Born in Rejkavijk, Iceland and raised in Vancouver, Sturla Gunnarsson is both a citizen of the world and a national treasure. He has received numerous awards for his films and television work, including an Emmy, a Genie, a few Geminis, and an Academy Award nomination.
Born in Rejkavijk, Iceland and raised in Vancouver, Sturla Gunnarsson is both a citizen of the world and a national treasure. He has received numerous awards for his films and television work, including an Emmy, a Genie, a few Geminis, and an Academy Award nomination. No stranger to telling environmental stories, Gunnarsson received the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Audience Award for Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie, and contributed to the National Parks Project (2011) collaborative film celebrating Canada’s national parks.
Gunnarsson’s newest film, Monsoon, marks a homecoming of sorts. Married into an Indian family, the filmmaker’s love for the country is readily apparent: “India speaks to my heart,” he says. “I like myself more when I’m here. And taking this adventure helped me explore what it is that moves me so.”
The monsoon rains dictate the lives and livelihood of India’s billion inhabitants. Once called ‘the true finance minister of India’ by its first Prime Minister, Nehru, approximately 75 per cent of country’s total rainfall comes from the monsoon rains. With agriculture employing over 600 million people and comprising 20 per cent of the national GDP, a good monsoon means a good economy. This year, the weak monsoon boosted inflation in the country, and created political challenges for the government.
“Some people say that the monsoon is the soul of India,” said Gunnarsson in my recent interview with him. “It’s a massive weather system that governs the conditions of existence for all.”
Gunnarsson’s film crew follows the monsoon across the Indian sub-continent, from low-lying Kerala in the southwest of the country, to high-altitude Meghalaya in the northeast. “This film is a personal, narrative journey, and I’m the narrative thread” shares Gunnarsson. “It’s an exploration of myself, a non-believer, in a land of believers. The god-like force of the monsoon is as close to god as I’m ever going to get.”
With 23 official languages, home to every religion on earth, the monsoon is the one thing that unites the whole country. “Everyone breathes the monsoon air, drinks the monsoon water.” The filmmaker explains: “The monsoon is a blessing. It creates life. It destroys life. People try to manage and predict it, but in the end, humans are insignificant in the face of it.”
This four-month period of massive storms is the Earth’s most productive rainy season. But climate change is creating long-term shifts and increasing instability in the monsoon’s patterns. The monsoons are arriving later and yielding less water in some regions, creating drought, while causing destructive surprise flooding in other regions. With overcrowded cities and poor sewage infrastructure, India is ill-prepared to handle the coming frequency of droughts and floods.
The country’s future climate challenges are foreshadowed in some harrowing moments of the film. “Monsoon season is a time when feelings are in high relief,” notes Gunnarsson. “Our characters’ relationship to the numinous quality of the monsoon gave me an understanding and appreciation of their faith.”
Carrying the multi-dimensional narrative of the film, Gunnarsson’s images are transcendent. “The constant presence of god is the defining characteristic of India,” he reveals, sharing a conclusion of his exploration. “It’s a complicated theme for me to understand, as a non-believer, but the feeling is palpable and deeply moving.” Through Monsoon, viewers are invited to cross the thin boundary between the physical and spiritual.
Visually stunning, and shot under extreme weather conditions, Monsoon showcases Gunnarsson’s veteran skills and passion for the country and the trials it faces. “In India, there is a faith that all things are possible even in the face of daunting evidence. We all need that faith, that belief in possibility.”
Monsoon, directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, Canada: ARTE/CBC, 2014, 108 minutes.