Foreign Films in Focus

'Woman at War,' Iceland's Oscar Submission, Puts a Funny Spin on Climate Change

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Benedikt Erlingsson injects humor into this quirky tale of environmental activism: "I have to have good dramaturgy, have some good jokes — but I am leading them to the story."

Fanciful and hard-hitting, Iceland's Woman at War, from director Benedikt Erlingsson (Of Horses and Men), has one foot in the ancient and another in the very, very modern.

The beating heart of the film is Halla (Halldora Geirhardsdottir), a strong-willed 50-something choir instructor with a secret: She's an industrial saboteur who will stop at nothing to save Iceland's pristine highlands from the government and its sinister bedfellow, the aluminum industry.

In creating Halla, Erlingsson, 49, who co-wrote the film with Olafur Egilsson, drew from archetypes like the Greek goddess Artemis, "the protector of the wild and the innocent and a goddess with a bow," Erlingsson explains, and Athena, the goddess of warfare and wisdom. The name Halla alludes to a revered Icelandic outlaw from the 17th century. And then there's someone Erlingsson calls "a goddess in the Nordic countries": Pippi Longstocking, the unconventional and hot-tempered heroine of Swedish author Astrid Lindgren's 1940s children's books. She "is the underlying backbone of all feminist movements of Northern Europe," says Erlingsson.

Woman at War, however, was not born decades ago in the frigid north. Instead, it began life in 2014 in sunny Southern California, at the Palm Springs Film Festival. There, Erlingsson was attending a seminar when in walked a committee from, of all things, the World Bank. The committee discussed how storytellers have influenced such issues as tobacco use and AIDS, and "they had this suggestion that we would educate ourselves about climate change," he recalls. Erlingsson took the idea very seriously. "I was well prepared," he says, "because I had a past as an activist." (He once chained himself to a whaling ship.)

Central to climate change, and to Woman at War, is the complicity between governments and multinational energy corporations regarding the use of public lands. For Erlingsson, beyond the visit from the World Bank, inspiration came from his feeling that time is running out. "This is the idea, that we are fucked," he says. "We have to [change] our ways."

Woman at War could easily have been a heavy-handed message movie, but Erlingsson knew that to successfully tackle such complicated issues, he had to make a film that was first and foremost entertaining: "If I'm sitting at a bar and there is a lot of music, and I have my friend here and I'm going to tell them a serious story, how do I compete with all the noise? I have to have good dramaturgy, have some good jokes — but I am leading them to the story, to the heart of the story."

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.