Arctic Dreams: Asif Kapadia, Far North and the Possibilities of Cinema

By Gareth Evans

far-north-asif-kapadia.jpgFar North, 2007

One of Britain’s most distinctive filmmaking talents, Asif Kapadia established himself internationally with two award-winning films, The Sheep Thief and The Warrior, which immediately marked him out from the purveyors of the tunnel-vision urban realism that dominates this island’s cinema. Epic, fabular tales that unfolded in striking and often forbidding landscapes, they displayed a remarkably precise sensibility – at once symbolic and attentively grounded - and an absolutely cinematic way with narrative. Here was storytelling for the campfire and the cave, as timeless as the need to make meaning out of the mystery of being in the world.

Now he is back with Far North, an equally ambitious folk drama about the limits of love and the nature of endurance. Saiva and her adopted daughter Anja live in near isolation as they are forced further north on the Arctic Tundra. One day a figure – Loki – appears on the ice and collapses. Against her better judgement Saiva nurses him back to health, setting in motion a devastating series of events as Saiva and Anja compete for Loki’s attention…

Vertigo: In your award-winning short films and feature debut, you raised the stakes considerably as to what a current British first time film-maker might achieve, displaying huge formal, thematic and visual ambition. How did you conceive Far North in terms of following on from The Sheep Thief and The Warrior?

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Asif Kapadia: I would say that each film has come organically out of the experience of the one before. The Sheep Thief was my last short. I wanted really to push myself with it, it was my first experience of working in India, in Hindi and with non professional actors. With my first feature The Warrior, it felt natural to return to India. The short had been successful and it seemed a realistic project to get financed as a first film. The Warrior screened at the Tromso film festival and I knew that I could base myself there to make a film which was the inverse of The Warrior. Far North would be on ice, in the cold north, and the story would focus on women and their survival and on one woman’s journey to a dark place though her actions.

V: You adapted a striking story by Sara Maitland. What drew you to this fabular tale?

AK: Sara was an old friend of my co-writer Tim Miller. He found a collection of her short stories on the second-hand book stall outside the National Film Theatre. He reread them and felt that one tale might be something I would respond to. It was short, spare and very dark! I was truly shocked by the climax when I read it. I knew it would be a hard movie to make, but I was excited by the challenge. Was there a way to make a film where we could understand why the older woman does what she does at the end? I also liked the visual dynamics of the film – three people in an enclosed space, in a vast harsh unforgiving landscape.

V: The original story is, in terms of contemporary culture, drawn from much deeper roots than the normal material, urban dramas and so on, we are so used to reading and seeing. What were your thoughts on the sense of time and place the filmic version would employ?

AK: I love fairy tales, classical, timeless stories. I was interested in how people survive within the landscape and in the idea of three people living together and being attracted to one another. At the heart of the short story is the relationship between two women, and how one man comes between them. These are themes which I feel are universal. Just, in this case, they are played out in this other worldly landscape. The film feels as if it takes place in the past but slowly we start to see more modern elements. Maybe the film is taking place in the past, in the present… some people feel it is taking place in the future.

V: The story as you have filmed it is both a very intimate chamber drama, an archetypal myth and a portrait of a hostile society and environment. How did you measure and pitch these elements together?

AK: I like simple stories, where every gesture, action or image hopefully has many layers and meanings. The main drive for me was the character of the older woman played by Michelle Yeoh. It is her story – she is going to hell in many ways – and I wanted to see if I could show her slowly being pushed toward an awful decision. Is it all written? Was she cursed from birth? Or does she make her own decisions which in the end ruin her life? I wanted to try to remain true to the short story and find a way for the audience to develop sympathy or understanding of what drove her to this dark place.

V: You are well known for a striking use of landscape. Please tell us a little about the location decisions.

AK: The film came out of my visiting the Tromso film festival in 2003. I saw the northern lights, went on a husky ride and realised it was possible to make a film in the arctic. Tim and I already had an option on Sara Maitland’s short story, we just had no idea how or where we could make it. Then a chance conversation with my driver introduced me to Svalbard and I fell in love with the place. It is the most northerly settlement in the world, a couple of hours from the North Pole. I knew I had to try to shoot the film there.

I made many trips up to the arctic across the seasons while writing and researching the film. So by the time the script was completed I had all of my locations. The main body of the film, on the harsh lifeless island, is all shot in Svalbard. The opening and the flashbacks take place on the Norwegian mainland at the very north of mainland Norway. I shot there to give the film a contrast and a sense of journey. Being a few hours further south, it bought us more daylight shooting time. It was also a place where we could access ‘tame’ reindeer herds.

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V: You were filming in often difficult terrain. Is this sense of challenge fundamental to how you see filmmaking?

