Poetry for desperate times

‘Woman at War’ provokes, inspires

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir at war in paradise

On the recommendation of a friend, I saw a magnificent film this week: Woman at War. It is the story of a mild-mannered, environmentally aware, middle-aged Icelandic woman, the conductor of an a cappella choir, who regards the industrialisation of her island—specifically the building and powering of aluminium smelters—as an act of sabotage against the natural world. So she indulges in a little sabotage of her own, and brings down the wrath of the security state on her head.

The brilliance of the movie rests in large part on the compelling lead actress, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, who has given a couple of insightful interviews concerning her role and the issues the movie is addressing—environmental activism being front and centre.

“We all have an activist inside us,” she says, except most of the time it isn’t active. “The question is: How do you find a way for your activist to get active? One of the reasons this character is inspiring is she plans it and does it—everything we have in our minds.”

Raising awareness of contentious environmental issues by dramatising them in a movie is a difficult artistic challenge, Geirharðsdóttir admits. In fact, within Iceland she thinks the film may have failed to achieve the kind of national dialogue the director, Benedikt Erlingsson, was hoping for.

“The film aims to help the awareness of how important untouched nature is and how important it is not to let big industry rule our decisions. Iceland is really split between right and left, green and not so green, those who take a destructive view of the environment and those with a more philosophical view. It is a big debate we have there because, of course, big industries and people that believe in making fast money, they don’t agree. They say we have to use what we have and sell energy. [We hoped] this film would be good to start a dialogue, but many people don’t want to see the film in Iceland because it’s too confrontational.

“When you start a conversation [on a challenging subject like environmental destruction or climate change] it is very important that you walk softly up to people and tell a good story, so people want to listen, and open up, and then you send in the message. This is what you do as a performer in the theatre. You make people like you, they laugh, they start to relax, and then, whoomph, ‘To be or not to be’—you go for the deep thing, and the audience sits there crying. They will not start crying unless they trust you.

“In this we may have failed, because although the cause was very good, if we really wanted all 300,000 Icelanders to see the film, maybe we should not have taken sides in this war. Because the ones that agree see the film, while the ones we want to go into dialogue with, they don’t come to see the film.”

Perhaps it is an unsolvable problem. And perhaps it is sufficient that a film like Woman at War might galvanise the inner activist of those who recognise the need for change, but haven’t yet found a way to act.

In one of the film’s dramatic moments, Geirharðsdóttir’s character, dubbed “Mountain Woman” by the Icelandic media, climbs on to the roof of a university building and scatters copies of an ecological manifesto, which float down to the campus below. Students read the document avidly, photographing it with their cellphones and spreading the message: “We are the last generation that can stop the war against our earth.” “The sabotage against nature causing atmospheric warming is a crime against humanity and all life on earth.”

Shades of Greta Thunberg, of Extinction Rebellion, of a million school students taking part in climate action. We see a rising tide of activism even as the time for remedial action on climate change begins to run out, and political solutions seem as elusive as ever.

As film reviewer Richard Swainson remarked on Jesse Mulligan’s Afternoons show on Radio New Zealand, Woman at War is “poetry for desperate times.”

Speaking of her own identification with the character she plays, Geirharðsdóttir says, “I have never stepped very deeply into the battle against aluminium smelters in Iceland. My fights have always been more about supporting equality for children. But for me it’s the same thing. If you are supporting a future for the children of the earth, then you’re also supporting the earth. It is easy for me to create a bridge between the two and identify with the war of this woman, to take sides with nature, to take sides with the future. We have to stop thinking about what happens four years from now and start thinking about 400 years.”

Something else Geirharðsdóttir spoke about is where the strength to be an activist comes from: “One of the reasons Icelandic women are so strong is we have so many fishermen, and when the fishermen go away the women are alone with the household, so it comes very naturally to us to be in charge. And in the cold it’s very hard living, so I guess the strength comes naturally.”

Even so, the shooting of one particular scene in the movie took all her strength to face: when her character, fleeing police with tracker dogs, enters a glacial river. “When you see it in the film it doesn’t look so dangerous, but my body really didn’t want to go into the river. The body knows. You should never enter a glacial river. It kills you. So I was really struggling with my emotions when I had to do that. My mind was saying, ‘It’s OK,’ but my body was saying ‘We are not going into that river.’”

In an interview on American National Public Radio, Geirharðsdóttir was asked why it’s so hard to make films about tough environmental issues such as climate change. “Maybe because there’s not so much humor in it. It’s that serious. What I love about the way the director does it—and what you don’t realize as a foreign audience—is that all authority figures in the film are played by comedian actors in Iceland. So the president is a comedian. The prime minister is a comedian. The policemen, both men and women, are comedians. So he really makes the authorities into clowns, and this is like an extra layer for an Icelandic audience.”

Several aspects of Woman at War will resonate with New Zealand audiences, not least the similarities between Iceland and New Zealand. We’re both island nations. We both have a lot of sheep. We also have retreating glaciers, geothermal areas, many fishers and farmers, and hydro dams, some of them used to power aluminium smelters.

And the wild, wide landscapes. In the filming, Geirharðsdóttir said, “they really tried not to make it into a box of chocolates, that you really just would feel the energy of our country. And it is very strong energy. And we have a deep, deep connection to it.”

In one scene, her character lies face-down on a broad plateau, burying her face in the mosses and cushion plants. “And this moment when she smells the earth, the herbs, this is really like—for all Icelanders that see this—this is like a meditational moment because when we do this and we smell this smell, this is like being in paradise.”

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