Katrin Ottarsdóttir: ‘Loneliness gives me strength’

Pioneering filmmaker Katrin Ottarsdóttir tells The Local about Nordic cinema, making the Faroe Islands' first feature film, and why she has no desire to make it in Hollywood.

Katrin Ottarsdóttir: 'Loneliness gives me strength'
File photo: Katrin Ottarsdóttir

Liza Minelli started it all.

“It was Cabaret by Bob Fosse that first got me interested in film,” recalls Katrin Ottarsdóttir.

It was the 1970s and there wasn't a whole lot to do in her town on the Faroe Islands.

“When I was growing up we didn't have TV there, so we went to the movie theatre a lot,” she says. “And Cabaret … it really made an impression on me. The colours, the music, the way it was filmed – it felt so exclusive. Exclusive and explosive.”

At first Katrin Ottarsdottir wanted to be an actress. Instead she became the first Faroese filmmaker – but she brought Minelli's explosiveness with her. And a bit of that dark, Cabaret grunge, too.

Faroese baggage

“I’m not afraid of pathos – of depression, emotion, crying openly,” she says. “Sometimes the Danes struggle with that in my films.”

For though Katrin has lived in Denmark for many years now, she says she will never be Danish.

“I have Faroese baggage,” she laughs. “I have problems connecting with the Danish film industry. But it’s a gift in many ways, being from the Faroe Islands. I will never be Danish, but I speak Danish and I have lived here and I have learned the Danish way of thinking. I have the perspectives both of someone on the inside and the outside.”

And her films aren’t Danish either – although Denmark is where she learned her craft.

Click here to read more Nordic profiles

“At the time there wasn’t any higher education in the Faroe Islands, so we all went to university in Denmark. That’s just what you did,” Karin explains. “So I started studying Danish and literature. But university … it was nothing for me.”

And then she discovered the film school.

“When I discovered it I was too young to get in. But it was all I could think about. I attended film science while waiting to get old enough. Every Tuesday I went to the movie theatre and watched movies from 9am until late in the afternoon. And as soon as I turned 20 I applied.”

'I was different'

In retrospect Katrin realizes there were probably good reasons for the age limit, and that she probably should have been even older.

“The whole point is that you’re learning to be an educated film director, to be in charge. And in order to take on that role you need to have some life experience and be able to listen to other people and take care of other people. And I discovered it was hard to be taken seriously at my age.”

She was the first person from the Faroe Islands to study at the National Film School of Denmark. She was young. She was a woman in a society not quite as gender equal as it is today. And at first, things were hard – though she says she wasn’t really aware of it at the time.

“Being that young, and a woman – it was a bad combination,” she chuckles. “When I reflect I realize how much easier it would have been for me back then if I was a man. People found it strange, a young girl from the Faroe Islands asking for money to make movies. It was different. I was different.”

She recalls that once a director of a local bank called around to double-check if he should take this odd young woman seriously.

“But things like that have just made me even more stubborn,” Katrin says.

Indeed, when Katrin didn’t get the money she needed for a film, sometimes she would just start making it anyway.

“When shooting my first film, Atlantic Rhapsody, we didn’t have any money to give the actors,” she recalls. “There were more than 100 of them and not one got a salary. I didn’t either.”

They did it anyway, not for money, but for the chance to be a part of something greater.

“It was the very first Faroese film – it was a once in a lifetime chance. We were about to host the Nordic Film Festival, too, and I wanted to show what we could do and have our own film there. And everyone rallied behind the cause.”

And it's all paid off. Atlantic Rhapsody won first prize at the German film festival Nordische Filmtage in Lübeck. The director and producer now has a dozen films – short, feature, and documentary – under her belt and has received multiple honours and awards for her work.

“It’s an incredible feeling, to receive an award – it helps you realize you did the right thing, holding your course through the storm. For making the film of your vision a reality,” Katrin says.

Clean air, clear skies

These days she rarely goes back to the Faroe Islands. Her mother passed a few years ago and since selling the house, she doesn’t have much reason to visit often.

But her homeland features heavily in her films, and she knows exactly what she’ll do the moment she’s back.

“The best thing I know is to sit on the cliffs down by the sea,” she says. “The nature there is dramatic and speaks to me. In the clean air, looking up at the clear sky, wandering up in the hills… I seek out that loneliness. It’s where I get my inner strength.”

That kind of desire to be alone out in nature is typical for the Nordics. A while Katrin says her films definitely aren’t Danish, she adds there’s no denying that she, and they, are Nordic – whatever that means.

“I think it’s unavoidable,” she says. “Of course, Danish films are Nordic, too. And mine are Nordic in a different way.”

While there definitely is something, some hard-to-define quality that makes a film “Nordic”, it’s not a catch-all. There is massive variety within the Nordics, Katrin says.

