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“Love is the queen of emotions”: Ása Hjörleifsdóttir

“I have a geographically scattered background,” replies Ása Hjörleifsdóttir to the question of how she got into writing and directing.

The native of Iceland spent years of her childhood in the USA, UK and Canada and had originally aspired to become an actress. Writing was something she did for herself and without letting anyone know. It was only during her one year of studies at the University of Winnipeg, at the age of 19, that she discovered the works of David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky for herself: “Their films were emotional sculptures, and to me, film is such an amazing medium for that.”

During a summer job at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, where she was employed to drive filmmakers around, she made the decision to study writing and directing at Columbia University, N.Y. In 2017, Hjörleifsdóttir debuted as screenwriter and director with her adaption of The Swan.

With her second feature film, A Letter from Helga, the filmmaker explores a genre that has somewhat fallen out of fashion. As the writer and director explains in a one-on-one conversation at the Tromsø Film Festival, she wanted to explore love in the next stage of its existence as opposed to finding love in its first flush. “When you’ve already found ‘the one’ and you are stuck with that person and it’s really not what you thought it would be!” Ása says, smiling. A Letter from Helga opened the Films from the North section at the Tromsø Film Festival. The Tromsø Film Festival is a small but world-class film festival in a unique place.

A Letter from Helga premiered at Tallin Black Nights Film Festival 2022 and will be shown at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in February. Lead actor Thorvaldur Davíd Kristjansson has been selected for the EFP’s Shooting Stars program at the upcoming Berlinale Film Festival.


You adapted A Letter From Helga from the novel by Bergsveinn Birgisson. What sparked your interest in the story?

The novel was written in 2010, and is all one letter from an old man who was born in 1915 to his past lover. We don’t know if this lover is dead or alive or what’s going to happen, but it’s basically an old man that’s going through his life and his life choices. As the story in the book is told from his perspective, we get a sense of the two women, Helga (played by Hera Hilmar) and Unnur (Anita Briem).

I was curious about the women, wanted to pull them into daylight and make them the characters in themselves. I also found myself feeling connected to Bjarni (Thorvaldur David Kristjansson) and was curious why I would feel connected to a man so far away from me in time and perspective. I somehow felt and understood all three of these people.

How could I tell this kind of triangular story where the truth is somewhere between all the characters and does not lie with just one person? There was also something very contemporary yet classical about this love story, which has been wildly popular in Iceland.

Do you remember the last time you wrote a letter?

My husband and I wrote each other letters after we first met and still do when we are geographically apart. Not on paper, but we write word documents that we attach to emails. But the last time I wrote on actual paper was in 2003, I was writing from Canada to one of my best friends, who was living in Denmark.

Where did you find the connections between the 1940s and the contemporary story?

When I started to pitch the project, I noticed that most people have this “What if…” moment in their life. You are stuck with these thoughts and feelings, these fantasies of different versions of your life, and you either come to peace with them or not. And the frustration – you’ve been married for a long time and you find frustrations, or you find happiness again in the marriage. All these things are so modern and completely timeless.

Helga’s husband Hallgrímur (Björn Thors), for example, is the kind of guy who never wants the party to end. This character existed back in the 40s as much as today. The story also made me think of my own great-grandmother ,who became a widow at the age of 36 with six children. And her struggle. I felt with all of them like I had been them in some way. My goal was to create this emotionally contemporary period film where we are feeling the pain and happiness of our own lives through these three love-sick people.

You shot in an Icelandic village where only 43 residents live permanently. In which way did the location contribute to the story?

The farm scenes and the two main houses of Helga and Bjarni were shot in Strandir which is the name of the whole slice of land where indeed only 43 people have permanent residence. The village scenes were shot in Djúpavík. The book was written with these two exact farms in mind, Litla-Ávík and Stóra-Ávík they are called.

We did location scout other places, but Strandir was the winner because there were all these cinematic angles that connected to the story itself. Going back to emotionally sculpting, I felt the landscape was tied hand in hand to the emotions of the characters and the story.

In the village, social structure, establishment and tradition have been in place for ages and everyone has his or her place in the community. How did you approach that aspect whilst not having it get in the way of the love story?

