In Conversation with Ólafur Arnalds on When We Are Born

Image Credit: Anna Maggy

Ólafur Arnalds, Icelandic composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer, premiered his short film When We Are Born in the UK on the 9th of October at Rough Trade East. This 25-minute piece, directed by the French filmmaker, Vincent Moon, was filmed in Iceland during the summer of 2020. Narrated by the songs from his most recent album, some kind of peace, it tells a personal story of Ólafur’s life. While his previous works have clearly revealed an attraction to cinematic elements, this is the first one to contain a complete, developed storyline.

The message of the film might be different for every audience member at the premiere that evening. Personally, it tells a story of embarking on a journey from home. Led by Ólafur’s music, the film’s protagonist wanders from one place to another with seamless transitions. The long takes create a sense of continuity between the changing scenes.

Dances, rituals, hands; When We Are Born is full of patterns and motifs. ‘We were doing this in a time where we were told not to touch each other. We were being told to avoid human connections,’ reflected Ólafur. ‘By coincidence, we were making a film about human touch and human connections. We didn't really realise—until a few months later—how much we needed it and how important it was to us all.’ In a time of unpredictability, Ólafur’s experimentation with this new form of art echoed the presence of transformation in a multitude of dimensions.

The story told by When We Are Born feels like a retrospective one, with emotions of warmth and melancholy running through the path of rediscovery. The chaos of birth and rebirth is assuaged by the tranquil cinematography, retaining the film’s beautiful aesthetics whilst constraining some energies that would have had a bursting potential. Undeniable though, is Ólafur’s artistry in adapting the music to be played live. The film is certainly a thoughtful visual presentation of his transformative album.

Before the screening, we sat down with Ólafur to talk about his thought process behind this unique production.

When you were writing the album, was the film already on your mind?

Yes, it was. When I was writing the album, halfway through, this film started to form in my mind. From that point on, they developed together. There was no album without the film and there was no film without the album.

Was it the music or the images that came to you first?

When I was writing the album, I had the concept of the film, but it was more methodological. I have an idea of 'how' but not of 'what.' I wanted to do a live film, where we play the music inside the film and there is a story that weaves through it. That was all I knew. Only after I finished writing the album, the story became clearer to me. That is when Vincent Moon and I started writing the actual story. It was based on the songs that we ha