“The Icelanders talk more, for example,” she quips. “I think there is a Nordic…tone. But there are many variations of it, and I think it’s visible in my films even if I don’t think about it.”

But what is this Nordic tone which subtly embodies itself in all of Katrin’s work?

“I think being Nordic means to dare to be deep, dark, and heavy,” she muses. “Of course we can be cheerful too…but we dare to be dismal.”

Nordic noir might not be the kind of material that gets you to Hollywood –  but that’s not Katrin’s goal, either.

“Never, never, never,” she laughs. “I’ve never even considered it. Hollywood films are so predictable.”

As far as Katrin’s concerned, she has already been successful.

“Success, for me, is being able to make the movies you want to make. You don’t have to make a lot of them. You just have to make that vision a reality so you don’t go to the grave with your dream unrealized.”

Click here to discover more Nordic stories

This article was produced by The Local and sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers.


Why mass dolphin slaughter could catalyse change to Faroe Islands tradition

Every summer in the Faroe Islands hundreds of pilot whales and dolphins are slaughtered in drive hunts known as the "grind" that residents defend as a long-held tradition.

Why mass dolphin slaughter could catalyse change to Faroe Islands tradition
Photo by Lachlan Gowen on Unsplash

The hunt always sparks fierce criticism abroad, but never so much as last week when a particularly bountiful catch saw 1,428 dolphins massacred in one day, raising questions on the island itself about a practice that activists have long deemed cruel.

Images of hundreds upon hundreds of dolphins lined up on the sand, some of them hacked up by what appeared to be propellers, the water red with blood, shocked some of the staunchest supporters of the “grind” and raised concern in the archipelago’s crucial fishing industry.

For the first time, the local government of the autonomous Danish archipelago located in the depths of the North Atlantic said it would re-evaluate regulations surrounding the killing of dolphins specifically, without considering an outright ban on the tradition.

“I had never seen anything like it before. This is the biggest catch in the Faroes,” Jens Mortan Rasmussen, one of the hunter-fishermen present at the scene in the village of Skala, told AFP.

While used to criticism, he said this time round it was “a little different”.

“Fish exporters are getting quite a lot of furious phone calls from their clients and the salmon industry has NOW mobilised against dolphin-hunting. It’s a first.”

The meat of pilot whales and dolphins is only eaten by the fishermen themselves, but there is concern that news of the massacre will hit the reputation of an archipelago that relies considerably on exporting other fish including salmon.

Traditionally, the Faroe Islands  — which have a population of 50,000 — hunt pilot whales in a practice known as “grindadrap,” or the “grind.”

Hunters first surround the whales with a wide semi-circle of fishing boats and then drive them into a bay to be beached and slaughtered by fishermen on the beach.

Normally, around 600 pilot whales are hunted every year in this way, while 
fewer dolphins also get caught.

Defending the hunt, the Faroese point to the abundance of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in their waters (over 100,000, or two per capita).

They see it as an open-air slaughterhouse that isn’t that different to the millions of animals killed behind closed doors all over the world, said Vincent Kelner, the director of a documentary on the “grind”.

And it’s of historical significance for the Faroe Islanders: without this meat from the sea, their people would have disappeared.

But still, on September 12th, the magnitude of the catch in the large fjord came as a shock as fishermen targeted a particularly big school of dolphins.

The sheer number of the mammals that beached slowed down the slaughter which “lasted a lot longer than a normal grind”, said Rasmussen.

“When the dolphins reach the beach, it’s very difficult to send them back to sea, they tend to always return to the beach.”

Kelner said the fishermen were “overwhelmed”.

“It hits their pride because it questions the professionalism they wanted to put in place,” he added.

While defending the practice as sustainable, Bardur a Steig Nielsen, the archipelago’s prime minister, said Thursday the government would re-evaluate “dolphin hunts, and what part they should play in Faroese society.”

Critics say that the Faroese can no longer put forward the argument of sustenance when killing whales and dolphins.

“For such a hunt to take place in 2021 in a very wealthy European island community… with no need or use for such a vast quantity of contaminated meat is outrageous,” said Rob Read, chief operating officer at marine conservation NGO Sea Shepherd, referring to high levels of mercury in dolphin meat.

The NGO claims the hunt also broke several laws.

“The Grind foreman for the district was never informed and therefore never authorised the hunt,” it said in a statement.

It also claims that many participants had no licence, “which is required in the Faroe Islands, since it involves specific training in how to quickly kill the pilot whales and dolphins.” 

And “photos show many of the dolphins had been run over by motorboats, essentially hacked by propellers, which would have resulted in a slow and painful death.”

Faroese journalist Hallur av Rana said that while a large majority of islanders defend the “grind” itself, 53 percent are opposed to killing dolphins.