How can we do what we love while raising kids? Is it selfish to take kids on adventures? How do we create a life that balanced risk and enrichment for children? These are a few of the questions parents face and which adventure photographer and filmmaker Chris Burkard poses in his stunning new film Unnur.
The documentary centers on Elli Thor, an Icelandic photographer, surfer, and former kayaker who, a decade ago, nearly drowned after being trapped under a waterfall. Elli, who was raised in the outdoors as a child, tried to distance himself from what he loved and started on a more conventional path. Slowly, he realized how much he needed it to be the person he is, and why sharing that passion with his daughter — even if the way he raises her might be seen as unconventional – is a worthwhile pursuit.
Unnur is a beautiful film about parenting and reclaiming one’s passion amidst the otherworldly backdrop of the Icelandic countryside. We spoke to Burkard, one of the most acclaimed adventure filmmakers in the world, about Elli and Unnur’s relationship, the duty of a parent to introduce their kids to risk, and what he learned about his own style of parenting from watching Elli.
You’ve been a filmmaker for a long time. But this is the first film that is more of a human-interest story. What made you want to tell the story of Elli and Unnur?
It was pretty straightforward. There’s an evolution that happens to every person where you want to tell more deep and meaningful stories and you hope to aspire to some way to move beyond the “surf porn” scenario where you’re just making movies about beautiful landscapes and activities. And although adventure is great, the greatest adventure we’ll all endure is that of raising children and that of taking that journey inside of ourselves to find out who we are and do what we do.
I find that sometimes, kids can in some way dim that light a bit for some people, where they feel the weight and responsibility of parenting and all these things and who they once were is lost in the process. That’s scary. I wanted to address that in a way that felt visual and engaging and timely.
This is an issue that I struggle with too — this balance of bringing your kids with you on these experiences and living a life that is in many ways unconventional but is in many ways a way to help them grow up with a sense of adventure and risk.
I think the question in the movie — and it is ultimately a question, I don’t mean to leave people with all the answers — is how much risk is too much risk? Elli’s life is a reflection of potentially too much risk but at the same time it made him who he is.
For a lot of parents, there’s this fear that when you have children who you were evaporates and you become this different person. I think the film taps into that primal suspicion of who you are versus who you once were.
It’s this push and pull for all us, I think. I mean, to be honest, life was definitely cooler before kids. I hate to say that but it’s a truth. There’s a moment when everyone feels that way when they’re dropping kids off in the school line of parents. Maybe you want to be somewhere else with them or without them, you know? It’s a challenge.
In the film, Elli says he spent every free second in nature. Was there a philosophy that drove him?
Elli’s parents are really the ones he attributes that to. His mom was the first woman allowed to work on the search and rescue team in Iceland, which is all volunteer-based. She’s a badass. His dad was a stud, too. And so it was interesting to witness that that’s how they raised him and by raising him that way, they created a wild person. He was spending his summers in Nepal and kayaking and traveling all over.
I think having a kid slowed him down a bit and made him take mental stock of what his life looks like. And while yes it’s not as crazy and he’s managing risks more, the point of the story here is that he had this terrible experience in this river in Iceland where he was kayaking and almost drowned, and it was only through his daughter and his love of the ocean that he was able to come back to a sense of normalcy and to the water and find that water. It was thorugh bringing his daughter to the ocean, bringing her back to the things he loved kind of unlocked who he is. Because he had really held onto that pain for a long time. At a certain point, he was working in the city, following this path that he felt obligated to follow, to give his daughter the best life and I think at a certain point it clicked for him and he realized that this was not the recipe for success for her life or mine.
How exactly did he introduce his daughter to nature, to this thing he loves so?
It’s funny. That’s one of the untold aspects of the film. But Elli’s philosophy has always been less is more. Not trying to be like “Hey, today we’re going to get in a wetsuit, go jump on a surfboard, and go out to freezing cold water.” He’s like “Hey, I’m going to go surf, you’re going to come with me, and if you want to just explore on the beach and not go in the water? Great. That’s fine. If you want to go in, I will take you.”
