Meet the Filmmaker (“Grandma Lo-Fi”)

We were pumped to have the opportunity to get some inside skinny about ‘Grandma Lo-Fi‘ from Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir, one of the three filmmakers (Orri Jónsson and Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir). After you read what she had to say about the film’s creation, we bet you’ll want to get your groove on to Sigríður Níelsdóttir’s music just like we did. You can catch our ‘Grandma Lo-Fi’ screening on Saturday July 28 at 8:00 PM at the Old American Can Factory.

Rooftop Films: How did you all come across Sigríður Níelsdóttir? Was it the music that inspired you guys initially or her story?

Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttir: All these charming lo-fi bossanovas scrambled up with her beautifully broken grandma voice, the cutlery on sugar box percussion, the purrs and meows and coos and howling of all her various pet animals that joined her in song…

I am not exactly sure when and where I heard her music for the first time. But I do remember how enchanted I was. It was as if a completely new universe opened up to me, I had never heard anything like it.

I called her one evening to ask her if she would like to play a concert in an old cinema by the Reykjavik pond, but she gently declined. She didn’t want to perform in front of people. Her cat, the broken winged pigeon she nursed for a while: Sure! But she wasn’t up for playing for people. If however, me and my friends would like to play her music live, then nothing would make her happier. So this is what I did. I called my friend Orri Jonsson and before we knew it we were in his band Slowblow’s garage, sipping rhubarb potions and doing our best to capture Sigridur’s inimitable tunes on our instruments. This proved to be trickier than it seems, so we called Sigridur and asked if we could come visit and get a few pointers. A few biscuits and some cartons of chocolate milk later, we were completely charmed by this formidable firecracker and that’s when we decided we had to make a movie about her. Eight years later…

RF: You all followed Sigríður for eight years. Was this timeline intentional? In other words, when did all of you primarily started shooting did you guys ever imagine the film process take over a span of eight full years?

KBK: I don’t think any of us realized what we were getting ourselves into. We just dived in with this sweet blind faith in that we’d make a good movie about her. Later on we started calling it the “Lo-fi vortex.” The more time we spent with Sigridur and all her amazing stories and creations, the more fascinated we became. I don’t know where the point-of-no-return was, but for me I’m pretty sure it was this conversation with Orri in Mokka, one of the oldest cafes in Reykjavik, where it became so absolutely clear that we needed to make this movie. Maybe we are just such cocky devils, we never thought it would take us eight years to make the film. Even though we both tinkered with Super-8 film for years, we are musicians and we had never made a film before. So I am sure that we could have made things easier for us in the creative process. But the long way is sometimes the best way. You find all kinds of strange animals along the road, little details that would have escaped you if you’d hired a stranger who “knew what she/he was doing.”

I suspect we would have taken even longer if artist/animator Ingibjorg Birgisdottir hadn’t come along and put a whole new spin in the vortex. She is a magnificent force in this film. I can not praise her talents, her sharp eye and her wit enough.

The reason we needed eight years to make this film is partly because it took a while to get to know Sigridur and find out what would be the best movie about her, partly because we had a pretty quirky way of doing everything which often resulted in a simple little thing taking ages because we were very particular about every sweet detail and of course partly because we were making this film out of the small change in our back pockets.

RF: All three of you must have gotten extremely close with Sigríður after spending so much time together. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been, especially as she was unable to see the finished documentary. How did her passing affect you?

KBK: I try not to dwell on misfortune I have no control over. So instead of brooding over the fact that she never saw the finished thing, I think about how happy she would be that the film has been a total wonder child since it came out, playing all over the world in amazing festivals, art museums and graceful old cinemas with blue velvet curtains. It is playing in 13 different festivals just this month. She saw an early rough cut and enjoyed that very much, that’s enough for me. That and our last conversation which was mostly about glue. She parked the casio long before she passed, but she was making those mind-blowing collage pieces until her dying day. So when I called her, two weeks before she died, she said: “Ah, Kira, it’s you: Great timing! I just ran out of UHU glue. Now I have nothing to do. I must ask my daughter to buy two boxes full of glue sticks next time she goes shopping for me!” So we had a good final chat there and then about love, moving house and glue. I was quite surprised to hear she died so soon. I always thought she would live forever. She’s just that kind of girl.

RF: Though Sigríður was nervous to perform in front of a live audience, she seems very at ease in front of the camera. Was it a difficult process for her to partake in the documentary?

KBK: We always had a very good vibe going with her. I am not quite sure why. She was happy to make the movie with us, from the very beginning. As long as we were just capturing what was already going on, she was on fire. But if we’d ask her to do something, like pull out her crayons and draw a picture or something like that, that was absolutely out of the question. She would never pretend to be doing something that she wasn’t naturally doing that moment. So we abandoned all such ideas very early and stayed true to capturing her as she was. We all got some fantastic ideas of spectacular scenes we wanted to shoot with her but in the end she was the boss. And we have great respect for her for being as stubborn as she was. Heck, we are just as stubborn ourselves.

RF: The animation in the film was very playful and well-done. Did you guys originally intend to have animation in the movie? Or was it a secondary input after shooting Sigríður’s own light-hearted and cheerful attitude and music?

KBK: Sigridur is such a cartoonish character herself and her imagination is incredibly vivid. So it was always obvious to us that the film needed to be animated. We even contemplated the idea of animating the whole thing. But then it was too much fun to see Sigridur in the flesh, so we decided to mix the animation in with filmed sequences. Ingibjorg Birgisdottir is the maestro behind the animation.

RF: In what ways do you believe her songs have inspired the indie-music scene?

KBK: I think Sigridur inspired this no-nonsense approach to music. Where you focus on the heart of the matter rather than getting stuck in perfecting a slick surface. She would record layers and layers of hiss in the sole purpose of capturing what she felt needed to be captured to that cassette of hers and not care if the tempo shifts or whatever it was she was working on, was perfect. If there was one way to go, Sigridur didn’t care. She just did things her own way.