Woman at War (2018)
Recent movie offerings are over-full of fantasy super-heroines with powers way beyond mortal men: over-hyped and over-sexualised inventions for new-age feminists and the male gaze. In this context of tired cliché’s, it is refreshing to find an original approach to the empowerment of women. The Icelandic absurdist eco-thriller Woman at War(2018) is such a film.
The opening scene is a classic Robin Hood trope: framed in profile with arrow fully drawn on a rugged landscape, a female huntress is about to rob the rich and give to the poor. The arrow short-circuits power lines and shuts down a smelter. Popular village choir-leader Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is an unlikely eco-terrorist who sees local industry expansion as environmental vandalism. She systematically takes down more power lines until the government mounts a full-scale investigation into what it believes is industrial sabotage by overseas interests. Narrowly avoiding detection, Halla is suddenly informed that her years of waiting to adopt a child from war-torn Ukraine is successful.
This unusual but uncomplicated plotline is not what makes Woman at Warstand out from other tree-hugging environmental awareness films. Beautifully photographed against magnificent landscapes, the film cleverly breaks through the ‘fourth wall’ of cinema by having a three-piece band and a choral folk trio incongruously provide the film’s diegetic soundtrack. The concept of ‘fourth wall’ refers to the imaginary bubble that traditionally separates actors and audience. In this case, the musicians are not playing for Hella, they are playing directly to us. We are as much the subject as what we are observing on screen, and it is ‘we’ who are invited to take a stand on the existential threats posed by human-caused environmental degradation. If an ordinary woman like Halla can rise to the challenge, so can we.
Another way this film stands out is how it balances and integrates several competing femininity stereotypes. Halla teaches singing for the joy of music and is a ruthless industrial saboteur. She is passionately committed to saving the environment but must stay clear of the law if she is to satisfy her deep yearning for motherhood. Strong, defiant, politically aware, she is soft, vulnerable and loving. When the noose tightens on her eco-terrorism, her hippy identical twin sister steps in for a plot twist that takes the story to its ironic finale: a biblical allusion to humanity’s march towards the promised land.
Both absurdism and intelligent humour seeps into every part of this film and the ever-present band and singers are constant counterpoints to the stark reality and danger in what Halla is doing. She is an androgynous heroine, totally devoid of feminine conceits, single-minded, yet quintessentially a woman. Viewers will walk out of this with a variety of lingering thoughts; that is the mark of a good film.
Director: Benedikt Erlingsson
Stars: Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir