• Interviews

“The County”: Interview with Director Grímur Hákonarson

With The County, director Grímur Hákonarson delves into an agricultural co-operative in rural Iceland and the mafia-like tactics it uses to keep farmers in their grip. When dairy farmer Inga’s husband has a car accident, she discovers that her husband has worked as an informer for the co-op making sure that they keep the monopoly in the county. This does not sit well with her and she decides to do something about it, challenging the corrupt cartel that keeps her fellow farmers fearful. The director, who made his feature debut Summerland in 2010 and is best known for his film Rams about two estranged brothers in 2015. We spoke to him on the phone from Reykjavik.

Talk about the reality that this film is inspired by – a company called Kaupfélag Skagfirðinga. It is not completely fiction, right?

It is partly based on truth, but it is also partly fictionalized. There is a company here in Iceland, which is the only standing corporation from the old corporative movement. We had this kind of corporate movement in Iceland that started in the 19th century and this is the last entity from this movement, which exists in the northern part of the country and has a tight grip on the society there. So most of the things that happen in the film are things that have happened or are inspired by things that did happen.


Money is tight for Inga (Arndis Egilsdóttir) and Reynir (Hinrik Olafson), who run the farm Dalsmynn before his death – is that the case in general for farmers in Iceland – and where do you see the main problem for this?

Generally farming is a bit difficult in Iceland. The soil is not so good and fruitful. There are many issues among them is that the government is starting to import more and more agricultural products so it is going through a bit of a crisis in general. In this area there is this conflict that the coop is supporting and backing up the farmers when they have problems but then at the same time they get dependent on it and they are not free to have business with other companies and all their business has to go through the coop.

Iceland is a very small country with a population of around 360,000, so when we talk about the farming communities – how large are they?

The area Skagafjördur, where the coop exists is like a prosperous and big farming community. It is one of the biggest in the whole country, but population-wise, maybe about 3 percent of Icelanders live there because most people live in Reykjavik. We shot it in a different area and sized the society down in the film and takes place in a very small village. We made it smaller because we wanted to make it allegorical. When it is smaller, the power of the company is also bigger.

It is a film that is critical of Iceland. Was it hard to get it made?

It was not hard to get it made. We got support from the Icelandic film fund and we did not have any problems with that. There were some people saying that the coop would try to stand in our way, but that did not happen and after the film came out, they never said anything publicly about the film. They ignored the whole thing, which is the tactic they use. They are not so outspoken and they are hiding in the shadows.

And how did the Icelandic audience react to the film?

The film was pretty well received in Iceland and it started some kind of discussion in the area and there were articles on the issue and it did start some discussion, but then it faded out and people started thinking about global warming again. It was a little blast that lasted for a few weeks, but nothing really happened.

Why did you choose the particular location of Búðardalur and Hvammstangi as locations?

The main reason was that it was close to Reykjavik, so it was partly for practical reasons. But as was the case for my film Rams, it is mainly an artistic decision. I found the perfect farm for The County here on the north coast.

Your lead actor is Arndis Egilsdóttir – she is a middle-aged woman who is a pretty cool farmer – delivering a cow and she also turns out to be pretty badass going against the co-op. Why did you pick a feisty, older woman for this role?

It was based on the idea that the couple is at a personal crossroads. Their kids have left the house and they are a bit lonely and they were based on people that I know, whose kids have left the home and they start having new conflicts in their marriage. So that is why I chose that they should be middle-aged.

Do you share Inga’s thirst for justice? Do you mirror yourself in her?

I do actually. I consider myself as an outsider and I am not like a mainstream person. I consider myself a socialist, but I also don’t like when there is too much power in one hand – I like division of power in a democracy and I do prefer smaller companies to bigger companies having all the power and having a monopoly. So I do agree with her fight in this sense. But the corporative idea is something that I agree with ideologically but in practice, it can become too big and powerful and work against the original ideology.

Your films are set in Iceland. What are your goals as a filmmaker – do you want to continue to make films that reflect on Icelandic society or do you aim to work abroad too?

I am trying to expand. My plan is to continue to make Icelandic movies but I would like to make the step to make a film in the US.

I believe you are listed as the upcoming director of the American film The Fence. What is it about?

It is a film about fear and how film can affect people’s behavior and make them act irrationally. It is based on my own experience and something that happened to me, and it is an allegorical world set in an American suburb. It shows what normal people can do when they get scared.