Trapped: Sigurjón Kjartansson Interviewed

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Trapped’s head writer discusses the breakout hit

Making history as the first Icelandic crime series to air in the UK, Trapped‘s complex web of murder, corruption, and intensely claustrophobic atmosphere instantly captivated Nordic Noir fans.

Head writer Sigurjón Kjartansson kindly agreed to meet in a Reykjavik coffee shop and discuss the series, his career to date, and future plans.

Before embarking on successful writing career Sigurjón was a member of influential hard rock band HAM. Away from music, a comedy partnership with future Mayor of Reykjavik Jon Gnarr kick started a career in television. Sigurjón has created and co-created some of the most successful TV series in Icelandic history: The Press (Pressa), The Court (Réttur). An adaptation of Aevar Orn Josepsson’s noir novels was a ratings smash.

Since 2012 Sigurjón has been Head of Development at RVK Studios. Together with Baltasar Kormákur (Jar City, Everest) and Magnús V. Sigurdsson, Sigurjón shepherded the series that would be a success in Iceland, France, Germany, Norway, and the UK.

Trapped is the first Icelandic drama series to air in the UK. It’s arrived at a time when the Icelandic film and TV industry is flourishing. Some really great stuff is on the way. Case is coming soon from Sagafilm also from your production company The Oath will be released later n the year. Do you feel more confident about the future prospects internationally for Icelandic film and TV?

Definitely. Definitely. Film was actually of ahead of TV there. There have been successes like ten years ago with Jar City in the UK and Europe and other movies. Some of them by Baltasar and others like Of Horses and Men, etc. We kind of when we started Trapped like four years ago. More than four years ago. Then it was like me and Baltasar we were talking about doing television on the same model as he had succeeded in films. We started developing and going round Europe to raise funding for this.

I noticed on the end credits that their are multiple partners. The funding isn’t just from Icelandic Film Fund.

No, no. That was earlier. The Press and The Court series they were mostly just funded locally. It was the TV station and the film and TV fund and also sometimes we got something from the Nordic fund. That was it. That’s how we did the series. It was very cheap. That’s how we did it. OK we could do like six times 45 minutes, shoot for 35 days and just get on with it. But that’s just… You don’t get any further than that, I mean this is just there. With ready made material you don’t get the pressure of selling it abroad . It’s not that impressive, you know. And we kind of knew that of course making Trapped would be much more expensive mostly because we had to shoot it out of town and it was a longer series. It was ten times 50 minutes and that meant we had to have partners in Germany, at least, and preferably France which we did. France television said yes from the board. And then finally when ZDF said yes we knew that we were finally going into production.

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Do you think this is a new form of production that may become commonplace in Icelandic TV? Securing funding from international partners.

I think this is key. We want to make TV comparable to foreign TV. We need to. Icelandic audiences are used to quality television from all over the world. When they see Icelandic television it has to be comparable. And we are competing with with that. So when it’s successful the whole nation is watching and then its very successful. Other than that it also ensures if you just look at from the local point of view it also secures the local station. They know that they would never be able to finance the whole thing altogether but maybe ten percent and maybe they can come up with development fee. That is very good for us. We gain from that. So we can start writing and pitching for the rest of the funding. We kind of quickly realized if it’s not flying, I’m not saying we have never been there, but it’s like we should kind of quickly realise that if it’s not flying abroad it’s not flying., it’s  probably not a good series because… We have, I mean number one as in Trapped, tried to be as local as possible. We never thought OK we are making an international series. It was just.. We just went with it. This is drama. This is a small town. It’s accidentally in Iceland. It could happen everywhere. We’re just making good drama and that travels.

I think you are right in the sense that it could happen anywhere. The isolated village as a concept there are other examples in film and literature. For instance, John Wyndham The Midwych Cuckoos which was filmed as Village of Damned.

That could have happened in Iceland. (laughs)

It’s not a crime story but it’s an example of the isolated community facing external and internal threats. You’ve added Icelandic elements to it. The weather is a character in any Icelandic drama. Having just driven down from from the north I know…

Did you go to Siglufjörður? The place where we shot.

