At its heart, Anders Walters’ Ivalu, co-directed with Pipaluk K. Jørgensen, is an incredible depiction of sisterly love. The directors’ adaptation of Danish Writer Morten Durr’s graphic novel of the same name takes us through the overwhelmingly stunning landscape of Greenland in a search for our protagonist’s older sister, Ivalu. Guided by pure love and adoration, she re-visits meaningful locations in her search which the film punctuates with a series of haunting flashbacks hinting at the truth behind her sister’s disappearance, the revaluation of which comes as a wrenching gut punch that immediately refocusses everything we have seen. Providing a fresh perspective on an incredibly difficult and taboo subject, Ivalu is brimming with beauty, loneliness and heartache in equal measure. Whilst the film deviates somewhat from the pitch black ending of its source material, providing a beam of light in this desolate tale, you can’t help but come away feeling totally bereft. Walters who previously took home the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for his 2013 film Helium, joined us for an interview (which you can watch in full at the end of this article) in which we discuss why he wanted to tell the story from a child’s point of view, the challenges of shooting in a small, insular community and a shifting edit which could have taken the film in many different directions.[A heads up the following interview contains spoilers for both the film and the original graphic novel]
What was it about Morten Durr’s graphic novel that inspired you to adapt it into a short film?
The graphic novel is just wonderful. It was a friend who recommended it to me. I asked her what the book was about and she replied “incest”. I wasn’t sure I was the right person to make a film about incest but I couldn’t help myself so I went to buy a copy and she was right. It is really a beautiful graphic novel, it was so poetic in the way it deals with nature and just the whole approach with images. The voiceover, which was also a big part of the graphic novel, was really poetic. The structure is brilliant and towards the end, when you realize what it’s all about comes as such a big punch. There was just something there where I really felt it could do well as a short film. I shared it with my producers who felt similar and the journey started.
The film’s conclusion, whilst being true to your source material deviates in its ending, why the change?
The graphic novel is really tough. The film itself is really tough but the ending in the graphic novel is merciless, it’s very dark. Pipaluk, our main character, is searching for Ivalu, her older sister and eventually finds her but she has hung herself at the old army base. The grandmother wasn’t a part of the graphic novel as it ends with Ivalu’s suicide and we have to face the fact that Pipaluk is going back to live with her father and probably going to be the second victim. It was just very dark. I needed to have a little bit of a beam of light or something that pointed in a direction that could at least address the fact that there might be something to change for those innocent kids. So, the grandmother became a part of our ending and at least when we let go of Pipaluk at the end we know that she’s going to live with her. When you talk to people who are trying to make a difference with these victims, a lot resides on the community and other family members being able to spot these things, talk about them and address them. The grandmother was an important part and shines a little light on Pipaluk’s future.
Ivalu is a film told exclusively from its child protagonist’s perspective and is all the more effective for doing so. Why did you choose to frame the narrative through Pipaluk’s point of view ?
When I make these types of films I tend to not want to give the parent too many nuances. I really want to portray them as monsters. There’s obviously a reason why they’re acting like they are, but I’m not interested in trying to understand why they’re doing this and telling that story. There’s really no excuse. Therefore, my films are always from the children’s point of view.
By telling it from a kid’s perspective I hope this movie will reach some of these victims and they will feel seen and perhaps help to take some of the weight off their shoulders.
Also, when you dig into this subject, a lot of these girls or boys, mostly girls, feel a lot of shame and I think more than half of them feel like it’s their fault. Obviously, that’s why they don’t go and talk to their neighbours or grandmothers because they feel like they might be part of the reason why it’s taking place. That in itself is devastating so by telling it from a kid’s perspective I hope this movie will reach some of these victims and they will feel seen and perhaps help to take some of the weight off their shoulders. It might be a little bit of a naive hope, but I really do hope that in that capacity, the movie can also be helpful. It’s a kid’s tale through the eyes of a child who obviously feels very lonely and afraid.
You were entering into a very small and tight-knit community talking about a taboo subject matter. How were you able to find your cast and get people on board with the production?
It was very difficult, Denmark and Greenland have a very close but complicated relationship. We colonised Greenland many years ago and Greenland is fighting to become more self governed. I said to my two producers, there’s no way in hell that we’re going to go to Greenland and do this movie unless we’re going to do this with a Greenlandic production company. I don’t speak Greenlandic but the movie is in Greenlandic, it’s an entire Greenlandic crew except for my DP and my co-director Pipaluk Jørgensen. She is a great, strong voice in Greenland but to be honest, for a time, it didn’t seem like it was going to work out, they were not that keen. They loved the story, they liked me and had good intentions but they were not really keen on doing this. It took a lot of conversations to get to a point where we could actually do this together. It was a very delicate matter.
I also learnt that working in a different language is much more difficult than I expected. The tone and the music of the Greenlandic language is so different to Danish. There were times I felt like the take was wonderful and spot on then my co-director would tell me it was totally awful. I was in deep water here and very much reliant on her being able to help me and direct and talk to the kids. Of course, they could speak English and partly Danish but it was still difficult for sure.
Your filming of Greenland and the expansive landscape is such a huge part of the film, were there any challenges filming in such a rugged space?
