By Theodora Helgason ’22
Woman at War is an Icelandic film that chronicles environmental activist, Halla, as she radically fights the aluminium industry that is sabotaging Iceland’s environment. Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and starring Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, the film deals with both the war on the earth as well as the war in Ukraine when Halla is given the opportunity to adopt a Ukranian girl named Nika who lost her family to the war. Halla struggles with the desire to give Nika a home while also feeling devoted to her radical protection of the earth. The government is determined to reframe the anonymous Mountain Woman (Halla’s alias), as an enemy to Iceland’s economy and hope to identify and imprison the infamous activist.
The film tackles issues big and small, from capitalism’s role in sabotaging the environment to the choice many women find themselves forced to make between becoming a mother and fulfilling one’s calling.
The characters of Halla and her twin sister Ása, also played by Geirharðsdóttir, complement and contrast one another well. Halla is an environmental activist concerned with improving the world around her, whereas Ása is a yoga-instructor concerned with improving her inner-self. Halla inspires the audience to change the world whereas Ása seems blind to the fact that the world needs change.
Even Ása does not know that Halla is the Mountain Woman. In fact, when the Mountain Woman becomes a topic of conversation between the sisters, Ása claims that the Mountain Woman is selfish, impulsive, and employing the wrong tactics even though Ása agrees that the earth must is endangered. Halla defends the Mountain Woman and explains that radical activism is necessary, but the two remain of differing opinions.
The only person who knows the Mountain Woman’s identity is a government worker in Halla’s choir who becomes more and more anxious throughout the film when the Chinese are thinking of pulling out of investment in Iceland’s aluminum industry because of the Mountain Woman. Although he agrees that the government’s actions against the environment are immoral, his anxiety causes him to leave Halla without a source in the government when he is afraid of being found out.
Although dealing with serious themes, the story is told as a fable and is framed by music performed by a band of three musicians, playing the tuba, piano, trumpet, accordion, and percussion. Only Halla can see these musicians and they serve to express her emotions while her journey progresses. They often appear when she is alone in the countryside of Iceland disrupting the aluminum industry with her bow and arrow.
The motif of music continues with three traditional Ukranian singers dressed in flowers who deliver an emotional song when Halla is debating adopting Nika while covertly vandalizing the structures that are wrecking Iceland’s landscape. This concert of musicians complement one another and follow her throughout her journey. The two musical groups, one instrumental and one vocal, one Scandinavian and one Eastern European, function as the manifestation of Halla’s two desires that go hand in hand–to help save the entire earth and to help save just one child. This is a testament to how helping just one child can theoretically have as significant an effect as saving the world. Contrary to what Halla, and the audience, think, her two ambitions are not at war with one another. Rather, they are linked, as shown through the music they create together. Halla hopes to protect both the earth and Nika from the wars against them. Originating from their respective nations, the musical groups foreshadow Halla and Nika’s adoption of one another as well as putting forth themes of global acceptance and understanding.
The concept of foreign-ness in the film is embodied in a lost Spanish-speaking tourist travelling on a motorbike across the serene Icelandic countryside played by Juan Camillo Roman Estrada. The influx of foreigners to Iceland could have been better represented by several characters rather than one. Iceland is a country with a population of about 330,000. In 2018 alone, 2.3 million people visited the country. The tourism industry in Iceland has skyrocketed and been detrimental to the land that remained virtually untouched for many years. This is the land that Halla has set out to protect and although a booster to Iceland’s economy, tourism, like the aluminum industry, is detrimental to the land. The film fails to demonstrate the environmental impact this tourism has on Iceland.
The foreigner on the motorbike becomes a prime target of the Icelandic police when they are trying to catch Halla for her radical activism, which the government has labeled terrorism. This sparks a further discussion about the perception of foreign-ness in a country that has seen little immigration for hundreds of years, until now. The Icelandic police criminalize the foreigner whereas Halla welcomes a foreigner into her home. The police’s racism and xenophobia further represent how the Icelandic government needs to change.
Ultimately, Halla is captured and identified as the terrorist due to the fact that the Icelandic government has DNA records of its entire population. In the 1990s, deCODE Genetics, a Rekjavík based company, realized that Iceland was the perfect population for genetic testing because it is a country obsessed with family trees and with very little foreigners involved in reproduction. Everyone in Iceland gave their blood so that genetic diseases could be studied by the company. Because of this, there is a genetic bank in Iceland that has the entire population’s DNA.
Thus, when Halla accidentally cuts herself near a power line and her blood is captured, she is captured too. To a non-Icelandic audience, the immediate identification of Halla may be perceived as unlikely or an implication that Halla has committed a crime in the past. For this reason, I believe the film could better address the history of genetic testing in Iceland.
When Halla is identified by the police and imprisoned, Ása surprisingly comes to her rescue and switches clothing with her during a private moment in her cell so that Halla can get Nika from the orphanage in Ukraine.
The last scenes of the film leave Iceland’s and follow Halla on her journey to adopt Nika in Ukraine. On the way back from the orphanage, the bus Halla and Nika are taking begins to sink in water. Halla carries Nika, protecting her from getting wet, as their entourage of musicians follows them on the journey up the hill and on the way back to Iceland.
Overall, the film is a beautiful discussion of the obligations we have to both the Earth and humanity and how we go about fulfilling those obligations. Woman at War transcends genre in its discussion of issues big and small, and of a small country in a global context.