I’m going there in November. I think it’s best to experience it when the weather is at its most extreme.

Of course but actually the most extreme weather scenes we shot they were actually shot in April 2015. It was like crazy. We had this weekend coming. We were editing All the principal photography was finished. We were kind of we need more weather, OK maybe we’ll do it in the fall. In the end this weather forecast came that it would be like crazy this weekend of like the thirteenth of April or something. So I went with a crew there to shoot those crazy scenes.

Fortitude filmed in Iceland. They were unlucky. They had no snow and had to import fake snow.

That’s why we decided not to shoot it in the east. Because Fortitude had such a bad experience there. So we moved the scenario up north to Siglufjörður where we were kind of secure. Snow during the winter. We were very lucky. It was the best weather we could have. It was always changing but kind of always in the right moments in the scripts. It was kind of as if the weather gods had read the script.

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I’ve worked on film sets before and the weather can be a logistical nightmare, Suddenly you’ve got to hire equipment for a couple of extra days due to snow, wind, or rain. How fluid did you have to be when filming in Siglufjörður?

We had some weather covers. All the scenes in Henrika’s apartment are shot north. Most of the interiors we shot here in Reykjavik. So that was our main weather cover. We knew that if it is too good weather or something then we are going to shoot there. There was never a day  We never had a day when we could shoot. We were very lucky there.

In the UK you are primarily known for Trapped. Your CV is more diverse. You’re an actor. I recently saw you in Virgin Mountain. I’ve also seen you in The Night Shift. You’ve had a career in comedy. As a musician you’ve been a member of an influential band. Your scriptwriting CV is quite diverse. You’re not just a crime writer. You work in a number of genres. One thing I’ve noticed in your work is a very strong sense of timing. You know how to pace a scene, how to pace tension. Initially I was thinking this was because of your work in comedy. Successful comedy is all about timing. Also as a musician…

Yeah, music is all about timing. It’s all about musicality. To be musical, to have a musical talent is the ground of so many other things. I think you can’t really be a good writer unless you have some music in you. I’m flattered to hear that you sense timing.

Did you have any formal training in scriptwriting?

No not really. I didn’t have any formal training in scriptwriting. All I learned was from comedy. We started me and Jón Gnarr, the guy who later became Mayor of Reykjavik, it was like us two… When I was kind of getting frustrated with music. It was not going very well. We were old friends and everything we did was kind of funny accidentally. We had this comedic thing between us One thing led to another and we got a shot at RUV, the state TV, and they offered us a slot in a weekly news programme for a comedy slot. It was kind of how to behave. It was not conventional sketches. It was more like some propaganda videos or something. We started writing that on a typewriter. It is in 1995. It got very successful and that winter we became comedians all of a sudden before we planned it. It was funny stuff and then we started on radio. Then we kind of figured out that this could be our bread and butter. And then we we started on Channel Two with with a comedy show called Blood Brothers or whatever you want to call it in English. That was a more conventional sketch show in the vein of Big Train or The Fast Show. Then I really figured out what I like best about doing this kind of work was writing and editing it. And then everything in between was kind of, you know, something that had to be done but it was nuanced for me. I didn’t like being in front of the camera. I didn’t like being on set, it was waiting and stuff like that. But that was something that off course I knew was necessary but I really liked the writing part and also being in the editing room and seeing the final touches. After that show ended, like after five series, then we made another and then I head wrote with other people another sketch show and then another sketch show. In the end it was in like 2005 I had written something around 1000 sketches that were produced on television. I was like the sketch master. I realised if I don’t write another sketch in my life I will be quite happy. It’s fine. I know how to do it. It has to be a beginning, middle and an end and a funny in the beginning and a surprise and everything. So I started with Óskar Jónasson who is the co-creator of Pressa . Channel 2 had requested, “we need crime, we need a crime show.” Me and Óskar we came up with this idea. and I just went with it I just dived into it… Oh writing drama, no problem because it’s mostly scene after scene after scene. Like sketches it’s scenes with a beginning, middle, and an end but they don’t have to be funny so I’m not burdened with that thing. It’s much easier actually. Of course I read some books about how to do it and things like that. I like that. In the first season of Pressa I mastered this.

Your previous series The Press, The Court, Ástríður were written for a domestic audience. With Trapped were you aware from the start that it was going to be international?

Yeah I was aware of it but still I was writing for a domestic audience. It was main thing that it should all be believable and stuff like that. I was in a new territory. I felt like that very early because working with Baltasar was like a step up for me. This was a guy who really knows what he’s doing and I learned a lot from him. This four years of making Trapped is like a university. I feel like I’m graduating now and we have kind of joked about it. So that he is my mentor. He has such a strong vision. We share that vision and it’s very refreshing to really work with someone who really shares your vision and knows so well how to make it happen.

One of Baltasar’s skills is his ability to pitch projects at the right level. He can shoot in a way that’s appealing to international audiences but at the same time he can also be more specific for an Icelandic context. That’s a very rare skill to be able to work simultaneously for two audiences.

Of course he’s like every artist torn between being really himself and being the Hollywood guy who brings in the goods for the studio. And he has done it. I would say Contraband and 2 Guns are like studio films that he made and they did they had to do. The Deep was very much him. His very ice cold realism. I think he brought it into Everest as well. I saw Baltasar’s persona in that film and in Trapped.

I noticed in your writing themes that have appeared in some of your earlier work. The human trafficking and real estate scams were in The Court and you’ve revisited the themes in Trapped.

Terrible to have such a guy who has seen it all. (laughs) So you can read me like an open book.

An English writer Alan Bennett said something to the effect that writers only have a few beans in their tin to rattle. It’s true that themes or passions recur in most writers work.

Human trafficking is my passion. I have to say I really recognise what you are saying.

Until I’d seen your work I wasn’t even aware that human trafficking was even an issue in Iceland.

It’s all over. It’s everywhere. It’s also in Iceland. Maybe that’s the fascinating part in it because we live in this small, peaceful island and all the evils of the world are coming home.

Until the crash people living in the UK may have thought of Iceland as a utopia. After the meltdown cracks started to appear. Your work shows some of those cracks. Season one of The Court takes place a few months after the crash. We see the casualties, corrupt forms of capitalism and this law firm is effectively the white knight stepping in to right this injustices.

Yeah, yeah. This is all there. I remember when we were plotting the third season of The Press we were kind OK where do we go from here? We started to map out all the evils in the world. It was like what is the ultimate evil? What is the high concept evil? Racism, human trafficking, stuff like that. We issued that there and of course drugs and young people disappearing which happens all the time here in Iceland. Young girls who are wanted and of course they come home after two weeks but in the end they have been kind of captured in some party in some suburb.

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You are not strictly a crime writer. You have more strings to your bow. It’s very easy for writers to get typecast whereas you are just a writer full stop. You write comedy and and drama. I’ve noticed a social conscience in your work. Do you recognise that or do just you see yourself as a dramatist first and foremost.

Maybe I’m a kind of old style crime writer in that sense. My favourite crime writer is Henning Mankell for instance. I really like that old school Swedish school that murder and crime is something that is just on the tip of a bigger iceberg. There is a social commentary there. Trapped is all about that. We are very synchronised in that opinion. We were trying to tell a story where greed and short-sightedness is the main evil. That’s the main thing and I think all stories should have a deeper meaning. In that sense you are right. I follow politics. I can be very opinionated when I have had three whiskeys with my friends. (laughs)

Is it opinion or is it passion? There is passion in your work. There is an ideological commitment. One of my favourite pieces of your writing is the fifth episode of The Court’s second season. In many respects it’s unique in so called Nordic Noir. The main plotline has Logi trying to ascertain if he has been framed. Then you have this delightful storyline about an adult with learning disabilities fighting for the right to give birth to a child. Socially committed storyline that because of the way it ended I felt it may have advanced the rights of the learning disability community.

