Finally, a Funny Environmental Film
Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð), directed by Benedikt Erlingsson (Magnolia Pictures, 2018)
A middle-aged female hiker tracks through a vast mossy mountain landscape. The opening of Woman at War frames its two main protagonists in a single shot. One: hastening, heavily loaded, striving to get somewhere or to leave something behind. The other: unadorned, majestic, stark. Music sounds from the start: the rhythmic beat of a bass drum, a wind instrument’s blast here and there, a piano melody setting in. When Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) arrives at a remote, colossal power line, she stops. She sets down her backpack, quickly assembles a bow and arrow, and skillfully short-circuits the line. Then the camera pans and a drummer (Magnús Trygvason Eliassen) clad in formal tweed appears, next to sousaphone player (Ómar Guðjónsson), and a pianist (Davíð Þór Jónsson) complete with piano. Staring into the distance, stoically playing the movie’s soundtrack, the musicians’ displaced appearance in the middle of the Icelandic wilderness interrupts the serenity of the scene like a smirk.
There are many smirks on Halla’s journey along a path of solitary civil disobedience. Not only the band, but also Ukrainian folk singers dressed in traditional garb (Iryna Danyleiko, Galyna Goncharenko, Susanna Karpenko), appear out of context at various locations—in the mountains, on road sides, at the airport. The musicians are the film’s tragic chorus, witnesses to the heroine’s often remote and unaccompanied actions. As in the case of this scenic montage, the film’s narrative thrives on the novelty of its assemblies. Focusing on the day-to-day life of a single, 50-year-old woman, Woman at War presents an unconventional type of “warrior.” Depicting this heroine’s fight against Iceland’s aluminum smelter industry, which she wages single-handedly and under full commitment of her bodily strength, skill, and endurance, the film presents an uncommon cause. Making light of both the heroine and her battle, while never dismissing either, it presents a new and original affective mode, a rare—and oh, so welcome!—alliance between humor and environmentalist efforts.
The movie in itself does not dwell on the effects of the extractivism Halla is fighting against. In fact, it hardly references them. It does not lay out the ways in which Iceland’s heavy industry is exemplary of economic geographies created by late capitalism, but the context is there for a curious viewer to uncover. Due to Iceland’s ample supply of hydropower and geothermal energy, its electricity is comparably cheap. Such inexpensive energy costs made the country a global destination for aluminum smelting, an extremely energy-intensive industrial process. The majority of Iceland’s smelting businesses are U.S.-based or multinational corporations, and their facilities are located right at the coastline, which facilitates cargo shipping and export. Embraced by the government in the name of job creation and condemned by activists fighting environmental destruction, aluminum smelting is a national controversy in Iceland and the solemn backdrop of Benedikt Erlingsson’s film.
Woman at War, however, does not take a somber tone. In stark contrast to action and suspense-driven U.S. blockbusters with environmental themes, Woman at War spends most of its time following the mundane but deliberate business of a self-determined individual fed up with the status quo. After her opening act of sabotage, Halla simply returns to her day job as the leader of an amateur choir. She enjoys riding her bike around the neighborhood and lives alone in a spacious and comfortable apartment (now and then frequented by the movie’s impromptu musicians and singers). Unlike so many cinematic heroines, Halla does not fight for her family or for her children. Her convictions are not based on the logic of the nuclear family or the love of nation, as her resistance aims also at the Icelandic government. Her application to adopt a child, which is accepted during the movie and forces her to make a difficult decision in regard to an 8-year-old Ukrainian girl, may be read as another stand against heteronormativity and human procreation, one of the biggest planetary threats.
Kinship in general appears queered: Halla’s only close relative, her twin sister Ása, is played by the same actress, which makes the two protagonists indistinguishable. Another character of increasing significance for Halla is Sveinbjörn (Jóhann Sigurðarson), a sheep farmer who helps her repeatedly as she is hiding in the mountains. He decides to protect her because they are cousins—“alleged” cousins, as he stresses twice. Their ancestors’ extramarital adventures make it impossible to determine who is related to whom and, in a generous reading, render everyone related. Icelandic sexuality is a topic Erlingsson took on previously. His only other feature film, Of Horses and Men (Hross í oss, 2013), presents a wildly original take on the subject.
