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A Woman and her multiple wars

A review of Woman at War. A film by Benedikt Erlingsson. An Icelandic-French-Ukrainian production, 2018.

March 8, 2020 - Margarita Novikova - Books and Reviews

The opening scene of the film Woman at War introduces the main heroine, Halla. She is depicted as an action film hero who is being pursued by an enemy, with a dramatic score in the background. She has been sabotaging the local aluminium industry and is now sought by the police for her eco-terrorist activities. Yet, her character has also a more mythic quality: with her bow and arrow Halla is reminiscent of the Greek goddess of wilderness, Artemis. As the film progresses, the connection to Artemis becomes more and more apparent. She is an ecowarrior taking on an industry that threatens the wildlife and scenic beauty of her native Iceland. She feels at home in the wilderness and becomes one with nature during the course of the film. We also see a completely different side of her; we see not only the “Mountain Woman” (the name she uses in her manifesto), but also fifty-year-old choirmaster who would never be suspected of such behaviour and who dreams of becoming a mother.

The film skilfully combines multiple genres, the plot switches from action to drama while also providing the audience with a dash of comedy, with the most apparent comic relief in the form of the unfortunate Spanish tourist who always finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. In addition to that, Benedikt Erlingsson, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Ólafur Egilsson, raises several issues pertinent to our contemporary society: environmental degradation, the effects of globalisation, media, surveillance technology, wars, as well as moral choices and existential angst.

The wars

The environmental war is the main focus of the film, yet there are multiple wars that are worth mentioning. The environmental degradation is certainly one of the most pressing issues of our time. The effects of climate change and global warming are felt throughout the globe in the forms of wildfires south of the equator and the abnormally warm winters in the north. The bushfires in Australia burned more than 110,000 square kilometres of forested area, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 33 people. The rainforest wildfires in the Amazon, in addition to larger deforestation and forest degradation in the region, is also of immense concern due to the fact that this world’s largest rainforest is a “cradle of biodiversity” and is vitally important for the alleviation of the consequences of climate change.

The rising concern over environmental security and the increased influence transnational companies have are some of the main problems associated with globalisation and which are reflected on in the film. Halla, with her acts of sabotage on the aluminium industry, succeeds in stopping Chinese investors from signing a deal with the Islandic government for the construction of a new aluminium smelter. The aluminium industry significantly impacts the environment as it requires a great amount of energy, which causes high carbon emissions, and contributes to water pollution, deforestation and loss of biodiversity and natural habitats in the areas surrounding the aluminium plants. This impact is artistically emphasised in the film with the immensely beautiful Islandic landscapes captured by cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson. This beauty plays a salient role in forcing the viewer to consider what is at stake if the environmental war is to be lost. Nonetheless, this war is not the only one that Halla is fighting.

Indeed, Halla is battling two opposing sides of her identity. She is both a warrior and a pacifist. She fights the war with the big industries, yet she has a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi, the most prominent leader of the non-violent movement, in her living room. She lives a double life. She is a respectable choirmaster who rides her bike from work and greets her neighbours with a kind-hearted smile, but after work she grabs her tools and sneaks out of the house to sabotage the local aluminium plant. It is clear that Halla is battling not just the aluminium industry, but also her inner dissonance between the ineffectiveness of the non-violent protest and the supposed effectiveness of the extremist action. Could she be a modern Emilie Pankhurst?

Metaphorically speaking, Halla started out as a law-abiding “suffragist” but became frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the movement and decided for stronger action, becoming a “suffragette”. Halla’s duality is further symbolically emphasised by the fact that she has a twin sister, played by the same actress. The sister is much closer to the pacifist, spiritual world, which is reflected in her being a yoga teacher and openly opposing Halla’s violent behaviour. As the story progresses Halla’s confidence in radical environmentalism starts to decrease as well, largely due to the fact that her application for adoption is finally approved. The possibility of being a mother changes Halla’s priorities and makes her reconsider her extremist activities. Thus, there is an internal conflict between being an “eco-terrorist” and a mother, yet there is something uniting these two identities. There is something motherlike in her defence of her land. She is taking care of the earth by sabotaging the plans of the industrialists who are irreparably harming it. Now, with the adoption of a girl from Ukraine, Nika, who was orphaned in the Donbas conflict, Halla will have someone else to protect. Yet this someone is running away from a war of her own and Halla understands that she might have to stop fighting for the sake of her future child.

The violent conflict with separatist forces in eastern Ukraine becomes another important war that this film highlights. The war that has been going on long enough for it to fade into the background in the media, yet of which the viewer is reminded, as it becomes a part of the protagonist’s story when the adoption agency finds a girl from Donbas. It is no surprise that this film focuses on the issue of war-orphaned children in Ukraine, as the country is one of the co-producers of the picture. The film attempts to provide a depiction of the situation in the Donbas region as genuinely as possible, both through the filming locations in Ukraine and the portrayal of the overcrowded and underfunded orphanages.

Most of the orphanages in the self-proclaimed people’s republics were evacuated, despite multiple attempts to prevent the translocation of the children by the separatist militants, which included threats, blackmail and actual abductions of the orphaned children. Nonetheless, as more and more children were falling victim to the war, the orphanages were refilled again, with not only orphans in the traditional sense of the word, but with “social orphans” whose parents lost the ability to provide for their children due to the war. With the government having almost no control over the separatist areas, these orphanages are severely underfunded and in need of fresh food and clothing. The overcrowding in the orphanages under Ukrainian control leaves adoption as the only option for these children. I believe that the director brings the western audience’s attention to this issue with utmost sensitivity and originality.

The music

One of the most notable parts of the film is the approach to the music. The soundtrack is not just there in the background, but at the forefront with an Islandic trio of accordion, drums and sousaphone breaking the fourth wall and connecting with the audience directly. The band follows Halla around and translates her feelings and emotions into music. There is also a presence of a Ukrainian trio singing folk songs and wearing traditional costumes, which appears as soon as Halla learns about Nika. The appearance of the wistful choir contrasted with the energetic jolts of the band further emphasises Halla’s inner conflict. The director himself describes the band and the choir as “the inner forces that are battling within the hero’s soul”, and that is why the musicians are visible, as they are part of the story too.

This whimsical musical feature won the film the Prix SACD award for music at the Cannes Film Festival, yet with the audiences it seems to be a love-hate situation. I encourage you to watch the film and decide for yourself whether you like this musical peculiarity. Regardless of whether you love it or hate the presence of the musicians, the film as a whole deserves high praise for combining multiple genres and a high number of salient issues in a natural storytelling and beautiful cinematography.

Margarita Novikova is an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe and currently an MA student of European Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.

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