Maybe in some way. This is a story that I mapped out with Margrét Örnólfsdóttir who is a very good writing partner of mine. That was something that came up in the writers room. Yeah I have opinions about those things. Right now I’m not connecting that passionately about it now because I’ve been over it. It’s like six years since we made it. I have passion for lots of things. I try to to to put it in the shows I;’m writing. Still it’s not like I’m going to make a statement here. It’s more like subconscious things.

The American remake of Trapped is happening.

So I hear. There are some negotiations. I’m not sure about how much I will be involved in that.

What are you working on at the moment?

It’s OK to say that we are thinking about series two. That’s safe to say that now. We are in some process there and we hope to be able to bring Trapped back in like two years or so. Of course this all takes time. There’s no way we are going to be ready with a new series in year. Still of course we see how the pacing is in Europe in general. The Bridge II didn’t come until two years later. Two years after that they had The Bridge III. The French series The Returned and even Happy Valley didn’t come back until two years later. I think it’s OK. It’s a lot of work all the time but now we are kind of we kind of in the we are finished but let’s start to think. We are there now. There is also another series I am excited about. I have been developing on the side while I’ve been writing Trapped and stuff like that. It’s called Katla. It’s a whole other thing. It’s not crime. It happens during an eruption in Iceland. A long eruption that has been going on for years. I’m not going to tell too much but we are now in the process of developing that and trying to get in production next year.

Perhaps you can’t answer this but do you see your career from now on balancing shows that have an international flavour with those that are more domestic?

Of course we are doing it at the RVK Studios where I joined. Well we formed it together. Me and Baltasar and Magnus Vidar Sigurdsson. It has been on four years now. Comedy is something we look at as domestic. We have produced a very funny comedy show by Hugleikur Dagsson called Hulli. It’s animation. You could say it’s in the vein of South Park or something. Now we are producing a series with Jon Gnarr. It’s called The Mayor where he plays the Mayor of Reykjavik but it’s a totally different version of the mayor he was. We are going into production this spring with that and I am producing it. We don’t look at that as a big export but still it’s good quality work. We think in terms of exports as well because it serves both purposes. That’s where we are now.

Nobody like ten years ago have thought that BBC would be airing subtitled material on a Saturday night and getting over a million viewers. This is just a cultural development. I ask myself why shouldn’t this happen in America? Of course we have success selling our show to The Weinstein Company but I don’t know what they are going to do. It’s exciting times because if British audiences and Australian audiences are buying and watching our material why shouldn’t American audiences? If you just watch the American box office for the last twenty years there were two movies that were huge. The first was The Passion of the Christ. All subtitled. The second was Inglorious Basterds. At least 40 percent of that film is subtitled. I rest my case.  

Thanks to Sigurjón Kjartansson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Trapped is available to order from Amazon

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Pressa (The Press) – Season 3

Having delivered solid ratings over two seasons it was inevitable that Icelandic broadcaster Stöð 2 would commission production company Sagafilm to make a third, and possibly final, season of Pressa. In a broadcast landscape dominated by imported programming, and reality TV, Pressa has demonstrated that Icelandic audiences will respond favourably to original home produced dramatic content. That this show is relatively unknown outside of Iceland is something which may be rectified over the coming months as Nordic Noir aficionados become acquainted with Sagafilm’s output following the screening of the American remake of Réttur (a series which I will review at a later date).

Airing in the autumn of 2012 Pressa III is a six part series set amongst the intense world of a tabloid newspaper. As with the previous two installments in this franchise, the primary character in terms of view identification and propelling the narrative’s investigative strand is single mother Lara ( Sara Dögg Ásgeirsdóttir). Whilst ostensibly fusing the crime genre with that of the newsroom subgenre this is essentially a series that explores issues related to femininity, as a sociological construct, within a society that is struggling to define itself in the wake of the existential turmoil it endured following the 2008 financial crises. A secondary subtext woven into the narrative’s fabric is an exploration of how emerging trends in information technology are transforming society; in terms of news gathering practices and within the domestic sphere, specifically with regards to how the parent/child relationship may be redefined due to either party concealing information from the other whilst simultaneously using unrestricted social media to share this content.

