We Shall Not Go Hungry

Sundance Screenwriters Lab finalist, 2019.

ScreenCraft Fantasy Contest quarter finalist, 2019.

Logline

In Viking Age Iceland, Sigrun and her two brothers are reunited with their estranged father, only to fall prey to a horrific curse. After they are alienated from their local community and their father goes missing, Sigrun must protect her brothers from this malevolent presence by any means necessary, but uncovering her family’s dark past may lead her to become the very thing she’s fighting.


Synopsis

In the 10th century, Sigrun, a young Norse woman, comes with her two little brothers Sveinn and Gudmundr and their family’s two thralls to Iceland, to be reunited with their estranged father following their mother’s death. Sigrun is frustrated that conservative Icelandic society doesn’t allow her to hunt or practice swordfighting, but she enjoys the hotsprings and talking with the local chieftain's nephew, Yngvar. She is troubled, however, by dim memories and dreams of her mother and grandfather, which her father urges her to keep secret.

The situation grows more tense as their food suddenly spoils and mysterious runes appear carved into the door, and one night Sigrun overhears her father burying something. When their thralls vanish and the horse turns up dead, its head mounted on a pole in an ancient curse ritual, their father finally turns to the local community for help. Refusing to give his land to the chieftain, however, he inadvertently causes a rift with their only allies, dooming them to a winter of starvation.

Cautioning Sigrun to leave the dead alone, he wanders out into the storm, only to return later, a strange, violent husk of his former self. After he attacks his children they hide in the farmhouse. As they prepare to flee the valley, Sveinn reveals that their father buried their family's ancient magical chest, and Sveinn dug it up again. Sigrun is furious, believing this taboo artifact to be the cause of their suffering. When they go to rebury it, their father attacks them, and Sigrun is only able to defeat him with help from the magic of the chest.

Gudmundr is badly injured in the fight, making escape to the chieftain's farm impossible. After Sigrun and Sveinn realise that the scrap of fabric Gudmundr found in the woods is an apron belonging to one of the thralls, Sigrun sets out to look for them. Instead, she finds their bodies hanging from a tree, with the remnants of a curse spell to make them talk. Suddenly her consciousness is taken to an ice cave where a mysterious old man vows that she and her brothers will die.

Urging Sveinn to look after his little brother, Sigrun runs to the chieftain's farm by herself. Upon her arrival, the chieftain's servants lock her up, wasting precious time. Finally freed upon the chieftain's return, Sigrun urges the chieftain to send help to their farm, agreeing to give up her father’s land. She returns to her father’s farm with Yngvar, only to discover that her brothers are missing. Instead of helping her, Yngvar insists on digging up the chest, which he believes is full of silver. When he discovers the magical artifacts inside, he is convinced that the community’s worst suspicions are right: Sigrun is a witch.

They fight, and Sigrun has the upper hand, but she is distracted by the sound of her brothers calling her. Yngvar stabs her in the side and flees. Sigrun staggers towards her brothers, huddled by the wall, but instead sees that they’re both dead, throats cut, and the Old Man has been making their bodies talk.

Sigrun is unable to carry her brothers back into the farmhouse, so at last she makes her way to the hot spring, where, at the very limit of her endurance, she has a near death vision culminating in her grandfather giving her her forgotten nickname, the key to her forbidden magical power. She takes up his magical artifacts and heads to the woods, where she learns from the bodies of the thralls that they have been to the lair of the Old Man, and can point out the way if they can see it. Sigrun cuts down one of the thralls and takes her head.

Spotting the Old Man near the woods, she follows him into the highlands, only to lose him when he leaps from a cliff and turns into an eagle. The head leads her the rest of the way until the eagle returns and pecks out its eyes. At the last moment Sigrun grazes it with an arrow and follows the blood trail to an ice cave.

Within the cave she finally confronts the Old Man, who paralyses her with a spell and tells her the real backstory: He and her grandfather were warriors and witches of Odin, as well as lovers. When the Old Man finally had a son, he sent the boy to live with Sigrun’s grandfather and her parents, but her father got into an argument with the boy and killed him. The Old Man has finally tracked down their entire family together to destroy them.

As he’s about to kill her, Sigrun reveals that she’s not alone: She has raised her brothers as draugar, the undead thing that the Old Man turned her father into, and they have followed her to the ice cave. The Old Man becomes an eagle and flees into the valley, but Sigrun turns into a wolf and finishes him off.

Some time later, the community is wondering what evil happened in their valley. The farmhouses are ruined, and there are signs of a struggle in the highlands. The chieftain's son rises and walks outside, and there in the farmyard is the severed head of their horse, mounted on a pole, a new curse by a new witch. High up in a rocky cave, Sigrun and the draugar feast on the body of the Old Man.


