Sexuality Is About Communicating With Other People: Interview with 'My Year of Dicks' Director Sara Gunnarsdóttir

Sara Gunnarsdottir interview on 'My Year of Dicks'

Based on the memories by Pamela Ribon, 'Notes to Boys: And Other Things I Shouldn't Share in Public' and produced by FX, a subsidiary of Disney Entertainment, 'My Year of Dicks' is a film that tells the story of Pam, a 15 years old girl who wants to lose her virginity with the right guy. With this plot, Sara Gunnarsdóttir (Reykjavik, 1982) gives us the most outstanding short animated film nominee of the last Oscar ceremony. 

My Year of Dicks reached the Oscar nomination after a tour where it won among others, the Crystal Award for Best TV Production, Annecy, 2022. Best Animated Series in the Animator Festival in Poznan, Poland. In the edition 2022 of the prestigious SXSW, it won the Special Jury recognition for unique Vision in Writing and Directing, and a nomination for the SXSW Grand Jury Award. Meanwhile, in Ottawa International Animation Festival won again in the Best Animated Series category. But what is this film about that causes such a stir?

MYOD is a film that navigates between the strange, horrifying, sweetness, but always with humor and honesty. The film has many memorable parts, but without a doubt, the strongest one is the talk about sexuality that Pam's father gives her, not only because of what it means on a narrative level but because of how the animation reflects those emotions of a 15-year-old girl listening to something that she perhaps didn't want to hear or possibly in another way. Using the rotoscoping technique and her expertise, Sara composes a collage of diverse animated styles to illustrate the different experiences in which Pam is involved, from romantic-erotic style to anime series, going through the darkest styles to complement the most awkward experiences that are usually lived in the search for one of the most important life experiences: the first sexual relationship. Although MYOD can have a nostalgic reading for those who grew up in the nineties, it is a current film that places us nowadays where the debate on sexuality and sexual identity is very controversial. It ingeniously looks at the past to try to understand the present.

Sara is an artist who has a clear and direct style, she does not seek the perfect design but provokes emotions with her lines, textures and color palette. Her animations are full of melancholy and hope. In her embroidery work, obsessions and delicate styles converge that make us reflect on the ephemeral nature of the moments she captures. Sara agreed to speak with Zippy Frames via video call to tell us about her experience and her long path to an Oscar nomination for 'My Year of Dicks' which took place just a couple of weeks ago.

My Year of Dicks

ZF: How are you and where are you after the Oscars night?

SG: I am good, thanks. It's been crazy but I am finally in Iceland enjoying the quietness of home.  

ZF: Sara Gunnarsdóttir is an Icelandic director, animator, and artist. She is mainly known for directing and animating sequences of The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) and for directing and animating the Oscar-nominated short film 'My Year of Dicks' (2022). That's what we can find in your biography on Wikipedia. 

SG: It is short but behind is a woman working hard for at least 10 years to arrive at this moment, a nomination for the Oscar.  

ZF: Do you agree with this information from Wikipedia?

SG: Well, at least it is something. I've been working kind of in between live-action and animation and in a way that is some sort of no-man's-land. But I have been working for at least 11 years since I finished school. It's been a hard path from the end of the school till now but I am very happy that somehow this nomination gives me recognition for all that I have done.

ZF: That is true because one of your first works in Hollywood was The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), which talks about the awakening of sexuality in a fifteen-year-old girl.

SG: Yes and that story happens in the seventies in a pretty difficult situation. If I have to compare the 90s and 70s I guess It was harder in the 70s to talk about teenage sexuality. The 90s were not the best either, still, at that time, no one was talking about consent. I think perhaps it's getting a bit better today … I hope so. 

My Diary of A Teenage Girl

ZF: What was it like to be a teenager in Iceland in the nineties?

SG: It was ok I think. I think it is safer than the USA. Iceland is so small compared to the United States and I had a lot of freedom as a teenager. 

ZF: The context is not the same in a place like Iceland or Texas or L.A.

SG: Yes, in USA cities it feels like you could get lost very easily. Still, I think the experiences of teenagehood are surprisingly universal. 

ZF: When you finished the film, did it cross your mind that you would get the nomination?

SG: Not really because the film was made for TV which doesn't apply to the Oscars. Once FX Network told us it wouldn’t be aired we started looking at it as a short film and that made much more sense for us in the end. FX Productions were good to us and allowed us to take it to the Oscars. 

ZF: Did you study in L.A.?

SG: Yes, I started in CalArts back in 2007 and then stayed in the States for 14 years. I moved back to Iceland recently with my husband and daughter. When I was at CalArts I was in a group of 20 girls and one guy, and I married that guy (laughs). After graduating I started to work independently. Now I have a five-year-old daughter, which was one of the reasons we decided to move to Iceland. 

ZF: In the making of MYOD, I saw you were working remotely, how was the experience doing it like that?

SG: It fitted me perfectly since that’s how I’ve been working for a decade. We were working with an amazing group all around and I feel like this never once became a problem. When we were recording reference footage with some of the actors on zoom it felt a bit strange, but in the end, worked in our favor. I ended up recording a lot of references with my husband at home. 

