Guilty conscience

Guilty conscience

By Michael Pickard
January 22, 2021

The Writers Room

Icelandic drama Systrabönd (Sisterhood) sees three women face up to a decades-old crime in a story about how people respond differently to guilt. Writer Jóhann Ævar Grímsson tells DQ about his aim to offer a fresh take on a familiar genre.

As the lead writer of Icelandic neo-noir drama Stella Blomkvist, Jóhann Ævar Grímsson sought to upend Nordic noir with a super-stylised series featuring a lead character who is at once a detective, an unreliable narrator and a femme fatale.

Filming on the second season of Stella Blomkvist is now in its final weeks, with Grímsson once again working on the scripts and pushing the lead character to the extremes of the genre.

Jóhann Ævar Grímsson

Meanwhile, another Grímsson drama series sees the writer again turning Nordic noir – and the traditions of crime drama – on its head. Systrabönd (Sisterhood) opens with the seemingly unrelated stories of three women – priest Elisabet (Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir), chef Anna Sigga (Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir) and nurse Karlotta (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir) – but the discovery of the skeletal remains of a young girl who disappeared 25 years ago brings them back together to confront their childhood actions and the guilty secret they share from their past.

“It’s a weird thing but, in a certain sense, Sisterhood is a sister series to Stella Blómkvist in that, in both cases, I am reacting to the idea of Nordic noir and crime shows,” Grímsson tells DQ. “I’m trying to figure out another way of using the format. Whether I’m successful at it, I will let the audience be the judge, but both of them are at least attempts to go in a different direction with the format, because I think we’ve had quite enough of them. We need to push the boundaries and try to figure out new ways of telling these stories, or at least avoid repetition as much as possible.”

That new direction means that, from the start, viewers will know who committed the crime, with the focus of the story firmly away from the unfolding police investigation.

“The investigators are non-alcoholic, non-tortured individuals who are fairly competent at what they do,” the writer notes. “They just want to do their job properly. The story is not about them.”

Sisterhood instead puts the three central characters under the microscope and explores the guilt each of them holds inside, which emerges in different ways.

“The crime itself almost feels incidental, even though it is the crux of the series,” says Grímsson. “It is about human emotion – almost everybody feels guilt to some extent – and exploring guilt is the main idea I started with when I was starting up the series.”

That the protagonists are all female is another nod to upending traditions, with women usually characterised as victims rather than perpetrators.

Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir plays nurse Karlotta, one of three women hiding a dark secret

“To be frank, we don’t see many female criminals,” the writer continues. “That’s why I reference Stella Blomkvist as a sister series because I did a lot of twisting and turning with roles that are usually meant for men or women. It’s not really intentional. It’s just a way of trying to find new ways of telling the same stories. If you are used to the tricks that have already been used, then you stop enjoying the drama and you stop enjoying the story.”

What’s immediately notable about the series – full of naturalistic lightning and landscapes – is how quietly the police officers go about their work, meticulously going through documents and data to try to identify the skeleton that has been unearthed. It’s just as you imagine investigating a 20-year-old cold case with little forensic evidence might be, with the officers attempting to solve the puzzle in front of them as their commanding officer demands quick results.

“I wanted to see the dullness of actual police work because a friend of mine who worked as for the local police force here, that’s his description of the job,” Grímsson says. “It’s just a slow slog through data after data and data and trying to figure things out slowly but surely. It isn’t some sort of a eureka moment. Competent police work happens at a very slow pace. If anything, the series itself went a little faster than I probably would have wanted it to. We can’t offer audiences a longer view of people looking through documents for a day.”

On the other side of the story, the reaction of the central characters to the discovery of the body varies wildly as news reports suddenly reveal their shared secret. From then on, the tension in the series builds as the group fear being discovered and speculate over the progress of the police investigation.

Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir is chef Anna Sigga

Elisabet initially wants to continue keeping the secret, while Anna Sigga suggests contacting the police and confronting their past. But it’s Karlotta who is most unnerved and immediately panics at the thought of being identified, leading her to become involved in a car crash at the end of episode one that serves as a very clear dramatisation of her deteriorating mindset.

“Each of them are representative of how we deal with guilt. This is what we go through, just on a personal level: we admit to everything, we try to ignore it and make it go away, or we shut down and don’t deal with it,” the writer says. “So they are representative of these emotions on a deep level. We were just trying to explore normal people rather than extraordinary people, and that’s the main line we went with when trying to write these characters.”

Grímsson also wants viewers to understand that crime is complicated and that not all criminals are monsters. “Most of the time, they’re actual people who have complicated lives and love their dogs and children, and are kind people in between doing a horrible thing,” he says.

“Of course, there are monsters but, most of the time, it’s more complicated than that. This is a traumatic event in their lives that they are still dealing with, even though they were the perpetrators of it. There’s also the question of memory, because they remember things in a different way – they each have their own version of events of what happened that fateful day. All those things can inform each other, and hopefully we make a complicated and interesting portrait of three people on the edge of losing their lives.”

The police work in the show is depicted as slow and methodical

As well as being a writer, Grímsson works as head of development for Icelandic producer Sagafilm, where Sisterhood was set up as the first collaboration between the company and Sky Studios. Due to debut in the second quarter of 2021, the six-part series was co-commissioned by streamers Síminn (Iceland) and Viaplay (Nordics) and will be distributed internationally by NBCUniversal Global Distribution.

“All these partners have been absolutely fantastic to work with and they have given the show a great amount of space to actually mature and let us work and try to figure this show out,” he says. “The main nuggets for the story were actually written in 2014. I had been sort of slowly gathering material for it, picking up little nuggets of stories to attach to it, until around 2018, when Björg [Magnúsdóttir] and I started writing the treatments.”

As well as Magnúsdóttir, Grímsson wrote the series with Jóhanna Friðrika Sæmundsdóttir and Silja Hauksdóttir, who also directed. Grímsson and Magnúsdóttir wrote the treatments and first drafts before Grímsson took a step back to oversee Stella Blomkvist season two and Magnúsdóttir, Sæmundsdóttir and Hauksdóttir completed the final drafts.

In the writers room, they were inspired by real-life cases from Iceland and the US in which teenage girls were attacked or murdered by their classmates, but those real incidents only served as jumping-off points for the scripts, rather than informing the final story in any significant way.

“But in all of these cases, we have women who have actually committed the crimes and then lived to regret it,” Grímsson observes. “And in all of those cases, they were caught immediately. In this case, they actually got away with it, but it’s going to catch up with them and it’s influenced them, the way they live their lives and how they feel about things.”

Sisterhood focuses on the different ways in which people deal with guilt

The pressure to complete the scripts ahead of a scheduled production date last spring evaporated when the Covid-19 pandemic led to a lockdown in Iceland, giving the writing team more time to work on them. Filming then took place in the capital, Reykjavik, where Elisabet, Anna Sigga and Karlotta live, and a fishing town on the western coast called Ólafsvik, where the characters grew up.

Grímsson’s work on Sisterhood has earned him a nomination for the Nordic TV Drama Screenplay Award, presented by Nordisk Film & TV Fond, with the winner to be declared on February 3 during the Göteborg Film Festival’s TV Drama Vision event. He believes the self-contained story behind the show offers a fresh take on a good crime story, which is symbolic of Iceland’s own emergence as a force for scripted television, following series such as TrappedCase, The Minister, The Valhalla Murders and Stella Blomkvist, for which Grímsson was nominated for the same prize in 2018.

“We’re slowly evolving and trying to figure out our own voices. And as we move into our own stories and try to avoid emulating other things from outside and try to figure out our own way of telling them, our shows immediately get better,” he says of Icelandic drama. “That’s been the trend in Iceland, and I’m hopeful for the future. We have set up a lot of future writers and directors here in Iceland who are going to do great things in the future.”

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