My DP has his own Canon cameras and old Russian lenses and most of these modern cameras can be used in even the coldest circumstances so that wasn’t really a problem. But, obviously the weather was hard to predict. We shot this film in October and we had to plan for a lot more shooting days than we ended up using. In October, the weather can change in 20 minutes from sunshine to totally overcast and snowy but we were quite lucky. Things really worked to our advantage and we didn’t really have many troubles with the surroundings or the circumstances.
For me, it was a gift that kept giving because no matter where you pointed the camera, it just looked stunning. At the very end, we had two days at the bottom of the ice cave and that freaked me out a little bit because we were walking on thin ice but we had a very old and experienced Greenlandic local guy who guided us. He said he was talking to the ice. It makes a lot of noise, you can hear the whole entire ice cave talking and you feel like a volcano is going to explode, that’s how much it moves around and it freaks you out. He would tell us where not to walk and you had to really rely on his ability to find a way where nobody would fall into the water or fall through thin ice.
I was in deep water here and very much reliant on her being able to help me and direct and talk to the kids.
I’m surprised that you were only shooting for a relatively short period as we seem to traverse so many different seasons and conditions in the film.
We were lucky. In Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, we had sunshine most of the time so we could film all the flashbacks and make it feel like it was over different times. Then when we went to the ice cave that’s an entirely different place. It’s further up north and there the weather would change and it became colder. You’re standing surrounded by ice mountains and glaciers which obviously looks very exotic and very different from the locations we could find around Nuuk. But it was all shot within 11 days.
I love the sharp contrast of the bright colours populating this desperate story, what was the decision behind that dichotomy?
We were looking for a lot of colours because I think the strength of the graphic novel lies within the colours. The blue of the sky is so bright and it stands in contrast to the darkness that the girls find themselves within. I thought that was really an interesting move to find a visual language with this film to stand in contrast. The visuals change a little bit as we go deeper into the story. First and foremost nature becomes colder which reflects Pipaluk’s inner feelings, She’s getting more lonely and more and more unattached to civilization and finds herself very much by herself. Nature is a character in this film and something that plays towards trying to explain how she feels on the inside. I thought that was a very bold move in the graphic novel and something we definitely chased in the adaptation.
How did you work in post-production to build the flashbacks and searching scenes into the structure that we see?
The editing was endless on this one and you could have edited this movie in many different ways. This was definitely very different from the movies that I’ve done before, in the sense that to me, it feels more like a visual poem. The Greenlandic music in the voiceover is almost like a meditation. When you set out to meditate, it’s in order to find peace, but then in this situation, it kind of goes in the other direction. For me, it was really about trying different paths in the editing room. I’ve never spent so much time on a short film in editing. You have three different timelines so that was a challenge.
Then, of course, we had to figure out a way to incorporate the raven who is such a big part of the film and becomes a symbol of nature basically showing her the way, showing her the answers or helping her to find the answers. She finds this raven at her window in a dream and it asks her to follow it into the nature, then in the morning when she wakes up the raven is still out there and she decides to follow the raven who shows her where Ivalu is. That was a challenge with a short film budget.
I wanted to ask you about the decision to incorporate mythology into the film.
The mythology was also an addition to the film which wasn’t in the graphic novel. Whilst researching Greenland you learn that nature is a big part of how they see life and how they live life. But also their mythology is something they live by. There was this great myth about the mother of the sea, which is basically a myth about greed and balance in the universe. The mother of the sea is at the bottom of the sea and she will steal all the food from the sea if people don’t behave and live a balanced life. In this story, I felt like it could add to the poetry of the visuals and also to the fact that Ivalu sacrifices herself in the end. She dies, but she hasn’t hung herself like in the graphic novel. We see her alive when she dives down at the end of the film to the mother of the sea in order to comb the hair of the mother of the sea in order to re-establish a balanced universe where hopefully her younger sister can live a better life.
I thought it was very beautiful because that talks about the sisterhood and the willingness of Ivalu to try and make a better world for her younger sister. Even though Ivalu doesn’t feel like she has a place in the world any more, she has just seen too many horrific things for her to want to stay here but at least she wants to try and do something for her sister. This is why we used the mythology, it becomes a little bit like a fable towards the end and I’ve worked that way before. I really love to use fantasy and reflect the way kids are using fantasy, almost like it’s the real world. It feels more personal and it’s more in line with how I like to see the world through the eyes of children.
This isn’t your first Oscar run, what does this nomination mean to you?
Everybody is over the moon, I hadn’t seen this coming. When it happened nine years ago, I thought it would never happen again. You think, wow, that’s a once in a lifetime and now I can just live a happy life. I’m really surprised that we are now back again and I’m really happy on behalf of the crew who made this film. Especially very proud of the two girls because it takes quite some bravery in a small community like Nuuk in Greenland to put your face to a film this political. I’m just so happy that the film ended up in a good place, obviously the Oscars are an expression of love for the film. It was really courageous of them to be in the film.
So what about you? What are you working on now? What’s next?
I just finished editing my second feature. We are going into sound now and that will be out later this year, hopefully in September. I’m riding on a couple of other features, I don’t have any short films in the making but I think I’ve done quite a lot now. I think it must be my seventh short movie. I love the format and it’s not that I don’t see myself doing another short. Even though people tend to look at it as something for first timers, I think it’s a great playground. You can really dive into some subject matters that would be very hard to get financed in a long format.