Artistic statement

I graduated with honors in screenwriting from Brown University, and I’ve been writing and directing films for 7 years now. I’m a queer, neurodivergent filmmaker, and challenging the concept of “objective reality”, and its underpinnings in privileged intellectualism, is very important to me.

Horror stories reflect the times they were written in. In the Viking Age, the great dichotomy underpinning their views of the world were inside versus outside, order and chaos, law and outlaw, midgardr and utgardr. The gods don’t really reflect goodness or benevolence, but they do stand for order and human civilisation, whereas every villain in Norse stories - the giants, Loki and his children, the enemies of Ragnarok, are embodiments of chaos.

In We Shall Not Go Hungry, I wanted to take this concept of inside versus outside and apply it to our modern age, when we see so clearly the injustices done by institutionalised power against marginalised communities.

Social standing was paramount in Norse society. Outlawry was the very worst punishment you could receive: From that point on you no longer received the protection or benefits of society, and you could be hunted and killed like a wolf (which was a term frequently used for outlaws). One had to follow a standard of behaviour in society, or risk being relegated to the wilderness.

The fear of Norse society are reflected in the behaviours they condoned. For example, killing a neighbour wasn’t inherently a serious offence, and could quickly be smoothed over with the appropriate payment. Certain kinds of magic, however, were frequently punished by mob law, putting a sack over the head of the suspected witch and stoning him or her to death.

Gender norms played a large role in magic and acceptable behaviour. Iceland was more conservative in its approach to gender than some other Norse countries: Women couldn’t bear weapons, serve on a jury, inherit chieftaincy, or represent themselves in trial. In numerous inscriptions, the same set of words are used for a man with no honour, a male practitioner of certain kinds of forbidden magic, and a man who bottoms during gay sex (an offense so terrible than even to accuse a man of it was punishable by greater outlawry or quick death).

The fact that male witches were so reviled, coupled with the references to Odin participating in magic, and numerous grave finds which mix gendered grave goods, speaks to the possibility of a once thriving practice of magic which incorporated what would later come to be seen as gender and sexual deviance. In numerous other circumpolar cultures (which Norse culture has strong elements of), third genders exists with special magical functions.

The world into which Sigrun arrives is no longer receptive to wild, gender deviant magic, and she is cut off from the cultural continuum which supported the practice her Norse and Sami ancestors. Her father refuses to tell her anything about them in order to protect her, but ironically by depriving her of that knowledge he endangers her further. She has visions of her mother and her ancestors, but social pressure tells her they are dangerous and not to be listened to.

Every day in our modern society, value judgments are thrown against marginalised groups. Poverty is stigmatised, non-standard accents are ridiculed, aggressions are inflicted based on race and gender, and queer and trans people are still reviled as in some way perverse. There is a constant, sometimes violent pressure to conform, to preserve the status quo and its institutions of power. The trappings of power may change, but society’s fear of the outside never does.

I wanted to make a story about how easy it is to fall through the cracks when you’re already marginalised, but also about the power you can find when you finally question the norms society has given you. The concept of “evil”, after all, has been redefined with every generation; in our society, the placations of tolerance in the face of adversity, non-violence, taking the high road, all deserve to be challenged. Who do they benefit?

By the end of the story, Sigrun is an outlaw. She has in turn become the brooding witch she battled and defeated, and civilised Icelandic society has a greater threat to contend with. By their definition, she is evil, the worst possible monster in their culture, defying every natural boundary: male and female, living and dead, human and animal. But to Sigrun, she has transformed into something strong, someone true to herself.

In its broadest sense, the intended audience of this story is fans of horror and period film, and people interested in magic and belief and the history of indigenous European people. In a deeper sense I want it to connect with marginalised people who have to struggle with the oppressive status quo of modern society, by reexamining history through a lens of feminism and queerness; I believe the power gained through casting off exploitative social norms and embracing a “deviant” identity is universal.


Current stage

Dark Tower Films specialises in historical and speculative fiction content, but this would be our first feature-length production. Right now the project is in development and we're talking to Icelandic producers about co-producing. Fortunately, since we're a fully equipped production company, our gear rentals will be very low, and post-production will be almost entirely in-house. We have $40k pledged so far, and hope to get a lot more as we go into fundraising. At a minimum we're aiming for $150k budget.

We're really excited to dig into this underrepresented time in history - you see Vikings on screen all the time, larger than life and with very little actual history to back them up, but it's rare to see the real lives of people of this period, particularly delving deeply into their psychology and their mythic worldview. I spent about five months doing exhaustive research on magic and religion of the period, piecing together evidence and finding new parallels, and examining in detail some aspects which as far as I know nobody else has. My goal was to create a horror film entirely fuelled by the fears and desires and understanding of the time, but which resonates with our society today.

We're also looking forward to shooting in Iceland, where it's pretty much impossible to make any shot not beautiful. We've done some brief location scouting, and we'll work with local producers to find the rest of our locations, as well as on casting.