Related: The 15 Oscar-Shortlisted Animation Shorts 2023, Ranked

ZF: What are the risks of making films like yours? Independent pieces with issues that are not the usual or the protagonists are not those everyone expects to see?

SG: I have no idea what the risks are. I do know that as long as you are making films you deeply care about the reward is tremendous.

ZF: Can we say that your career has always been on the independent side of art and it was a choice or just the conditions made it because there are a lot of animators looking to go to the United States just to work in big studios?

SG: First yes, and second no, it was my choice. I have always been on the artistic path. At some point when I started I said to myself that whatever happened I must be honest with my vision of art. I am not interested in big studios. I think it would kill my love for animation. I like working with small groups, you know when you are forming a group you pick all those that love and believe in their approach to animation. I am not interested if you can animate perfectly after a character sheet, I am interested in the artist's approach.

ZF: What is happening in Iceland with animation? Is there an industry or festival that promotes this art? So far Iceland already has two Oscar-nominated animation shorts [the other is 'Yes-People' by Gísli Darri Halldórsson].

SG: Actually, we have no animation schools to study animation, if you want to do it you need to go abroad. I’m not connected very well to what’s being made in animation in Iceland, but there have been some 3D features produced here. 

ZF: How did you get involved in this film?

SG: Well, FX was looking to make the adaptation of 'Notes to Boys: And Other Things I Shouldn't Share in Public' by Pamela Ribbon. FX and Pam were interested in an independent look, so they had a list of possible independent artists that could assemble a team. I was on that list, and basically, Pamela chose me. I am very grateful for it

My Year of Dicks

ZF: When I saw the trailer for the first time, I immediately recognized your style. Even with the different styles your vision is noticeable, kind of punk, honest, direct, and dark but somehow with hope. What did it mean to you to dive into other styles?

SG: It was Pamela's idea to make it in different styles and play with genres, and I thought that was brilliant. It meant I could assemble an amazing team of animation artists and give them each a part of the story for their own artistic style. 

ZF: I was commissioned to make an animation program from the Nordic countries, and from there I have followed your work. Why are you not very well known in Europe?

SG: Probably because as I said before I have been living and working in between live-action and animation in the USA, and mostly in this commercial / Independent film space. 

ZF: Among the many virtues of the film are honesty, humor, and creativity to tell us a story that could be that of any girl from those years. Do you think the girls of these years could recognize themselves with what happens to the protagonist of MYOD?

SG: Totally yes. And I hope the girls could feel connected with the story. One thing that I liked when we started the project is that Pamela has those VHS tapes where she recorded herself and her friends. That was not very common in those years but she had it. This I think is something that connects with the visual language of nowadays.

ZF: It was like a video blog but without the internet just for herself.

SG: Yes, it was something like that. (Laughs)

ZF: In The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the protagonist used a voice recorder because it was the seventies. In the nineties Pamela used VHS, and in the future, it would be Tik Tok diaries.

SG: Or something else, but those videos gave the story that honest and funny part of a girl's concern about her life and reality. 

ZF: After watching the film I reflect on how the media teaches what is supposed to be the sexuality of a woman.

SG: You mean pop culture in its entirety. I understand and I guess it is because it was only the male vision of the matter. Now is content created by women with our voices. Not just a single male voice, usually a white male voice.

   We must be clear that in the end sexuality is more about communicating with other people, not only the physical part

ZF: Do you think that something has changed regarding the issue of sexual awakening in new generations?

SG: Yes, definitely. Because now teenagers discuss it more, they are not scared as before to talk about what they want, or how they identify themselves. Before, it was not easy to put out there.

ZF: 'My Year of Dicks' reminds me a bit of 'The Beat of Sex' by Signe Baumane. Did you know that series?

SG: No, I know she made 'My Love Affair with Marriage' but I didn't know about the series you mentioned. I will check it as soon as I can. 

ZF: You worked with a bunch of very good independent artists, including Amanda Bonaiuto, Simon Estrada, Grace Nayoon Rhee…

SG: And Josh Shaffner, Cassie Shao, Isabelle Aspin, Kevin Eskew, Brian Smee, and many more. I am very happy that we were able to do a great job together. I really like what they do. It was a great team.

ZF: What is next? What are the projects in the pipeline?

SG: Good question. Pamela and I are working on making a proper TV series from the book. I am also working on an Amy Berg documentary about Jeff Buckley.

  I am very grateful to the women who have worked hard to make this happen, those women achieved those changes

ZF: That sounds promising and exciting, but do you have a personal secret project, live-action, animation, or in between?

SG: Well, yes. I have some ideas. One of those with my husband about a story we are looking to do at some point but now is too early to talk about it. 

ZF: How is it to be a woman now?

SG: It is fantastic! I could never have had in the 90's the opportunities that I have now, it's true. When I was a preteen I never thought it could be real because in those times I had already noticed that men were given more opportunities or freedom. I am very grateful to the women who have worked hard to make this happen, those women achieved those changes. Now is my time to contribute and keep doing that with my art. 

ZF: Do you want to tell something to students, and animation artists?

SG: Probably to the students. Embrace your way of making animation. Embrace your artistic vision and your way of doing things. I know that there is not much money in independent animation but you need to think about what you really need to be happy without losing what you think animation allows you to express.

Watch 'My Year of Dicks':

contributed by: Kropka

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