Driving Mum is a stunning new Icelandic comedy drama that has just had its premiere at Tallinn Nights Film Festival. The film follows the journey of a man, his dog, and his dead mother. One of her wishes was to have her photo taken at some famous tourist spots and so her son heads out to fulfil this wish and in doing so embarks on a personal journey of discovery that leads to facing the ghosts of his past.
The film is shot in monochrome and – as you would expect from Iceland – a visual feast. I spoke to the film’s director Hilmar Oddsson about the story of creating this touching film with its intriguing central character.
Hilmar’s last film was in 2009 so there has been quite a bit of time since he was directing from behind the camera – it turns out though that he has been a pretty busy man. He explained:
“I took on the job of being the director of the Icelandic Film School which I was running for seven years and I thought I could continue with my career by writing in the evenings and weekends, but I soon realised that running a film school was a 24/7 job and there was no room for anything else – when there was, you wanted to switch off.”
He left the school in 2017 when he then began to prepare some projects, Driving Mum being one of them, a film that he both directed and wrote.
The idea for the film came to Hilmar when he was with a friend, who happens to be the leading star of the film Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson, while he was preparing for another film. The year was 1994 and Þröstur was telling Hilmar about some stories from the North West of Iceland which is where he had grown up – stories of strange people, funny people, and interesting people.
“The next day I said to him, I think we have a story we can tell here – let’s do something”, Hilmar explains. “I came up with the basic ideas and I just never stopped thinking about it – in the meantime I made three films whilst I waited for the opportunity to work with Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson on the film.”
In 2021 the opportunity came up for the pair to work together and get filming – it is hard to imagine anyone else in the leading role, with Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson putting in such an impressive performance as Jon the lead character who takes his dead mother on this Icelandic journey of discovery.
“I have sometimes surprised people by saying that the film was a personal journey for me, that is not wholly reflected in the film (it not my mother and me) but it is there in other senses about the way the story is told.”
Hilmar was the son of a playwright, a playwright who wrote theatre in the style of the absurd, one of the only people in Iceland at the time to write in such a fashion. His storytelling was quite normal and natural to Hilmar – so the director decided to pay his respect toward his father.
“It is something that is very close to me; my other films are much more different to this – perhaps more dramatic and such but I enjoyed bringing this story to life the most.”
Much like another very popular Icelandic film, Godland (which we should see released here in the UK in spring 2023), Iceland’s scenery plays a key role, but what makes it so much more fascinating is Hilmar’s decision to shoot the film in black and white. The director himself cites such films as Stranger Than Paradise by Jim Jarmusch as an influence – a black and white road movie.
“For me, when the idea was born it was always going to be shot in black and white. I tried to be very true to that as it was so important for me and further to that I wanted this story based in the past – it couldn’t imagine this story in times of mobile phones and thats why I based this in 1980.”
It’s 1980, the end of an era, the Cold War is still continuing, and here we have Jon who is a bit of a communist (so much so that he calls his dog Brengsek). He lives with his mother in a tiny house in the remote north west fjords of Iceland, where together they knit jumpers and listen to tape recordings with little else to do.
“I had heard about these people living in remote places in isolated Iceland and wanted to bring these characters to life. I wanted to place this story where it was more or less born – where there are these steep mountains and deep fjords.”
He goes on to explain how the scenery can be seen as a symbolic reflection of the character’s journey; here is this narrow-minded man about to embark on a journey to open us his views, just as the winding narrow roads on the edge of a cliff at the beginning of the film, lead to wider highways.
Jon encounters many characters on his travels, but one of his companions is his dog Brengsek – who steals the show on a number of occasions.
“This was really my first time working with an animal and it is a dog, he is part of the trio and an important part of the film. A lot of the humour in the film is delivered by the dog and his relationship with Jon. I was worried whether this was going to work.”
Hilmar mentions he was worried about how well behaved he would be, and will the dog do everything he is told?
“Well, he didn’t do everything exactly as he was told but he gave us some options which worked well with a touch of editing – and there you have it, a great performance by an animal which is very much part of the heart of the story”.
And then we can’t forget Kristbjörg Kjeld, who plays Jon’s mother and whom spends the majority of the film dead but she still manages to grab some wonderful scene-stealing moments. Joining Kristbjorg are Hera Hilmar (Mortal Engines, See) and Tómas Lemarquis (Noi the Albino).
Driving Mum is a road trip movie with a difference. It has heart mixed in with its darkest humour which pairs beautifully with the black and white take that Hilmar has opted for with this beautiful backdrop.
With the likes of Beautiful Beings, Godland, and now Driving Mum we truly are being blessed with some incredible Icelandic cinema – long may that continue and lets hope Hilmar doesn’t leave it too long until his next project!