From a tentative first season Pressa has developed into a show that deserves to placed amongst the other big hitters within the televisual Nordic Noir movement. If the, admittedly very strong, second season, saw the show find its feet it is with the third that it takes full flight thanks to some incredibly brave choices by the screenwriters ( Óskar Jónasson, Sigurjón Kjartansson, Margréti Örnólfsdóttur, and Jóhann Ævar Grímsson). Throughout all six episodes the writers play a game with the audience that involves drip feeding of information, subverting expectations, and reversal of plot points. The viewer soon becomes accustomed to a mode of spectatorship that requires the momentary suspension of any sense of discontinuity as all relevant information pertaining to this series’ narrative and the backstory of what has happened to the protagonist since the closing frames of the second season are slowly revealed over the course of the series rather than opening with an expository laden first episode.

The second season closed with a deeply chilling cliffhanger and it would have been an appropriately bleak moment to bid farewell to Lara, her family, and colleagues. Resolving such a tense moment without undermining its impact is achieved by advancing the time frame, placing the protagonist into a series of situations that undermine her sense of self worth, destroy the family unit, and reverse her role – journalist becomes the topic of sensationalist and intrusive media coverage.

With her life, seemingly, in tatters Lara and her children have returned to a very different Iceland. Her sense of displacement is constantly reinforced in every sector of her life. At work, home, and play she experiences emotional and intellectual obstacles which shatter what little sense of self worth she has after events of the first two seasons. That her dysfunctionality may have been directly responsible for the professional and private tribulations which she is faced with and that she might not be able to overcome compounds the private hell she has to endure.

The criminal aspect of the plot takes on a personal, and ultimately more emotionally powerful, dimension this time as Lara’s daughter dates, and falls pregnant by, a member of a gang that has been extorting money from a Philippine owned business and is complicit in several deaths including a restaurant worker. These star crossed lovers launch the series toward a nerve jangling final pair of episodes which are operatic in terms of the frequency and extremity of tragic occurrences.

In addition to the primary investigative and emotional plot strands, the series surveys how the need to create an electronic portal has impacted on the construction of news. The scriptwriters suggest that the need for instant gratification via a website creates a more sensationalist approach and it is here that the show has some of its finest comic moments. Seeing Þorsteinn Bachmann’s character Gestur finally get his comeuppance after a misguided decision to live stream an interview with a sociopath is one of the finest moments throughout all three seasons and one that viewers have waited a very long time to witness.

This season of Pressa has been nominated in the category of Best TV Program at the 2013 Icelandic Film and TV Awards and this is very well deserved, in my opinion. Should the series be exported to Ireland and the UK I promise any potential viewers of an emotional journey over three seasons that grows ever more frenzied with each subsequent installment  Furthermore, the series is very rich in terms of social information, repeated viewings reveal layer upon layer of commentary ripe for dissection/discussion.

A trailer for Pressa III can be viewed here;

A forthcoming DVD with English language subtitles will be announced shortly. The best place to order Icelandic films and TV shows is;

http://shopicelandic.com/

Svartir Englar (Black Angels)

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Despite being widely read in Scandinavian countries and also having a loyal following in Germany and the Netherlands, the literary output of Ævar Orn Josepsson is relatively unknown to the English speaking world. At present no English language translations of his work are currently available to buy from Amazon although the author’s commercial success and place within the literary Nordic Noir canon is referenced in Barry Forshaw’s fascinating text Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Similarly, whilst an active fan community exists in the UK for Nordic televisual output the knowledge of Icelandic content is currently not widespread amongst the fanbase. However, the recent announcement that Howard Gordon and Alex Cary, producers of Homeland, are developing a remake of Icelandic series Réttur for the NBC network might conceivably facilitate this active audience to seek out other examples of drama programming from the same country and it to be hoped that Arrow Films’ Nordic Noir imprint leases some of the many excellent and scandalously overlooked titles for DVD and Blu-ray release in the UK and Ireland.

