Foreign-Language Oscar Spotlight: of Sheep and Men in Iceland Entry 'Rams'

Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Grimur Hakonarson's stark comedy is the story of two estranged brothers, both sheep farmers, whose flocks are threatened by a disease outbreak.

The casting call was for actors that were “mentally stable, beautiful and looked pretty.” But director Grimur Hakonarson wasn’t looking for the latest love interest, he was casting for sheep for Rams, Iceland's entry for the Oscar in the foreign-language category.

“We did a lot of searching for the right cast of sheep, and in the end they did a really good job,” says Hakonarson, who listed his ungulates leads in the film's credits, just like true stars.

Rams tells the story of two competitive, estranged brothers, both sheep farmers, who live side-by-side on their family’s ancient farmland. The film premiered in Cannes, where it won the top prize in Un Certain Regard. It was the first time an Icelandic film has taken any prize in Cannes, making the actors and director instant stars in their tiny island nation.

“It was a historical moment when we won the prize in Cannes, so we were like big stars when we came back home. The first thing we did was to screen the film for the farmers in the valley where we shot the film," the director says. "They really enjoyed it because they feel it’s a real and honest picture of this rural way of life.”

Hakonarson wrote the script over three years, inspired by a story his father told him years ago about two brothers who lived on the same property but refused to speak to each other, even going so far as to build separate houses that had no windows facing each other.

Actors Sigurour Sigurjonsson and Theodor Juliusson were chosen from local actors to play the brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, of very different dispositions. The pair were cast because of their similarities to the characters, both physically and temperamentally, resulting in many people thinking they were real-life farmers cast in the film. “They were really dedicated and sacrificed themselves. They even did some stunts and were always ready to take their clothes off when needed," says Hakonarson.

Both actors are from the capital Reykjavik and had to spend weeks before the shoot learning how to interact with the animals to give the film its sense of stripped-down realism. Hakonarson, who is best-known for his work as a documentarian, wanted to portray, as honestly as possible, the harsh reality of modern day sheep farming to a population increasingly disconnected from their country's traditional livelihood.

“Even 100 years ago most Icelanders were farmers living a rural life, and now it’s totally different," he says. "The film deals with this subject a bit because the brothers represent the old farming society." Modern sheep farming is slowly becoming a hobby, he says. “I think people who are living in the city and see this film can understand it more, can understand the passion for the sheep and why people continue to live in the middle of nowhere and enjoy it.”

The film, which Hakonarson calls tragicomic, has a sense of ridiculousness injected into its isolation. “Of course its an absurd situation that they live so close and haven’t spoken in 40 years,” he says. 

The darkly dry Scandinavian humor stems from Viking history, he thinks. “Maybe because it’s so dark and cold in Iceland we have to have humor and make fun of our own misery.” But as the film goes on the light moments fade, and whether the emotional ending is dark or not is left to the viewer to decide.

Hakonarson insists the ending “sends a clear message,” but he doesn’t care to explain it. “I like for people to make their own conclusion and to be able to think about it,” he says. He went through several drafts before deciding when and where to leave the brothers.

“I struggled with it, and took a big risk ending the film like this. It could have been a big mistake, it could have flopped, it’s a risky ending you know, but it worked.”