“Woman at War” - Benedikt Erlingsson (2018)

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð, 2018) is a satirical drama from Iceland that deftly showcases a number of philosophical and sociopolitical issues in an offbeat fashion [1,2,3].  It does this by considering everything from the perspective of a lone, middle-aged woman whose life is driven by her idealistic social goals.

Halla (wonderfully played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is a 49-year-old choir director in Iceland, who is well-like and admired by all those who come in contact with her.  But unbeknownst to everyone else, she is also a vigorous eco-activist, who engages in lone acts of sabotage out in the wild to further her environmentalist aims.  Halla is shown early on bringing down electric power lines and pylons that supply energy to the Rio Tinto company’s aluminium operations, which are condemned by environmentalists.  To carry out her single-handed acts of sabotage, she bravely and expertly uses compact tools, such as a collapsible bow-and-arrow kit and a portable power saw – activities that would normally be considered to be beyond the range of most blue-collar men, not to mention that of a cultured, middle-aged woman like Halla.

This film about Halla’s eccentric adventures was innovatively directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and scripted by Erlingsson and Ólafur Egill Egilsson, and it won the SACD (Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques) Award for the best screenplay during the International Critics' Week at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.  However, because of the film’s out-of-the-ordinary material and style, the viewer may be skeptical watching the early stages.  But as the film progresses and the viewer gets more in tune with its rhythms, he or she is likely to succumb to its charms.

One standout element of the film is the way its offbeat musical score, composed by Davíð Þór Jónsson, is employed.  On the one hand it works as background theme music that reflects the mood of what is shown.  But on the other hand the performance of the music by an oddball trio  – consisting of keyboardist (Davíð Þór Jónsson), a drummer, and a sousaphone player – is inserted directly into the diegetic action in shots where it makes no sense to see a band trio appear.  The same bizarre trio pops up in the background all over the place in this film.  Later on another such musical trio, this time a vocal trio of Ukrainian women, plays a similar insertive role in the film.  In some ways we could view these diegetic musical insertions as playing the role of a musical Greek chorus for the drama.  Since the musical insertions are injecting mood, not commentary, into the presentation, we could also view this aspect of Erlingsson’s mise-en-scene to be an instrument of expressionism [4]. 

As the story progresses and Halla’s acts of “eco-terrorism” continue, the government becomes alarmed.  Halla’s activities are threatening the continuance of a big deal between the Icelandic and Chinese governments concerning the extraction of raw materials from Iceland’s pristine natural environment.  So the government resolutely tries to hunt down this unknown saboteur (whom the media call the “The Mountain Woman”) with helicopters and aerial drones.  And we see Halla just barely managing to escape her predators by running across the wild terrain and athletically scrambling into small burrows to hide [5].

In the course of these pursuits, there is something of a running gag in the film.  Wherever the government authorities think an act of “eco-terrorism” has taken place or is about to take place, they arrest the same innocent bystander (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) simply because, as a Latin American, he looks like a foreigner and is therefore suspicious.  They never suspect that a dignified choir director could be the source of their problems.

We also see Halla interact with her identical twin sister, Asa (also played by Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), who is a yoga teacher and more focused on spiritual matters.  The scenes showing Halla and Asa together in one shot are amazingly and seamlessly crafted, and I couldn’t help wondering how they were accomplished.

In addition, Halla is sometimes seen with her timid co-conspirator, Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson), who works in a government ministry and who occasionally supplies Halla with useful government information. 

Midway through all this, though, comes a piece of information that disrupts all of Halla’s plans.  She gets a letter that her long-forgotten application to adopt an orphan has been finally granted.  She is now presumably supposed to desist from her acts of sabotage against Rio Tinto, just when things were coming to a head, and instead travel to Ukraine, where she is to pickup the four-year-old girl she has been assigned to adopt.  Halla had always longed to be a mother, and this appears to be her last chance.  So now Halla faces a difficult choice: either continue to engage in her idealistic endeavors in support of wider humanity or focus her efforts on her smaller, personal sphere.

All the way along in this story, there is an overlapping set of issues and divides that keep coming to the viewer’s attention:
  • Collective Welfare vs. Selfish Advancement 
    We live in an era where common-pool resources, both human-made (e.g. irrigation systems, harbors, highways, etc.) and natural systems (e.g. atmosphere, water, information, etc.) need to be preserved and maintained for the common good [6].  However, these common-pool resources are increasingly threatened by privatization efforts that, under the guise of simplified libertarian ideals,  look to extract profits from these resources for short-term gains.  Halla in this story is clearly on the side of collective welfare and preserving her society’s common resources from exploitative extraction on the part of private property holders.  In this respect Halla would likely to be generally on the side of communal and government institutions that seek to protect common-pool resources from rapacious business interests [7].
  • Individual vs. System 
    But Halla is also a lone individual combating the “system”, i.e. the current governing authorities.  In this sense she is following the dictates of her own conscience, even when her conscience pushes her to violate existing law.  But, of course, she is not just an instinctive rebel, and she would presumably embrace a wider social system that reflected the inclusive values that she is seeking.
  • Femininity vs. Masculinity 
    The societal distinctions between masculine and feminine roles come to mind throughout the film.  Halla is generally ladylike, but she carries out her sabotages with machismo.  And in contrast, her male co-conspirator, Baldvin, is so cautious as to be almost unmanly, in the conventional sense.  But Halla’s innate femininity comes to the fore when her maternal instincts are aroused in connection with her plans to adopt the little girl.  So at various times Halla embodies both of these notions.
  • Outer Salvation vs. Inner Salvation 
    Halla’s acts of courageous eco-activism represent her efforts to save the world for all mankind.  Her twin sister Asa, on the other hand, seeks her own inner peace by pursuing a path of meditation: In fact it is her intention to go on a two-year retreat to India, where she will engage in round-the-clock meditation. In this regard Asa, who could be seen as Halla’s alter ego, remarks to her sister that they are both seeking salvation, with Halla following and outer path and Asa following an inner path. 
The film presents all four of these thematic bipolarities as they manifest themselves in different forms, and it shows through the character of its protagonist, Halla, how they may be bridged and ameliorated.

Near the end of this story Halla has finally been captured and exposed by authorities.  But there are still a few cards to be played, surprisingly by Asa and others, that make for an interesting denouement.  I will leave it to you to find out what happens.

Overall and despite some unsteady hand-held camera work along the way that obtrudes slightly on one’s enjoyment, I would say that Woman at War is well-crafted and thought-provoking. It is a quirky and interesting film that is well worth seeing. 

  1. Wendy Ide, “'Woman At War': Cannes Review”, Screen Daily, (13 May 2018).   
  2. Peter Bradshaw, “Woman at War review – pylon-slayer faces adoption challenge in quirky Icelandic eco-drama”, The Guardian, (12 May 2018).   
  3. Jay Weissberg, “Film Review: ‘Woman at War’”, Variety,  (13 May 2018).   
  4. The Film Sufi, “Expressionism in Film”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2008).   
  5. Actress Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir was, herself, 49-years-old at the time of shooting, and she performs these scenes admirably.
  6. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, (1990).  
  7. Elizabeth Warren, “Companies Shouldn’t Be Accountable Only to Shareholders”, The Wall Street Journal, (14 August 2018). 

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