Suitably convinced that Josepsson’s work was sufficiently well known within an Icelandic context state broadcaster Ríkisútvarpið RUV commissioned Sagafilm to produce a six part series entitled Svartir Englar that aired in the autumn of 2008 to viewing figures which are still listed as amongst the highest ever recorded for original programming.

The series is a profoundly cynical police procedural drama set in contemporary Reykjavik. Over six episodes and two primary narrative arcs the viewer is introduced to a team of four detectives and this approach enables the writers to present conflicting approaches to police methodology, changes to Icelandic society as a consequence of globalization and the internationalization of criminal activity as by-product of markets transcending geographical boundaries. The contrasting and complementing narrative arcs address a perceived erosion in Icelandic cultural certainties, From the domestic sphere to the political arena, moral certitude is presented as being either weak or non existent.

Images of contemporary social realism open the series and ground the central thesis that Icelandic society is increasingly becoming fractured, possibly even dysfunctional. A body falling from an apartment block in an apparent suicide is the event which which triggers the narrative’s initial investigation. Whilst conducting background checks into the deceased individual’s private and professional past the detectives uncover evidence to suspect that the cause of death may not have been suicide. A deeply disturbing narrative unfolds which encompasses money laundering and paedophilia whilst employing the four distinct styles of policing represented within the series to compare and contrast the ethical and investigative modes of practice employed by each of the protagonists.

An accidentally discarded earring links the two narrative arcs and whilst the second is tonally very different, at least initially, it builds to an equally dark premise; Iceland’s political and judicial system has been corrupted by external forces that will stop at nothing to cover its tracks.

This series has much to recommend, some very tight direction and an outstanding stunt in the opening episode. Well worth tracking down.

The authors of this adaptation are Sigurjón Kjartansson (Pressa) and Oskar Jonasson (Pressa, Reykjavik – Rotterdam). Jonasson is also the show’s director.

A DVD containing English subtitles is available to buy from:  http://nammi.is/svartir-englar-p-1048.html

Pressa (The Press) – Season 2

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Impressed with the viewing figures for the first series of Sagafilms’ Pressa, Icelandic commercial broadcaster Stöð 2 swiftly commissioned a second season which premièred in 2010 to the highest audience recorded in the country for an original drama production. More recently, the show won in the category of Best Scripted TV Series at the Icelandic Film and TV Awards.

Once again the showrunners are Óskar Jónasson (Reykjavík-Rotterdam)and Sigurjon Kjartansson. (Svartir Englar). Additional scripts are provided by J. Ævar Grímsson whose other writing credits include; Astrópía, Næturvaktin, Skaup, Dagvaktin, Fangavaktin, Bjarnfreðarson, and Heimsendir.

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The second season of Pressa takes place amidst the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis which led to the collapse of several Icelandic banks, a loss of market confidence amongst international investors, and an internal existential angst as the country attempted to deal with the political, economic, and social ramifications of living under the burden of such a monumental amount of debt.

Structurally, the series conforms to the template established by its predecessor; a primary narrative arc (or investigation) with several sub-plots which though initially appearing to be self contained, and unrelated, impact upon the eradication of disequilibrium and establishment of a new equilibrium in the final episode. In this second season, as I shall attempt to demonstrate throughout this post, the establishment, maintenance and resolution of all narrative and character arcs is executed with greater precision consequently leading to a more emotionally fulfilling viewing experience. Central to this more effective and sophisticated season is a subtext woven throughout which continuously questions the extent to which commercial imperatives impede/influence editorial decisions and journalistic practices.

Within the opening minutes of the first episode we soon realize that some time has passed since the closing moments of season one. The protagonist, Lara (Sara Dogg Asgerisdottir), is married and absent from work on paid maternity leave. With two children to feed and an unemployed husband Lara is now the sole bread winner. Feminine versus masculine power as a narrative motif is introduced in a sequence where Lara debates with her husband the possibility of moving to Canada thus enabling him to become sole earner or remaining in Iceland with the existing status quo, a female as the head of the family.

