Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War explores one woman’s quest to save the environment.
by Aisiri Amin
Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson’s eco-thriller, Woman at War, opens with a bow and arrow, a cat and mouse chase and the absurdity of a trio band playing on mountaintops amidst all of this.
For those who have watched Benedikt’s impressive debut, Of Horses and Men, which was called ‘seductively strange’, the quirky tone set by the first five minutes of Woman at War won’t come as a surprise.
Woman at War, a dark comedy sprinkled with abundant eccentricity, is an important film that brings to screen the most pressing challenge we are facing at present: the despoliation of the environment.
Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), is a 50-year-old woman who lives a double life. For the world, she is the choir conductor with a warm smile and a bicycle-riding neighbour. For the Icelandic government, she is her alias, ‘The Woman of the Mountain’, who has been bringing down power lines, disrupting the government’s plans to build a new aluminium smelter.
The film opens with Halla’s fifth attempt at shooting down the power lines with her bow and arrow. As the government’s deploy helicopters and drones to find her, Halla hides in the cracks of the mountains, makes the green blanket her cover. From the ease that we see her do that, we get to know two things: this is not her first time and her connection with nature runs deep.
While this is happening, there is a random trio band playing on the mountaintop. Benedict’s subtle play with absurdity continues throughout the film as we see the band and acapella singers dressed in colourful clothes appear randomly on lonely roads, Halla’s home and scenic mountains almost like a bridge between the audience and the heroine, giving it a theatrical effect.
As the scene shifts, we get a glimpse of her home where she lives alone. Halla is standing in her living room in between the posters of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi which hang on the rear wall, listening to the government’s plans of exploiting Iceland’s resources further. While her blood boils, she gets a phone call that she has waited for four years: the lengthy adoption application process has come to an end. There is a Ukrainian girl who is in dire need of a home.
The government and local authorities have been portraying ‘The Woman of the Mountain’ as a terrorist trying to sabotage Iceland’s economy but Halla had nothing to fear, until now. Halla is craving to be a mother and she knows she can’t do that from jail which means there is a choice to be made. Her inner conflict is portrayed beautifully when we see her digging out an old crib and unpacking some baby clothes.
She decides to put a stop to her war with the government with one last strike: her biggest and the riskiest till now.
“We are the last generation that can stop the war against our Earth”
Woman at War brilliantly answers the much-asked question: How can one person change the world? Halla’s environmental activism is her way of refusing to be a bystander at the time of crisis.
But there is a duality that pops up here as we see Halla distributing flyers from a rooftop about in which she says, “We are the last generation that can stop the war against our Earth”. We see her realising that to win this fight, people need to fight together.
The anger and sense of urgency in Halla’s words reminds us of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg’s rising voice.
Emphasising on the desperate need to take action in a speech in the European Social an Economic Committee (EESC), Greta had said, “We need to focus every inch of our being on climate change, because if we fail to do so than all our achievements and progress have been for nothing and all that will remain of our political leaders’ legacy will be the greatest failure of human history. And they will be remembered as the greatest villains of all time because they have chosen not to listen and not to act.”
The film ends with what comes across as a biblical scene with the people trying to escape the rising floodwaters. Erlington’s clearly leaves us with a warning and reminder.
Woman at War was Iceland’s official entry for the 2019 Oscars in the best foreign-language film category. It’s one of the most relevant films of today which explores what it really means to save the world.
Aisiri Amin (she/her) is an independent journalist specializing in gender, culture, and social justice. She is a struggling optimist, trying to understand the world through cinema, books, and travel.