in a former lighthouse off the country's west coast.

How a Swedish film festival is offering a nurse downtime during pandemic
Competition winner Lisa Enroth.

More than 12,000 candidates from 45 countries applied to watch the festival's films in almost near isolation on an island 400 kilometres (250 miles) from Stockholm.

The prize is a week viewing as many of the festival's 70 premieres as they like in a hotel in the former Pater Noster Lighthouse. But they will be in isolation and will have no access to their own computer or laptop.

READ ALSO: Decision on stricter restrictions for foreign travellers to be made quickly

The bright-red lighthouse, built on a tiny island off Sweden's west coast in 1868, is surrounded by a scattering of squat, red buildings originally built to house the lighthouse keeper's family. It can only be reached by boat or helicopter, depending on the weather.

After a series of interviews and tests, festival organisers chose emergency nurse and film buff Lisa Enroth for the prize, in keeping with the 2021 festival's theme, Social Distances.

Before boarding a small speedboat out to the island on the clear, chill winter's morning, Enroth said she had applied not only out of her love for the cinema, but also to seek respite from her hectic work as an emergency nurse during the pandemic.

“It has been hectic, so it's a nice opportunity just to be able to land and to reflect over the year,” she said.

Months working amid Covid crisis

Sweden, which has taken a light-touch approach to the pandemic compared to its neighbours, has been facing a stronger than expected second wave of the virus. So far, more than 11,500 people have died from Covid-19 across the country.

Enroth works in the emergency ward of a hospital in Skovde in central Sweden. Since the start of the pandemic, her hospital's work caring for virus patients on top of their regular workload has been intense.

Lisa Enroth on her way to the remote festival location. Photo: AFP

“We had a lot of Covid cases during this year and every patient that has been admitted to the hospital has been passing through the emergency ward,” she told journalists.

The organisers said they were surprised by the numbers of applicants for the prize but were confident they had chosen the right candidate — not only for her love of cinema.

“She has also dedicated this past year in the frontline against the Covid-19 pandemic,” the festival's creative director Jonas Holmberg said to AFP.

“That's also one of the reasons we chose her”. 

Isolated screenings

Boarding the boat dressed in a thick survival suit, Enroth sped over the calm, icy waters, jumping off in the island's tiny harbour and disappearing into her lodgings.

A screen has been set up in the lantern room at the top of the windswept island's lighthouse, offering a 360-degree view of the sea and coastline around.

Another wide screen has been set up in one of the island's buildings.

Enroth will also have a tablet and headphones if she wants to watch films elsewhere on the island, which measures just 250 metres by 150 metres.

With only one other person staying permanently on the island — a safety precaution — Enroth's only contact with the outside world will be through her video diary about the films she has viewed.

The festival's films will be shown online and two venues in Gothenburg itself will allow screenings for just one person at a time.

Holmberg, the festival's creative director, said he hoped events like these would maintain interest in the industry at a time when many screens are closed because of pandemic restrictions.

“We are longing so much to come back to the cinemas and in the meantime we have to be creative and do the things that we can to create discussion,” he told journalists.