The age and gender of its warrior distinguishes Woman at War from conventional heroic tales. The movie’s use of humor sets it apart from other environmentally themed films and artworks. Comedy addressing social justice (and which other comedy is worth much attention?) is always a tightrope act. It must joyfully expose drivers of inequity without winning laughs at the expense of marginalized and oppressed people. This challenge has not stopped comedy from considering the impact of racism, heteropatriarchy, classism. Environmental destruction, however? Not so much.
In a global perspective, everyone enjoying a North American, European, or Australian middle-class lifestyle is an exorbitant polluter. The resistance from within is small (if growing!) and full of contradictions. In this set-up, it is hard to say who could poke fun of whom. And even if there is enough self-reflection going around to resort to much-needed self-irony, the awareness of the world’s more vulnerable populations lingers uncomfortably. There is, however, another and less obvious obstacle to environmental humor, and that is the environmentalist movement itself. In Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, Nicole Seymour enumerates common “affects and sensibilities typically associated with environmentalism.” The list is long and yet it features no positive mode: “In addition to gloom and doom, these include guilt, shame, didacticism, prescriptiveness, sentimentality, reverence, seriousness, sincerity, earnestness, sanctimony, self-righteousness, and wonder—as well as the heteronormativity and whiteness of the movement.”
Woman at War does its best to confront these dominant sentiments with cathartic blitheness. The movie is full of purely enjoyable scenes, such as when Iceland’s famous geothermal pools function as a natural lifesaver to the severely hypothermic heroine, gently carried to warm waters by big, bearlike Sveinbjörn. Or when other swimmers silently leave the changing room as half-naked Halla and Ása get into a heated sibling quarrel on the legitimacy of infrastructure destruction. The question may arise, especially given the open form of the film’s ending, if lightheartedness equals harmlessness. For now, this can be negated. Too much of a cultural shift is outstanding and too great is the need for new affective modes helping to motivate this shift. Where doomsday rhetorics clearly failed, humor has not much to lose.
This is not to say that it always succeeds in Woman at War. One member of the small cast is Juan Camillo Roman Estrada, who plays a character of his own name, a brown skinned, Spanish speaking biker also appearing in Of Horse and Men. His tours take the protagonist to all the isolated places frequented only by Halla and Sveinbjörn. Close to the scenes of Halla’s acts of sabotage, Juan Camillo is repeatedly subject to police suspicion, knocked down, handcuffed, imprisoned and—when found innocent—released. The recurrent assaults comment on state-sanctioned violence against everything that looks or sounds foreign (and does not come to the country as a rich aluminum industrialist).
These scenes also expose different functions of humor and their ambiguities. The audience is invited to laugh at the justice system’s dumb faces when they are compelled to correct inflicted injustices. It is not clear, however, if it is also invited to laugh at the dark-haired cyclist being pushed around and repeatedly imprisoned on false charges. Other parts of the narrative lead into similarly murky waters. The problematic nature of transnational adoption remains undiscussed, as does the montage of Halla alongside civil rights advocates of color (pictures of whom decorate her apartment), which raises questions about cultural appropriation. And Ása’s determination to turn prison into a meditation retreat, a humorous comment on the logic of such retreats, may be disturbing for those cognizant of the realities of incarceration.
There is no need to discount these problematic features. They may stay with the viewer, as do other parts of the movie. The visual impact of the landscape lingers on—not as the image of a sanctuary, but as part of a shared world. A feeling of relief remains too, a comfort found in the chuckles at our most earnest concerns. Most persistent, however, proves a wish Woman at War kindles: the desire to see more playful, irreverent, female, and queered everyday environmental warriors on our screens and in our lives.
Featured image: Halldora Geirharosdottir plays the title character in the Icelandic film Woman at War. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, 2018.
Susanne Fuchs holds a Ph.D. from New York University. She is an independent scholar, freelance writer, and worker-owner at a cooperatively run bike shop. Her interests include environmental justice, economic democracy, environmental humanities, humor, and all things queer. Twitter. Contact.