SPOTLIGHT: ‘The Hero’s Journey to the Third Pole’ documentary- Icelandic directors discuss their film about mental health

One of our favourite films shown at Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival CPH:DOX in the Nordic Dox award category was The Hero’s Journey to the Third Pole. An absolutely beautiful, moving, and musical piece from directors Andri Magnason and Anní Ólafsdóttir which focuses on mental health, particularly bipolar disorder.

We spoke with the directors about this important film and how it came to be made.

How did the concept first come about for this film?

Andri and Anní: The film came about almost randomly. Anna Tara Edwards is an Icelander raised in Nepal. Her English father was a larger than life character, he got stranded in Nepal after attempting to drive a SAAB from Sweden to Australia in the 60s. He became a friend of the king and helped create national parks and eco tourism in Nepal.

His wife was Icelandic, she was bipolar, and Anna Tara got her first manic episodes in her 20s. She had been living in the shame of being mentally ill until Högni Egilsson, an Icelandic singer, came out as bipolar after trying to run against the Reykjavík Marathon.

Anna Tara decided to address the stigma and come out as well by organising a mental health awareness concert in Katmandhu. She invited Högni to perform and talk about his struggle. Högni called us, with a weeks notice, if we wanted to film the concert. Anni was getting a good reputation for her visual work and Högni knew that I was writing a book about glaciers, mythology and the Himalayas.

In our film, ‘The Third Pole’ is a symbol for balance. If you are bipolar, then just keeping yourself on the line between the high and the lows, or rise from depression, can be a heroic task. Not everyone survives. 

Me and Anni did not know each other but within a week, we were in Nepal and when we met Anna Tara and her 13 elephants we understood that this was potentially material for an epic, important film. Högni referred sometimes to Campbell and The Hero’s Journey.

People in mania can feel like they are characters in a larger scheme of world events. I have written fantasy and children’s books so we gave ourselves permission to play with this idea. The Third Pole is also symbolic. The Himalayjan region is the third biggest Ice cap on earth.

In our film ‘The Third Pole’ is a symbol for balance. If you are bipolar, then just keeping yourself on the line between the high and the lows, or rise from depression, can be a heroic task. Not everyone survives. 

Anna Tara Edwards, Hogni, and the elephants!

How did you come to learn about Anna and Hogni’s battles with their mental health? Was there ever concern on how their struggles were depicted on screen? 

Andri and Anní: Högni had been open about his disease since he came out in 2012, one of the first of his generation and one of the first in Iceland to bring awareness to bipolar disorder and confront the stima. He is a cultural icon in Iceland and a huge talent, eccentric and flamboyant, one of very few Icelanders that actually looks like a Viking, he has a voice like Seal. He can keep a techno club in Berlin dancing for 3 hours, but is classically trained, composes for choirs and writes Mahlerish orchestras.

I have known Anna Tara for many years but I did not know she had been mentally ill. Anna Tara was reluctant to be filmed, and Högni does not want to be defined by his disorder, despite his openness, he is sensitive to the stigma. It was a delicate balance, and lots of talking and building of trust and understanding.

We had some backlashes where they, understandably, had second thoughts of being so exposed in a film. Some scenes were on hold for a while, as they show vulnerable sides and difficult stories. They needed time to come to terms with them. We told them all the time that their lives and wellbeing were more important than a film. In the end we were all very happy with the outcome, and Högni was kind of closing a difficult time in his life. 

What do you hope ‘A Hero’s Journey to the Third Pole’ will achieve for those who watch it?

Andri and Anní: We wanted of course to make a good film, a good work of art, but of course to be useful as well, this is a cause where life and death are at stake and depression and suicide are part of the story. Many bystanders of people with mental illness have approached us and shown appreciation, and some that are diagnosed were happy as well.

We have the lives and reputation of Högni and Anna Tara and their families. We wanted to humanise mental health, fight the stigma, but also have take chances with a creative, visual and poetic, or playful approach. We got good advice from Psychiatrics but let our subjects define the disease on their own terms, as they are specialists in their own illness.

We wanted to humanise mental health, fight the stigma, but also have take chances with a creative, visual and poetic, or playful approach.

When we tried to put doctors on the timeline, our protagonists were reduced to the disease. We wanted to bring the reality of mental illness closer to people, to see that anyone can potentially become mentally ill but live a good live with help, people that could be your mother, brother, lover or classmate. 

Talk to us about the incredible film poster that was designed for the film and will there be a soundtrack?

Andri and Anní: The Poster is done by Atli Sigursveinsson, a talented young Icelandic graphic designer, and a total fan of Drew Struzan, the designer of the most iconic movie posters of our childhood, Blade Runner, Star Wars etc.

We got a theatrical release in mainstream cinemas in Iceland and wanted to reach a broad audience with an unusual poster.

And thank you for reminding us to finish publishing the soundtrack! Most of the score is original score by Högni, and we have had plans to publish it – or at least have a Spotify list. A few items are on YouTube – but the score shows very well Högni’s talent. 

Have you caught many of the other documentaries showing at CPH:DOX – any favourites?

Andri and Anní: We are currently binging our category, The Nordic:Dox Award. Lots of very good film there. Otherwise we have been busy finishing our new documentary, doing the last touch in post production. 

Can we expect a wider release of the film in the future?

Andri and Anní: We are talking to distributors as we speak and are sending it to festivals around the world. We hope it will be available sometime this year through some services and hopefully in TV and schools.

We have seen that the major networks like Netflix have very few mental health related documentaries. We are getting great response so there should be demand, not least after the virus, many are traumatised after last year and the aftershock might be quite serious in the coming years. 

What is next for you both?

Andri and Anní: Our next film is ready, Apausalypse. When The Hero’s Journey to the Third Pole premier was cancelled in March 2020 due to the Corona virus we were disappointed. But Anni asked, if we are film makers, why should it be a disappointment to live historical times. We called the equipment rental and all cameras were in the house. We rented the best camera we could get and started to capture the void and got artists that had lost their stages to fill the empty spaces.

We interviewed poets, writers, philosophers, theologists, in the midst of the uncertainty and asked: What was the deeper meaning, of living in a world on hold? Many talked about mental health and everyone mentioned global warming in this context, if we could stop the economy to save grandmothers, can we stop things to save our grandchildren? This is a 52-minute documentary with full score by Ásta Fanney Sigurðardóttir. A modern Decameron with dance and airplanes.

My book, On Time and Water, the one about glaciers, mythology and the Himalayas, is being published in 30 languages these days. That keeps me quite busy and we are planning a documentary from that material.

Anni just directed a 15-minute music video for Oscar Award Winner Marketa Irglovas and her new song, Among the Living

For those in Denmark, you can catch The Hero’s Journey to the Third Pole for the next week in cinemas and online as part of CPH:DOX – go see it if you can. For anyone else we are keeping a close eye on when/where you can catch it next!

Interview by Alex Minnis

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