Woman At War (Kona fer í stríð) is the most thrilling film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s the story of an Icelandic woman who decides to take direct action against the new money vultures who are invading her country. The slick capitalists are bringing in their heavy industry to destroy the Icelandic environment and change the Icelandic collective way of life, so this humble woman, Halla, a choirmaster, decides to take responsibility. She drags her bow and arrow across the moss-covered Icelandic interior moonscape and shoots a line of metallic wires across the newly built, landscape-spoiling, power lines. Snap, Crackle, Pop. The lines short and knock out the power to the new aluminum plants. The Mountain Woman has struck again.
The authorities, of course, do not take kindly to such shenanigans. They are on the lookout for this “criminal” and they use all the powers of a newly minted surveillance state. For these new capitalists, who seek to extract as much as they can from the previously clannish Icelandic village way of life, can only impose their will by enforcing it with an extensive surveillance and propaganda effort. Within hours of the power knock-out, the government apparatchiks have laid down the outlines of their counter-offensive. The Mountain Woman is immediately labelled a terrorist. The film neatly shows us how the discourse rapidly spreads from the politicians’ mouths across television, radio and locker rooms. The media buzz insists that it’s the resister and her friends, not the slick politicians who are the threat to democracy. She is falsely labelled as armed and dangerous with remarkable speed. The newly installed surveillance cameras and drones across the country make her a woman on the run, but still no less determined to accomplish her mission with the help of well-wishers and fellow travelers she meets along the way.
You can’t help but identify with the righteousness and intelligence of the woman, Halla, who gets pursued across the country. The film is constructed so that it is thrilling up to the very last moments. And in the end, in a daring and hilarious twist, our hero ends up having eluded the authorities, even as the rest of her—and our—future remains uncertain.
The acting of the lead character Halla, by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is a marvel. The one thing that can not be faked on a large screen is intelligence and depth of conviction. Perhaps I have been watching the wrong movies, but I almost never see this on the American screen. Ben Kingsley achieved it in his portrayal of Gandhi, but it is very rare to find an American actor whose internal political conviction and understanding is developed enough. Perhaps this is because of the difficulty of becoming a successful artist in this country; what is rewarded and what becomes the surrounding artistic environment is one of triviality, where political affiliation is a fad of the day, more like team sports, and the propensity to actually risk one’s moral convictions with action is nearly non-existent. But Ms. Geirharðsdóttir is not only fully convincing onscreen, you know she would be fully convincing off screen as well.
As if to counterpoint the seriousness of Ms. Geirharðsdóttir’s performance, the writer and director Benedikt Erlingsson contrasts the weighty theme with many elements of humor, not the least of which is the introduction of a character who is Halla’s twin sister—also played by Ms. Geirharðsdóttir. The portrayal of the sister is a funny, canny performance of a woman who looks inwardly towards meditation and yoga, in contrast to her twin who looks outwardly towards political action. I blinked a few times watching the two sisters together, because although they seem physically similar, their attitudes are so different that it was only with rolling of the credits that I was able to confirm that they were both played by Ms. Geirharðsdóttir.
Director Erlingsson also introduces some Brechtian-like characters who break the fourth wall, including a trio of musicians who show up at key times in the story, like a Greek Chorus. They inhabit the same space as the other characters but are unseen by them. There is also a scruffy bike-riding fellow wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt who keeps getting arrested for Halla’s crimes, but who is always let go for insufficient evidence. If you’d like to think that these characters are a commentary on the fact that when one person takes a strong moral stand and acts, there are always unseen supporters and allies, then we’re in agreement.
I was initially exhilarated by the movie, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. My wife and I had spent a brief time in Iceland last year and we both enjoyed seeing locations and streets that we recognized. It brought back memories of the basically egalitarian society we found there that was on the brink of challenge from the super-capitalists.
And yet a few days later, the movie had me down. Because as thrilling as the film was, as wonderful as it was that the forces of good won out in the end, it became clear to me that the story was a fairy tale. The director puts in Brechtian elements, but forgets why Brecht did so: Brecht wanted always to point out that what was onstage at any given time was just a story, not reality. Don’t get too caught up with the characters and forget about what is really going on in the real world, says Brecht. In Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, this is illustrated in the most direct way possible: through a set of coincidences the hero is saved from hanging by the authorities at the very last moment with a pardon from the Queen. A happy ending. But the cast slyly declares that this is just a story, and in real life, it doesn’t happen that way. In real life, people get hanged. Don’t get too caught up in the story, says Brecht. It’s a story. A fairy tale.
But Woman At War gives no such reminders. The hero in the story gets saved over and over from perilous circumstances by sheer dumb luck. She is followed by drones, tracked by police helicopters, surveyed by cameras, followed in cars, demonized by the worst, slickest media propaganda, stripped of allies by a populace anesthetized by the inanity of the discourse of capitalism, yet still always escapes. This is perhaps a story that is perfect for Iceland, because it is a society that is still on the precipice of the old and the new; it is a society that has worked very hard to move towards an egalitarian society, rooted in a collective memory of a people who had to rely on each other for survival. The relatively new neo-liberal vulture capital class is seeking to overturn all that. You can see the tension between these forces even in a casual visit to the country. The story, fortunately, has not been resolved in favor of the capitalists yet.
In a stroke of irony, though, I just read that Jodi Foster has bought the rights to this film and is going to star in a re-make. She will set it in Midwest America. I have great respect for Jodi Foster, but it’s a mistake. This can only be an Icelandic movie. The forces of capital have not reached the same tipping point there as they already have here. Here in America, we are surveilled, numbered, data mined, credit checked. We are militarized, racialized, families pulverized, children incarcerated. It’s too late in America for Erin Brockovich or Karen Silkwood. Their time has passed as possibilities. Julian Assange is thrown in prison. Chelsea Manning, once pardoned, now in prison, too. And both major political parties couldn’t care less. We are way beyond the point in this country where such a fairy tale would even have meaning: even a fairy tale has to have some plausibility. We in America have lost.
Our American cinematic fairy tales now are only of force, comic book tales of being able to beat up, destroy others. The Marvel and DC Worlds. We cannot even think in any other dimension. Perhaps Iceland…
Despite my reservations, this is a great film. It will have you thinking about courage and the State and just what it is that we can do as human beings to resist the madness around us.