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“Each film has its own mission” – Benedikt Erlingsson on the environmental message in ‘Woman at War’

Iceland has never been more globalised. In the last 15 years, tourism has increased dramatically – with 2,000,000 visitors to the nation of 320,000 in 2017. Beyond the difficulties associated with this dramatic increase in people on the island, the production of aluminium and energy is affecting this dramatic, untouched wilderness. Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson uses his latest film Woman at War as an exploration of this problem. The film follows Halla as she single-handedly tries to fight the aluminium industry in Iceland. Cinema Scandinavia sat down with the director to discuss the environmental message present in his film.

Benedikt Erlingsson

Your previous film Of Horses and Men became an unexpected hit. Does Woman at War have any similarities to
it?

Each film has its own mission. One of the main themes that link the two films is the abuse of nature, but someone had to tell it to me! I leave it to the audience to find the relationships between the two films.

Working as a director in Iceland must’ve
changed after the success of Of Horses
and Men
, then?

I did have much more
flexibility with Woman at War, When I
was working on my first film, there was a lot of pressure from the film fund in
Iceland. Everyone was telling me not to make Of Horses and Men because of how difficult it would be to shoot.
After all, we have scenes with horses swimming and scenes with horses having
sex! They were wondering why I couldn’t just stick to the norm and make a film
about misery in Reykjavik. But I made it anyway, and it worked, Woman at War is similar in the sense
that we have a big challenge. In Of
Horses and Men
, it was the horses. In Woman
at War
, it was the music. So the music in this film is just like a horse –
how we can play with music and how we can overcome this technical challenge.
But it made the film fun to make.

Of Horses and Men (2013)

Where did the idea for Woman at War come from?

It comes from the situation in the world at the moment; we are in deep shit. We are the last generation to do something about it, and that makes us the most powerful generation ever. This is an apocalyptic scenario and it goes hand-in-hand with capitalist religion and the principle of growth. Everything has to grow, grow, grow, but the climate is changing. The world needs to diminish its growth. What has to be done in the future is not just technical but there also has to be a lifestyle change. The film touches on themes of activism, how the government becomes affected by special interests and how often environmentalists become an enemy of the state – there’s a lot of injustice and paradox in this concept. I’m waiting for a politician to come along and say, “vote for me and I’ll make sure you get less of everything!”

Woman at War (2018)

It feels like much of the film, then, is based on a true story – especially since you mention countries like China and companies like Rio Tinto throughout the story?

It is based on what I’ve been reading in Iceland. In Iceland, 89% of all energy is used to melt aluminium, and these factories are owned by multinationals. They take away the profits from Iceland and don’t pay any taxes. This policy has been discussed for fifty years. The Icelandic Highlands is the largest untouched area in Europe, but there are politicians and companies that want to put factories there. Much like the film, in Iceland we are having these acts of sabotage. There were farmers trying to save their valley by blowing up a dam. This is a story for Iceland; everyone recognises the story. I put many references to these real stories in the film, so there may be more local than international audiences may realise. But fortunately, it’s also a global issue. Do local, be global.

Woman at War has
already been released in Iceland, and did you get a response from the
audiences?

The film discusses a very difficult topic, but everybody can relate to Halla. We showed the film in a part of Iceland where the situation is that a private company wants to build a damn and turn off the waterfalls to make electricity that will be used in the production of Bitcoin. So, there are natural elements that are going to be ruined for this. It won’t give jobs to the area, but it will give them another source of electricity. There is a private company there that has been lobbying and, at the moment, they have 50% of the population supporting them. Even though we screened the film and hosted discussions, the people there were in favour of the project. At the same time, they also related to Halla in that Halla is also anti-government. The people in this region were also fighting against the establishment and were fighting for their area. So, I think that’s nice.

Woman at War (2018)

It’s interesting because whenever we think of the Nordic countries we think of them as very environmentalist and forward-thinking in terms of policy and change. At the same time, Iceland has never been as globalised as it is now with industry and tourism. Is this just a growing pain as the country tries to find a balance?

In Iceland, we are a big producer of aluminium. It’s no doubt an important metal and part of the solution for the future. But it is also being produced in the context of waste – we are wasting so much aluminium. It should be much more expensive than it is because it costs so much to produce the metal. The debate in Iceland is that we can’t offer our highlands, so they can continue to produce waste. This situation has pressed environmentalists to think more global and to think about the bigger concept. What they are doing in the highlands affects me and what they are doing in the Amazon affects us. Everything is becoming global. The tourism industry in Iceland has a carbon footprint that will also have consequences all over the world. I like that phrase: growing pains.

Perhaps we can relate ‘growing pains’ to your 2001: A Space Odyssey reference in the
film? Do you try to put in many references?

In 2001, you see the evolution of a bone to
a spaceship. The primate throws a bone and it turns into a spaceship to
represent the future. At the same time, the spaceship, this technology, this
growth, is part of the problem. In Woman
at War
, you see Halla take the ‘spaceship’ (in the film it’s a drone) and
she shoots it with a bow and arrow, which is very primal. She then smashes the
drone with a stone. It’s a reference to evolution, basic instincts, and the
threat of technology. There are many references in the film that just come to
me. Some I put in there just for me, and some I make more obvious. I also
reference the Icelandic sagas a lot. It’s just part of the process; part of
having fun.

Woman at War (2018)

The use of music in the film also came across as you having a lot of fun…

I love to work with
musicians and our composer is a genius; he can play every instrument! We did
the music first and recorded the scenes in Reykjavik. Much like the horses in Of Horses and Men, the music was our
challenge. But in horsemanship, the most fun and reward comes when you have a
difficult horse and you manage to tame him. The music is first and foremost
there to represent what is happening in Halla’s head, but I also play with
references. There’s the film There’s
Something About Mary
as well as Costa
Rica
, though in that the musicians are more central to the story. The music
is the Greek choir, it’s theatre, it’s Fellini – a dream where everything could
happen.

The final shot in the film is a direct
reference to climate change and refugees. Why is it important to end on that
note?

As I’ve been told by scientists, if the average temperature goes up four degrees, it means that the methane gas in the deep ocean will be released and it will magnify the greenhouse effect and the world will feel a rise of 11 degrees. That means 90% death of all life on earth. We will become environmental refugees.

Woman at War is currently touring film festivals around the world. It is also nominated for the LUX Prize and is Iceland’s selection for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. 

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.