In Focus: 2021 Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize Nominee, Iceland

I wanted to see if there was room for a mystery that wasn’t a mystery. Not a whodunnit but a whydunnit.

JÓHANN ÆVAR GRÍMSSON
Sisterhood, Systrabönd, Jóhann Ævar Grímsson / PHOTO: Sagafilm
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In Focus: 2021 Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize Nominee, Iceland

Sisterhood, Systrabönd, Jóhann Ævar Grímsson / PHOTO: Sagafilm

Creator and head-writer Jóhann Ævar Grímsson is nominated for the series Sisterhood produced by Sagafilm for Síminn and Viaplay.

First nominated in 2018 for the neo-noir series Stella Blómkvist, Jóhann Ævar Grímsson is competing again for Best Nordic Screenplay at the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize to be handed out on February 3rd during Göteborg’s TV Drama Vision online awards ceremony.

Grímsson is one of the most established and prolific screenwriters in Iceland today. Besides Stella Blómkvist, other screenplays on his credit include Thin Ice, The Night Shift, Cover Story, World’s End and Trapped. He is Head of Development at Sagafilm, one of Iceland’s leading production houses.

Set in a small fjord town in Iceland, Sisterhood takes off with the discovery of the skeletal remains of a young girl, Hanna, who disappeared 20 years ago. When the priest Elisabet (Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir), the chef Anna Sigga (Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir), and the practical nurse Karlotta (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) hear the news of the remains being found, it shatters their quiet life. The three women who used to be best friends as teenagers, have gone through their lives carrying the heavy burden of guilt over a horrible secret they share and now have to face.

Meanwhile seasoned police officer Vera (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) and her colleague Einar (Jónmundur Grétarsson) take charge of the investigation.

The 6-part series is written by Grímsson with Björg Magnúsdóttir (The Minister), Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir (Agnes Joy) and Silja Hauksdóttir (Agnes Joy) who also serves as director.

The series is produced by Sagafilm’s Tinna Proppé, Hilmar Sigurðsson and Kjartan Thor Thordarson for Iceland’s SVOD service Síminn and NENT Group’s Nordic streamer Viaplay, in association with Sky Studios. NBC Universal Global Distribution handles world distribution, outside Benelux, which it is handled by Lumiere Group. The premiere is set for the second quarter 2021.

What was the starting point for the series?
Jóhann Ævar Grímsson: Around the fall of 2014 I wrote the first notes for what would eventually blossom into Sisterhood. I felt like it was a special story, using the elements of a crime story, not driven by the traditional elements of suspense, but instead construct a slow and contemplative examination of guilt and consequence. I didn’t want to rush it, so I allowed myself ample time to collect small parts of the whole narrative over the ensuing years.

What is the premise for the show and in what way does it innovate within the Nordic noir?
JÆG: The core premise is a story about three women who live their normal lives, but when the bones of a young girl who disappeared 20 years ago are discovered, they have to finally face up to the truth of what they did. A murder they got away with. 

At the outset I was curious about exploring crimes committed by women, but through the years the project evolved into this meditation of guilt and whether it was possible to ever escape it.

Nordic Noir keeps innovating, but I wanted to see if there was room for a mystery that wasn’t a mystery. Not a whodunnit but a whydunnit. We are not trying to figure out who the killer is but instead spending time with the guilty parties, and as the story unfolds journey with them as they grapple with feelings of shame and guilt but not being allowed penance without sacrificing the lives they’ve built.

What were your inspirations?
JÆG: My inspirations were partly the antithesis of what the series evolved into. Without pointing fingers, I felt that there were too many TV shows and movies about some extraordinary serial killing supervillains murdering innocent young women and I just had had enough of that trope!

Real murders are messy and disorganised and more often than not have complicated motives and actors on both sides. Crime and punishment are not some easy to digest filler for penny dreadfuls. There are consequences that echo through people’s lives, which is something that I wanted to understand. What happens next?

It is in a weird sense a sister series to Stella Blómkvist, which was designed to exaggerate every trope within the Nordic noir tradition to its logical conclusion. Sisterhood on the other hand is the complete opposite. It embraces the ideas inherent to the Nordic Noir tradition but with an emphasis on exploring what happens between the lines.

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In Focus: 2021 Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize Nominee, Iceland

Sisterhood, Systrabönd, Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir / PHOTO: Lilja Jónsdóttir

Could you breakdown your writing process - how you set up your writers' room and split the writing duties with Björg Magnúsdóttir, Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir and Silja Hauksdóttir?
JÆG:The main structuring of the story happened before the room was established. I broke down the story, created the characters and mapped out the journey from start to finish. Then I enlisted Björg Magnúsdóttir to join me and we spent about a year writing out the treatments under my guidance before going to script stage. Scripts for all the episodes were then written out by Björg and I. When the director came on board, I took a step back and the final drafts of the script were written by Björg, Silja and Jóhanna.

At what stage did Síminn, Viaplay, Sky Studios, NBC Universal board the project and how was your collaboration
JÆG: Síminn was first on board and then the project got extraordinary good support from Sky, and most of the deals fell in place consequently. The collaboration was incredibly supportive and we were given space and time to explore the story.

How would you describe the three main female characters? Would you say that Elísabet, the priest is seemingly the strongest, the one who tries to keep the sisterhood together, but also the most complex of the three?
JÆG: All three characters have their own complexities and they are all in their own ways broken by their guilt. Their whole lives are veneers and underneath a house of cards that they try to hold together. They don’t have a choice in the matter, as their whole lives are marked by their past actions. Elísabet feels like she has the most to lose, and is willing to go the farthest. Additionally, they all have different ideas about what happened and why, and that informs their every move.

What is unique about the crime-solving duo Vera and Einar?
JÆG: There is nothing inherently special about them, and if anything, that is what is unique. They aren’t suicidally alcoholic or traumatised or running away from some ghosts of the past. They’re fairly competent, everyday detectives and doing their job properly and competently. Something that weirdly feels fresh and interesting to me.

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In Focus: 2021 Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize Nominee, Iceland

Sisterhood, Systrabönd, Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir / PHOTO: Lilja Jónsdóttir

What’s next for you?
JÆG: A new season of Stella Blómkvist is shooting as we speak, and there is a great line-up of projects by other writers I’m developing as Head of Development at Sagafilm. Personally, I’m just taking notes for a few projects of my own on the side and waiting for the right one to blossom.

In what way has Covid-19 impacted your life and your work?
JÆG: Being a writer it has, for the most part, been pretty much the same, apart from the crippling Apocalypse Anxiety of course.

Can you cite the top three TV shows (Nordic or non-Nordic) that you’ve watched recently?
JÆG: My top TV shows of 2020 were The Queen’s Gambit, a sumptuous, elegant and deftly executed series with depth and purpose without resorting to cheap thrills. Then Ted Lasso, a heart-warming ode to decency. Finally Avenue 5, the extraordinary sci fi series from Armando Iannucci which explores hubris, delusion, incompetence and the lemming-like quality of human nature.

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