For him, it’s about providing those options. A lot of times as parents we build it up, we say “We’re going to take our kids mountain biking, they’re going to love it. It’s going to be their new thing.” Instead of being like “Hey, I’m going to ride my bike, and you’re going to come with me, and you can watch or hang out or join.”
For him. It was like, I’m not going to stop doing what I love and I know she’s going to enjoy this in some capacity —whether it’s just hanging out on the beach or watching me or collecting shells. And that was kind of the thing. You see in the movie that he loves the ocean. It’s his job, it’s his passion, it’s what brought him back a sense of normalcy. But there’s only one shot of he and Unnur surfing in the film. The other shots are them playing at the beach or collecting feathers or him surfing and she’s watching and, ultimately, she’s drawn to do that. By repeated exposure, these things are normal, and these things are comfortable and safe and that’s how we get out kids interested in these things. Not by kind of Disneyland parenting, where I’m going to take you to this experience and it’s going to be great.
That’s a really great point. Immersion is key.
Yeah. Elli decided he was going to build his life around the outdoors. And he even moved out of a small city and lived out of a tiny A-frame cabin. It was a cognitive choice to live that way and I think that by introducing them to her and saying “You’re going to have to go outside and go to the bathroom in the latrine…” these things allowed him to weather his child and rear her that made nature a safe place to explore. This is an extreme example — and this isn’t my example or the example or for everyone — but if that’s what we’re searching for, we need to realize that we’re going to need to take risks and introduce our kids to some of these things when its inconvenient for us and for them.
You’re a father of two. Was there something in your own life that compelled you to tell this story?
As a filmmaker sometimes it’s easier to tell your friends story than it is your own. These are things that I struggle with all the time: Do I go to work? Do I stay home? Do I play with my kids? Do I do this? Do I do that? How do I get them to interact with the things that I love and be interested in the things that I love? A part of all this is being willing to risk the fact that my kids might not enjoy it but as a parent you’re going to have to expose it to them at a certain point and that’s okay.
My kid might not want to be a photographer, and they might not love travel as much as I do. But there are certain aspects of both of these pursuits they might really love and I really need to celebrate those. So, I think that’s really a key component. Risk will always be a part of our life. The amount of attention and focus we give to it is up to us. And really, I think the hardest thing is that learning to be a bit more selfish about the time we give to our kids and understanding at a certain point someone was like that with us and they dragged us along, even though we might have complained the whole time. When I grew up, I complained every moment I went to the beach with my mom. Now? I would not rather be anywhere else.
We don’t need kids to love what we love. But what we do need to do is desensitize them to the fear of it. And that’s kind of the way I see it. Elli doesn’t care if his daughter wants to be a pro surfer or love surfing. But what he wants to do is desensitize her to the fear of the ocean so she’s willing to explore that later in life.
The same is true with my kids. I want to desensitize them to fear of nature so they’re not they’re not scared. How can I make it a common place? I don’t care if, when we go, they’re doing what I’m doing or if they want to go hiking or ride their bike or catch lizards or play in the dirt. That’s what my mom did for me.
If you could boil down Elli’s parenting philosophy, what would it be?
I would say it is something along the lines of “Bring your kids everywhere you go.”
There’s been a lot of days when Elli and Unnur and I were at the beach and I said “Oh man, does Unnur want to get in the water? She’s just sort of sitting there on the rocks watching.” And Elli says, “Well, I gave her the option to go in the water and she decided not to.”
It’s about understanding and letting your kids understand that it’s up to them, that they have a choice. This can be challenging because you might take them to the beach and take them to the wilderness and nine out of ten times they might not want to go. But they might feel up for it and say I want to get in the water and you have to be prepared for that moment. I can’t boil his philosophy down to one line. But if there was a bumper sticker, it would probably say: kids in tow.