In each episode the consequences of accepting or rejecting a male authority figure are depicted in dramatically successful terms. Husband, employer and antagonist are examples of male figures within the Pressa narrative which to varying degrees seek to suppress, banish or mutilate the feminine as a construct. For instance, Lara’s editor, and employer, refuses to offer the newspaper’s financial support in the wake of a libel case due to the inconvenience, both financial and logistical, he thinks that the newspaper has had to suffer due to her already being on maternity leave.

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As financial pressures impact upon the personal sphere Lara obtains employment, in a freelance capacity, from one of the architects of Iceland’s downfall. The deft positioning of oppositional forces is one of this seasons many strengths. The initial premise is that Lara is hired to work for an oil baron accused of sexual assault and murder. The sanctity of the feminine is continually stressed , and under threat, in scenes featuring Lara and her new employer.

Through encounters with those who know or claim to have directly or indirectly members suffered at the hand of the antagonist Lara is torn between her professional duty of establishing his innocence and a personal quest to ascertain any possible guilt. The feminine must consider if the need to alleviate financial burdens is greater than than association with a force who may have mutilated and a murdered other females.

A secondary narrative strand is introduced via a journalistic exposure of a biker gang known for selling narcotics. This initially self contained sub-plot introduces an additional form of jeopardy, explores the extent to which journalists are responsible for the protection of their sources, and establishes the possibility that those in the business of news gathering may have to put their lives at risk in the process of writing a story.

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Of the two seasons the second is undoubtedly the superior and its acknowledgement by the Icelandic Film and TV Awards is testament to some superb acting, writing and direction. Over six incredibly well written episodes the show manages to debate the financial crisis, media ownership, and gender politics. Also, Bjarne Henriksen (Forbrydelsen and Borgen) gives a terrifying performance as a foreign criminal in three episodes.

The series ends with a cliffhanger that will literally send shivvers down your spine.

A DVD with English subtitles is available to order from Nammi.is

 

Pressa (The Press) – Season 1

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Several days ago UCL’s Department of Scandinavian Studies was contacted by a journalist from the Danish newspaper Politiken who was writing an article about a possible fascination with Nordic culture amongst a sector of the British population. As Dr Clare Thomson’s blog post demonstrates the journalistic discourse was predicated upon the notion that we as consumers may be unwitting cultural dupes responding to a top down Zeitgeist imposed upon us by media organizations and corporate interests. As I posted on the site, any attempt to classify our consumption in relation to the Zeitgeist is deeply problematic due to it presupposing that a singular mode of pleasure when what may be the case is that a variety of audiences may be consuming these texts for differing reasons. In trying to ascertain why sectors of the English speaking audience have become receptive to Nordic literary, televisual and filmic texts within a historically specific context Dr Thomson’s blog entry highlights a very important point which warrants future research using a variety of Cultural Studies methodological approaches. Modes of appreciation and activity concerning Nordic Noir texts is a relatively under explored field and the agenda and research methods applied within an academic context differ significantly to those utilised by the popular press. Referring to the research methods employed in journalistic practice enables me to make a rather clumsy segue to a discussion of the Icelandic televisual text Pressa.

In comparison with the UK, Iceland was relatively late in embarking upon a national televisual service. 1966 marked the year that the country gained its first dedicated state owned broadcaster and in 1986 the a privately owned competitor Stöð 2 began broadcasting to the nation. A cursory glance at the schedules for Stöð 2 reveal a mixture of imported English language programming alongside domestically produced content. The ratio of domestic sourced content in relation to imported texts is not something I have been able to identify and an analysis over a sustained period of time would be preferable to ascertain the extent to which a drama series such as Pressa is representative of the Stöð 2’s commitment to drama.

Premièring on 30 December 2007, Pressa is a series produced by Sagafilm which is set in the newsdesk of national tabloid. To date three seasons have been produced with the last airing in 2011. The primary story arc of each season focuses on journalistic research and reporting of a specific incident of criminal activity. Additionally several sub plots run through each season, some of which are self contained whilst others ultimately feed into the resolution of the primary arc. For this blog entry I shall only refer to the first season but will discuss the other two at a future date.

