Unnur, a film by Chris Burkhard

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The Deckle Edge blog has primarily been a place for me to write book reviews and that won’t change. But I also love documentaries, the recent one titled Unnur, by Chris Burkard being an excellent example.

The short film, set in Iceland, follows the lives of Elli Thor Magnusson, “an Icelandic photographer, surfer, and former kayaker,” and his daughter (dottir?), Unnur.

Unnur is visually striking, stunning even, with sweeping panoramas of the Icelandic coastline and gauzy shots of the beautiful father and daughter. The music is evocative, switching seamlessly from ethereal strings and vocalization to mournful folk and back again, with the whole film narrated by Elli Thor, himself.

Lest you think Unnur cinematographic puffery, the story is poignant, meaningful, and timely.

Unnur is an exposition of Elli Thor’s philosophy as a human and father and a single one at that, with two discernable narratives.

The first is that of the individual, struggling to remain faithful to himself, but doing so in a non-traditional way. Elli Thor uses the words “freedom” and “liberation” several times and it’s evident he’s longing to do things his own way, but always pulling against society’s tug to conform.

Elli Thor and Unnur live alone and off the beaten path…way off…a lifestyle chosen to enhance interactions with nature, primarily through Elli Thor’s pursuit of surfing. In one scene we see Unnur’s mother, evidently as Elli Thor drops Unnur off for the weekend, Unnur running from Elli Thor’s car to the front door of a well kept townhouse, the feather of a shorebird left behind on the car seat. Background images show Unnur’s mother lives in a typical urban neighborhood, in motion highway footage showing surrounding enclaves and a shipping port. We must infer the stark contrast between lifestyles is a factor in their separation.

Some people think what I do is cool. But other people, even some of my own family, think it’s a complete waste of time.

How many of us harbor dreams of pursuing our art? Our passions? How many of us meet society’s expectations, personally, professionally, but feel straight jacketed? Wait…this isn’t what I wanted! And so we “Netflix and chill,” pining for the day we retire and can begin living our real lives.

Elli Thor has chosen not to live by those expectations, but at a high cost he seems to continue to weigh, rolling through his mind like the never ending waves he cherishes. In one telling moment, espousing the advantages of living so close to nature, Elli Thor adds, almost as an afterthought…

…spending time in nature can be a form of escapism…

We hear the refrain of parents, elders, teachers who, wanting the “best” for us, counsel towards conformity even at the expense of individuality.

The second theme, flowing naturally from that counsel, is of parenthood and desiring success for our children, but still struggling to help them understand what that means…especially when we remain unsure or unconvinced ourselves.

I’ve shared with my own children several times before, the sense I carry that my soul remains that of a much, much younger man. Yes, I’ve married and have a career, a mortgage, health insurance, and a 401k, but there remains an enormous part of me longing to shed responsibilities and to be “me;” to embrace the freedom that Elli Thor mentions so often…that longs to grab my wife’s hand and those of my kids, grab the dogs and head for beach or the woods, leaving it all behind for good.

But as Elli Thor appropriately notes, being a parent changes everything. As parents, those of us with a bit of wild child still inside, tamp down that kid’s voice, and pray for our own kids to shed these bonds…to be free. To live the lives we would hope for them.

…in hopes that she will grow the courage to do the hardest thing…choose her own path, not the one society chooses for her.

These are themes many, many people are wrestling with as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Until now we’ve been able to ignore the voices of our hearts, to allow the world to speak over them with noise and busyness and self-doubt. But now many of us are working from home and, therefore, spending time at home…in our personal sanctuaries. It’s become painfully obvious that, for the sake of a corporate gig, we’ve sacrificed sleep, health, relationships, and even exposure to sunlight.

For many it’s forcing the question, “Is this how I want to live?” A subset of that group are also parents, spending more time with their children and asking, what life do I want for them? I look at my own children and, while I want them to have financially stable lives, would not recommend the path to white collar “success” I have trod. If anything, I am more likely to encourage them to pursue the path less traveled and to support them in their efforts…but how can they trust what I only say and won’t do?

In Unnur Chris Burkhard has beautifully packaged the struggle and questions I think almost all feel.

Who are we?

What is best for our kids and how do we help them achieve it?

How are we to live?

I highly, highly encourage you to watch this film. Not once, not twice, but over and over again. And then, when you can no longer stand it…go make your art. Go live your life. Go choose your own path and not the one society has chosen for you. Go be free.

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2 thoughts on “Unnur, a film by Chris Burkhard

  1. What a beautiful film in thought and vision. The video about Chris Burkhard’s personal quest that followed Annur (at least in my feed) added depth as well. In the “killing two reviews with one post” department, your Brendan Gaffney podcast was excellent. It made me feel as though I were sitting around the table with a couple of old friends sharing in the conversation and thoughts…….with a couple of frosty craft beverages of course. You are hitting on all eight Matt….great job!

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