What happens when one person’s day at work is another’s catastrophe? For the likes of border control officers who enforce the sharpest ends of government policy, signing a document or stamping a passport can take seconds, but can have a life-changing impact on people they may never see again. Unless, perhaps, they live on the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland with just 28,000 others.
And Breathe Normally, Ísold Uggadóttir’s little-seen but stunning debut feature film from 2018, holds a magnifying glass to one particular encounter in Keflavik airport, and asks what might happen if two people, each in their own form of peril, could reach across that invisible line to help one another. For fans of Ken Loach and Andrew Haigh, it is an immensely moving piece of storytelling, focused on the human cost of the cold, unfeeling systems designed to control immigration in the western world.
Lara, a cash-strapped single mother and recovering addict, is in training at her new job as a border patrol officer. She’s maxed out her credit cards, lost her apartment and is sleeping in her car with her son, Eldar, and his new cat, Musi. Desperate for financial stability and eager to impress, she spots a fake passport on shift; her diligence earns her praise, but ruptures a family. Adja, a refugee fleeing Guinea-Bissau due to her sexuality, is now separated from her sister and daughter, who board a Toronto-bound plane without her. She is marched to a detention centre with only the clothes on her back – useless against Iceland’s bitter cold, as emphasised by Ita Zbroniec-Zajt’s chilly cinematography.
But Lara and Adja meet again, in a chance encounter that sparks an unlikely bond between the two women, who discover surprising ways they can help each other. And Breathe Normally involves the viewer in this tender friendship without ever feeling invasive; the characters are kept at arm’s length, and the sparing use of music avoids tipping the film into melodrama, as “unlikely bond” stories often do. Lara and Adja also discover much more common ground than they might have initially suspected; they’re both queer women and mothers, facing uphill battles against forces outside of their control.
Therein lies And Breathe Normally’s power. Uggadóttir humanises issues such as poverty and immigration that are too often told through statistics, brilliantly laying bare the lack of accountability that exists in bureaucratic systems. As Adja struggles for asylum in Canada, she finds herself at the mercy of paperwork and seemingly arbitrary decisions. “You just have to be patient,” says her caseworker, as though patience alone will reunite her with her family. Later, upon being denied asylum, her frustration is met with bureaucratese. “These are not my rules,” the caseworker says. The question in Adja’s eyes is obvious: then whose are they?
Uggadóttir roots these issues in touching interpersonal details, be they Adja’s fleeting phone calls with her daughter, or Lara’s explanation to Eldar that their eviction is merely a “secret adventure”. She also has a taste for irony: sitting in the waiting room of the immigration office, Eldar idly picks up an old women’s magazine and opens a story about Björgólfur Guðmundsson, the billionaire businessman who was a key player in Iceland’s economic disrepair following the 2008 financial crisis. “Brings his fortunes home!” sings the optimistic headline.
Moments such as this develop the fourth main character in the film: Iceland itself. Through subtle details, Uggadóttir exposes the ways in which her home country is more complicated than its idyllic reputation might imply. Adja’s experience reveals Iceland’s policies and attitudes to be as racist and xenophobic as any western democracy; when Lara asks with concern what will happen to her, a colleague says definitively: “She broke the law, you do realise that?” Later, Eldar’s teacher discovers drugs in his school bag, but she pardons Lara, instinctively presuming them to belong to Adja. While Lara’s struggles might feel endless, she is reminded in this moment of how her privilege protects her.
As implied by the title, And Breathe Normally is ultimately an exploration of lives in transit. Iceland itself is an island of passage, with transatlantic flights making routine stopovers, and the film is presumably named after oxygen mask instructions in airline safety videos. It’s a simple command that conjures the most instant relief we turn to in moments of distress: inhalation. In And Breathe Normally, Adja and Lara collide on their respective journeys. In reaching out to one another, they become each other’s oxygen.