The series is directed by Óskar Jónasson who may be better known to readers for the 2008 filmic text Reykjavík-Rotterdam. Interestingly, the series employs the show runner system of script development and in addition to his role as director Jonnasson serves as co-lead writer alongside Sigurjon Kjartansson.

The Leveson Inquiry has brought journalistic ethics into mainstream social discourse and consequently I was intrigued at the possibility of viewing a televisual text which debated within a dramatic framework the validity and viability of press activity at personal and governmental levels. Although Pressa is an ensemble series the majority of the narrative action concerns that of newly appointed journalist Lara (played by SaraDogg Asgerisdottir) who gains employment with the paper on the basis of a recommendation from a friend and is armed with a spec story which leads to a cabinet minister’s resignation. During her initial interview the paper’s editor spells out the professional code of conduct and the series’ modus operandi: “To become a terrific journalist on The Post you have to become awful in everything else. We aren’t here to make friends.”

Familial relations have been a generic trope in the Nodic Noir texts I have previously encountered. The emotional sacrifices made by the protagonist as a consequence of professional decisions has been a sub-plot in Forbrydelsen and season two of Borgen. In Pressa the protagonist is a single mother who is endeavouring to forge a new career whilst raising a daughter with minimal assistance from her former partner who is a university lecturer that seems to prioritize attending faculty functions and seducing students over that of his child’s welfare.

The primary narrative strand concerns a possible murder and subsequent concealment of the body. The series’ opening sequence invites the viewer to conclude that a homicide has taken place. After some brief time-lapsed shots of Iceland’s windswept volcanic landscape we see a car parked on a deserted road. After cutting to a shot of the windscreen we hear the sound of gunshot and see a splashes of blood coat the glass.

The exposition laden opening instalment is the weakest of the six and it requires the viewer to suspend her/his disbelief on several occasions to the point of shattering any semblance of credulity. In the interests of fairness I will add that the series improves greatly as it progresses and whilst I found much to enjoy it took me two attempts to overcome initial displeasure with the opening episode to continue viewing the series. Subsequent instalments are better structured in terms of dramatic pacing, emotional involvement with the characters and are richer with regards analysing the extent to which the press may be justified in pursuing a story.

I was initial perplexed and frankly infuriated that the text’s authors expected the viewer to accept that a thirty-something without a degree, no journalistic training or relevant career experience would be able to be employed in a front line position by Iceland’s top selling red top newspaper. Having previously worked for a regional newspaper I managed a wry smile upon noticing the incredibly small amount of staff employed by this paper. One episode has a sub-plot of the journalistic staff having to take photographs due to the paper’s sole photographer being unable to work that day.

The paper does not seem to engage in any form of fact checking. Once the identity of the deceased is revealed to the media it is Lara who identifies him from an article she had previously read in a lifestyle magazine. The murder victim is a mechanic named Mani who just happens to be married to Iceland’s most popular television presenter and prominent local politician, Esther.

Another example of clunky storytelling all too evident in the pilot episode is a sequence in which the grieving widow willingly poses for a series of photographs which would be better placed being published in an issue of Heat or OK Magazine than the lead story of a newspaper seeking to bring a killer to justice.

The remainder of the series is tonally very different. Many of the faults which spoiled my viewing pleasure of the pilot are either eradicated or marginalized to the point where they no longer matter. Particularly interesting is a sub-plot which debates the extent to which the media may be justified (or not) in the identifying of paedophiles living in the community.

Although I may have been pretty damning about the series’ opener I was gripped by the subsequent five episodes and am looking forward to viewing the other two seasons.

A DVD with English subtitles is available to buy from http://shopicelandic.com/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&category_id=48&flypage=flypage.tpl&lang=en&manufacturer_id=47&page=shop.product_details&product_id=1501&Itemid=104&vmcchk=1&Itemid=104

Dr Clare Thomson’s blog post concerning Nordic Noir and the Zeitgeist can be read at:

http://scancrime.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/help-please-nordic-culture-and-the-british-zeitgeist/