AK: I’ve lived all my life in London and I love living in the city, but when shooting I want to discover somewhere new; I am drawn to the desert and mountains. I became interested in filmmaking by being on set for other people’s films in various capacities. I’m not a studio person really, I’m not someone who likes to sit at a desk and I’m not a huge fan of visual effects. I love being on location. Shooting in plus 50 degrees in India or minus 40 degrees in the arctic is tough, there is no denying it, and you don’t always get what you want or plan for, but the quality of light, the faces of local people, the landscape, working with a local cast and crew and using the magical accidents that happen when you are shooting in India or in the arctic keep me wanting to do it all again. I suppose there is something in wanting to push myself and my crew to a new challenge.

I also love world cinema, I speak more than one language, I love to travel, to discover places and people so of course there is something in working in other countries and in other languages that excites me. I’ve just made a short film in Rome, in Italian, with four kids for the Venice film festival.

V: How did the actors approach this material, in its various aspects?

AK: The cast was going to be small, but because of the landscape the film was never going to be a cheap one to make safely, so I knew I was going to have to work with professional actors. I wanted the women to have the look of non-European, ‘Mongolian’ peoples. It was going to be a really tough job with none of the elements that actors are used to – no limos, trailers or five star hotels. We were all to live together on a Russian ice breaker!

Michelle Yeoh was recommended to me by my casting director as she was a supreme professional, used to physically demanding roles. We met and I pitched the film to her and explained all of the complications involved in the shooting. She wanted to do the film and she stuck with us. It took a long time to put the film together but she never wavered. She was fantastic and a real joy to work with, willing to take on every aspect of the role, from skinning a seal to walking across live and shifting glaciers.

Michelle Krusiec played the girl, she auditioned really well and was desperate to do the film. I thought she would be a good ‘visual’ match with Michelle Yeoh, especially considering the ending, and she would be experienced enough to develop and grow during the film.

Sean Bean came on board very late and he again was a real pro. He had to symbolise a lot in a simple way, he was the ‘Man’, Loki who comes in and causes havoc. His first day of shooting involved running naked across the ice! It was a real test of his character and he did it twice. No questions asked.

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V: Could you talk a little about the aesthetic or other reference points you might have drawn on?

AK: I think Far North is a type of western, which just happens to take place in the middle of nowhere on ice. While we were writing the film a friend mentioned Onibaba, a brilliant Japanese film which may well have been based on a very similar folk tale. Virgin Spring was another film we discussed at the writing stage as it had such a powerful climax and a magical strand. I also remember having Audition in the back of my mind as the film has a slow build up to an amazingly powerful, shocking ending.

Only recently I watched Eureka again. I’m a big fan of Nic Roeg and seeing it again after so many years, I was struck by the opening and the use of landscape. It almost felt as if the two films were shot in the same place, although I had no conscious memory of the film while we were making ours. Come and See is another film which I often return to for its awesome power and performances.

V: There is an internationalist vision in all your filmmaking that challenges the parochial definitions and limitations of regular British cinema. How therefore has your film been received internationally, and how / where do you consider yourself in terms of the landscape of cinema?

AK: I am a Londoner from Hackney, I grew up in a Muslim / Indian home in a very multicultural environment, surrounded by people from different cultures, speaking different languages. I think this has influenced me in the stories I find interesting. I have always felt that in my ‘style’, with minimal dialogue, slower pacing and choices in casting I was instinctively more ‘European’ or Asian in style.

I have always been a fan of world cinema. They were the films that inspired me and opened my mind to different ways of telling stories. When I was first trying to write and direct films, I felt slightly restricted by the type of stories we could tell in the UK; gritty realism, costume dramas, comedies, gangster films. I wanted to make westerns! It made sense for me to try to create my own ‘international’ style.

My short films had always done better abroad. At the time there were not too many film festivals here in the UK and my shorts were often not accepted at them. Thanks to the support of the British Council, whenever possible I would travel to festivals to see how my short film was received, to watch as many films as possible, to learn how and why certain films worked. I met my French producer Bertrand Faivre at a festival in Brest. So it made sense to me when I started making feature films that I should think about the international market. The UK is a small country and not the most cine-literate in many ways, so if you can think about the rest of the world maybe there is more of a chance of surviving to make the next film.

Far North premiered at the Venice Film festival, has screened at many international festivals and is being distributed by Celluloid Dreams. But it’s hard work, it’s a real gamble making independent films. You just have to think about the long term and keep trying to push yourself.

V: Could you tell us anything about projects in development?

AK: Tim and I have an idea to make a quartet of films, morality tales, set within the landscapes of the four points of the compass; so The Warrior was an ‘Eastern’, following the lead character’s spiritual journey of redemption and an escape from violence. Far North of course… and so we would love to do a film in the South in Latin America, followed by a Western. We’re working on a script right now, but I’m not sure if it will fit into this quartet structure, as I’d love to shoot another film in India. I am also starting work on a feature documentary. This may be my next film as we finalise the script and raise the finance for the next fiction feature.