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Sturla Gunnarsson

Director, Producer, Writer
(b. August 30, 1951 Reykjavik, Iceland)

Opinionated, eager to defy convention and often driven by a social conscience, Sturla Gunnarsson is a highly versatile director who personifies the internationalist ethic and balancing act between fiction and documentary typical of English-Canadian cinema.

Born in Iceland and raised in Vancouver from the age of seven, Gunnarsson completed undergraduate studies in English literature and graduate work in film studies at the University of British Columbia. His graduate film, A Day Much Like the Others (1979), won top honours at the Canadian Student Film Festival and the European Student Film Festival and was screened at the Museum of Modern Art. He then moved to Toronto to begin directing for the National Film Board. His first film at the NFB,  the innovative docudrama After the Axe (1981), focused on a middle-aged executive and the man hired to terminate him. The film earned wide critical praise, won five international awards and was nominated for an Academy Award® for best feature length documentary.

Gunnarsson then directed two award-winning dramas for Atlantis Films before producing and directing the cinema vérité documentary Final Offer (1985), which recounts a bitter and pivotal battle between the Canadian and American wings of the United Auto Workers unions during the General Motors strike of 1982.  The NFB-CBC co-production won eight international awards – including the Banff Television Festival’s Prix Grand and the Genie Award for best feature length documentary – and was heralded by Cinema Canada as "nothing less than a milestone in Canadian documentary history." He went on to direct episodes for numerous Canadian, American and British television series, then produced and directed his first theatrical feature, Diplomatic Immunity (1991), about foreign-aid workers in El Salvador.  The film, which was shot in Mexico and took ten years to make (hampered by financing and edits to the script), won the grand prize at the Cannes winter festival and received four Genie nominations.  

During Diplomatic Immunity’s Latin American shoot, Gunnarsson contracted a severe case of hepatitis. After a full recovery, he went on to direct several major films for Canadian television, including The Diary of Evelyn Lau (1993), which launched Sandra Oh’s career, and Gerrie & Louise (1997), a portrait of the relationship between a military officer during apartheid and the journalist who used his revelations to expose the nature of the regime. Gerrie & Louise won a Gemini Award and an International Emmy Award for best documentary. He followed that with his adaptation of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey (1998). Set in the city of Bombay (now Mumbai)  during the turbulent weeks leading up to the Bangladesh War of Independence, the film garnered twelve Genie nominations and won three awards. 

Gunnarsson directed three more movies for television – including Scorn (2000), based on a true story about a charming teenager who plotted to kill his mother and grandmother -- before helming the romantic comedy Rare Birds (2001), which was scheduled to have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2001 (The premiere was cancelled and a lower profile screening was rescheduled). The film starred William Hurt as Dave Purcell, a haute cuisine restaurant owner in Push Cove, Newfoundland who attempts to lure birdwatchers to his business under false pretenses. (The cast also featured Molly Parker and Andy Jones, an alumni of the fabled Atlantic comedy toupe CODCO, as Dave’s only friend, whose wild schemes only succeed in getting Dave into bigger predicaments.) Though it was another two years before the film was released internationally, it received five Genie nominations and won four Directors Guild of Canada Awards.

An ardent nationalist and advocate of screen quotas, Gunnarsson has been consistently outspoken against the plight of distribution for English-Canadian films: "The irony is, we make these films and throw them into a black hole." He continues to direct for Canadian and American television, helming award-winning movies like The Man Who Saved Christmas (2002) and 100 Days in the Jungle (2002) and episodes of such series as Snakes & Ladders and Wild Card.

Gunnarsson would return to his Scandinavian roots with Beowulf & Grendel (2005), starring Gerard Butler, Stellan Skaarsgard and Sarah Polley. A Canada/Iceland/United Kingdom co-production, Gunnarsson described it as Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner meets Lord of the Rings. Cinematic and visually striking, the film was nominated for a number of awards, including three Genies.

In 2008, Gunnarsson was elected President of the Directors Guild of Canada. His most recent films are both documentaries. Air India 182 (2008) details the moments and conspiracies leading up to Canada's most horrific terrorist attack. Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie (2010) recounts the experiences, accomplishments and opinions of Canada’s leading environmentalist, and won the Cadillac People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.        

Film and video work includes

Country Music Nitely series, 1978 (director; TV)
A Day Much Like the Others, 1979 (director; writer; producer)
Tenderizer, 1981 (co-cinematographer with Rolf Cutts)
After the Axe, 1981 (director; co-producer with Steve Lucas)
The Bamboo Brush, Rainbow series, 1982 (director)
The Truesteel Affair, 1983 (director)
Talking Dirty, 1984 (director)
Final Offer a.k.a. Final Offer: Bob White and the Canadian Auto Workers Fight for Independence
1985 (co-director with Robert Collison; co-producer with John Kramer, Robert Collison)
Airwaves series, 1986 (director; TV, thirteen episodes)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, 1987-1988 (director; TV, two episodes)
Where Is Here?, 1987 (director; co-producer with Barrie Howells, David MacFarlane, Bill Nemtin, Adam Symansky)
Street Legal series, 1987 (director; TV, one episode)
The Ray Bradbury Theatre series, 1988 (director; TV, one episode)
9B series, 1988 (director; TV, one episode)
The Twilight Zone series, 1989 (director; TV, one episode)
The Beachcombers series, 1989 (director; TV, one episode)
Street Legal series, 1990 (director; TV, one episode)
Diplomatic Immunity, 1991 (director; co-producer with Steve Lucas)
Scales of Justice series, 1992 (director; TV, one episode)
North of 60 series, 1993 (director; TV, one episode)
The Diary of Evelyn Lau, 1993 (director; TV)
Side Effects series, 1995 (director; TV, one episode)
We the Jury, 1996 (director; TV)
Mother Tucker: The Diana Kilmury Story a.k.a. Diana Kilmury: Teamster, 1996 (director; TV)
Joe Torre: Curveballs Along the Way, 1997 (director; TV)
Gerrie & Louise, 1997 (director; co-producer with David York, Phyllis Brown; narrator; TV)
Dead Man’s Gun series, 1998-1999 (director; TV, three episodes)
Such a Long Journey, 1998 (director)
Dangerous Evidence: The Lori Jackson Story, 1999 (director; TV)
Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol a.k.a The Ricky Nelson Story, 1999 (director; TV)
Scorn, 2000 (director; TV)
Rare Birds, 2001 (director)
100 Days in the Jungle, 2002 (director; TV)
The Man Who Saved Christmas, 2002 (director; TV)
Wild Card series, 2003 (director; TV, one episode)
Da Vinci’s Inquest series, 2003 (director; TV, one episode)
Snakes & Ladders series, 2004 (director; TV, six episodes)
Davinci’s City Hall, 2006 (director; TV, two episodes)
Beowulf & Grendel, 2005 (director; co-producer with Michael Cowan, Eric Jordan, Jason Piette et al.)
Intelligence series, 2006 (director; TV, two episodes)
Above and Beyond mini-series, 2006 (director, TV)
The Best Years series, 2007 (director; TV)
Degrassi The Next Generation series, 2008-2010 (director; TV, seven episodes)
Air India 182, 2008 (director; writer; co-producer with David York)
The Best Years series, 2009 (director; TV)
St. Brigit’s Medical series, 2009 (director; TV)
Defying Gravity series, 2009 (director; TV, three episodes)
Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie, 2010 (director; co-producer with Yves J. Ma, Janice Tufford)

By: Andrew McIntosh
Additional notes by Ayesha Husain