My approach was to make it a part of their love story, affecting their personalities. While Helga is a modern woman, Bjarni is stuck in the past. Helga and Bjarni love each other, but there’s something fundamentally different about how they see the world.

In terms of the story and this community, it is small, isolated, a place of which Helga says things like: “I’m suffocating here. It’s like the walls have ears,” and “I can’t be here in a situation with you, it’s too small.” But then what I found fascinating and unusual in a period story was that the community is actually not the threat at all. Any threat to their relationship comes from within them. It’s their soul and minds that are in the way.

Or it’s the fact that they’re spiritually from different eras. Helga is free in her mind and soul and is able to jump on the train to the future, her own future as well as modernity somehow. Bjarni is rooted in the village where his family has lived for generations. He is part of its tradition and heritage, and he feels that it would be impossible for him to give up everything they built.

I visualized that by using almost perfect golden shots of him illuminated by the mountain backdrop. Bjarni’s wife Unnur is also part of that world. She wants this kind of ground to stand on and takes pride in it. It is sad that they didn’t have the kids that they wanted. Unnur could not get over the trauma, and the couple is unable to talk about it. In the novel, it’s more about the country, the establishment, and the loyalty you have to your place in time than it is about Unnur.

But in my adaptation, I wanted to make Unnur a part of all of this and an emotional anchor to the place. I was interested in this human thing where you may have a strong overpowering desire to change but somehow you can’t do it. Sometimes what you think is your dream life is staring you in the face but you don’t run towards it. Perhaps you have good reasons to not because deep down you know it’s not going to be sustainable.

The older you get, and when family comes into play, the more you think about self-preservation, sustainability, or balance. Love stories often are about the moment when people find each other and then it’s like: “Ta da!” They found each other – great! But what happens 10 years later? What if it’s not what you thought? What if somebody else comes along? What if you realize you can’t grow together? What if you have a trauma as a couple and can’t get over it?

These were the questions I was interested in and making a love story for the next chapter in life. A story about this psychological existential aspect of when do you jump for something new and when do you not and why.

Which love stories did you watch and/or read in preparation for your film?

When I was preparing this film, I watched and read a lot of love stories because I thought there was something about saying, “Epic love story.” My favorite love stories on screen are The Cranes Are Flying, Gegen die Wand, Brokeback Mountain, Out of Africa, The Bridges Of Madison County, Brief Encounter and Days of Heaven – the latter has had a huge influence on me in general as a filmmaker.

Also, I love the novel “The End of The Affair,” by Graham Greene. Interestingly, when I started developing the film, I got the impression people are not interested in making that kind of classical love story anymore.

Do you think the pandemic has now given the classical love stories a chance?

Actually, I do. When I started developing the project, the genre seemed outdated and me and my team we were wondering if we might be a dinosaur doing this kind of classical love story. Because many of the contemporary love stories have broken characters that find each other. They deal with overcoming pain and trauma that pulls them together, like for example in Rust and Bones.

Love is this light that comes out of the darkness and helps them, which is also beautiful. Making a classical love story, where the love itself is the main focus driving the story, has fallen out of fashion, but maybe love has been given a second chance after the pandemic. Actually, my husband and I decided to get married in the middle of the Covid pandemic, maybe that says something.

Why do you think love stories have fallen out of fashion?

Maybe because they have become this cliché of a film that has to have a happy ending, or at least an easy answer. Many romantic comedies and love stories are the product of this kind of formula. And I think that people’s expectation of real-life love is affected by these movies – they are setting people up for disappointment. There is no easy answer in love, but that is also the beauty of it.

What is love for you?

Love is the queen of emotions. A spiritual higher power, that is much bigger than you. And if you get a chance to be in it for a while, you’re lucky and it’s wonderful. Not everybody has that in life. Which is also why it’s amazing when you actually meet someone that you love and that loves you back. Because it’s rare and it should not be taken lightly. I think of love as pretty much like the ocean. I used to be scared of the ocean and of swimming in the ocean in Iceland because it’s very cold. But I’m no longer scared of it.