There’s a reason why Neil Armstrong decided to spend part of his summer in 1967 salmon-fishing in Iceland—the place doesn’t feel like it belongs on Earth. Iceland is a territory of pure grit, where volcanoes constantly spew white smoke and purple hues of Alaska lupine pepper the landscape. When I visited the country in 2018, it felt alien, like standing on a giant meteor that had crash-landed smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
In more than one way, Sisters, Dreams and Variations brings this Icelandic extraterrestrial aura to the big screen. The documentary follows multidisciplinary artists and sisters Tyr Jami and Jasa Baka, a pair of budding artists in Montreal. Beginning in 2014, the film tracks their move to Iceland, their great-grandmother’s home, in 2018. Their journey is depicted as a pastiche of vintage family photographs, childish drawings, and extravagant real-life scenes that fully embrace their artistic whims.
Jasa Baka is a painter, sculptor, and fashion designer with a boundless and prolific creative output. Swaggering around the Plateau with cat-eye glasses and purple lipstick, Baka struts from one art gallery to the next, painstakingly trying to make a name for herself in the Montreal art scene. Her life and work teem with vibrant outfits, cutesy dollhouses, and random colourful knick-knacks. Tyr Jami, a visual artist and musician, splits her time between giving cello lessons and playing every available gig with her folk band Syngja, whether on a weeknight at Casa del Popolo, for a local summer festival, or on a Montreal morning show. The cinematography beautifully captures the sisters’ brimming imagination: Scenes of mundane, daily life are sprinkled with Baka’s playful doodles and refreshed by Jami’s whimsical cello melodies and crystal clear, early-90s Björk vocals. Their creative visions radiate in Montreal’s early-spring doldrums.
But, there is a sense that the sisters lack something in Montreal—not solely because their great-grandmother, Ingibjörg, whose Icelandic lullabies are immortalized on cassette tapes, lulls her great-granddaughters back to their ancestral land. When Jami and Baka finally do visit Iceland, their artistic idiosyncrasies find their echo amid the craggy hills and lonely pastures. The result is an enchanting marriage of nature and craft, myth and rubble, and flurries of phantasmagorical illusions.
After a Friday night screening at the Cinéma du Musée, director Catherine Legault commented on her film’s intentions.
“I wanted to show [the sisters] through many different perspectives and also show them as artists, what is the life of artists, which is not always easy in Montreal, despite their talent,” Legault explained. “But for them, it is an integral part of their life. It is in all these small aspects of their lives that their art unveils itself. Iceland is an inspiration, but it is not what defines them. And when we got to Iceland, after having planted all the seeds, the idea was to make [their artistry] blossom […] now that we had the keys to understand where they came from and how their style came about.”
Legault couldn’t have spoken more truthfully. If Jami and Baka struggle to find a source of fulfillment in their adopted city of Montreal, they discover it among the geysers of their ancestral home. Sisters, Dreams and Variations is a beautiful depiction of their journey, fusing family and art, while paying homage to a small island that leaves grand impressions.
Legault’s quote was translated from French by the author.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jasa Baka was the violinist of Singya, and that Tyr Jami was a visual artist. Baka is a visual artist, and Jami was the cellist of Syngya. The Tribune regrets this error.