'The Seer and the Unseen': Film Review | San Francisco Film Festival 2019
An Icelandic woman communicates with elves and tries to save the environment in a strong, surprising documentary.
Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, known as Ragga, is a gentle, thoughtful woman who says that since childhood she has been able to see and communicate with the elves, dwarves and trolls who are an integral part of Icelandic myth and history. Now a grandmother and a seer often consulted about where elves are and what they are saying, she is also an environmental activist and the heroine of The Seer and the Unseen.
While its mystical subject defies logic, Sara Dosa’s verite film is cogent and appealing thanks to a savvy strategy. Dosa respects Ragga’s beliefs without endorsing them, and positions her activism as a metaphor for saving the environment. In fact, the activist group Ragga is part of focuses on protecting nature. Think of her as a poet rather than an elf-whisperer and this beautifully constructed film works for even the most rational viewers.
Dosa sets up the trajectory of The Seer and the Unseen gradually, first introducing viewers to Ragga as a character, then to her particular environmental cause, and eventually the entire Icelandic economy. This director knows what she’s doing. Her 2014 documentary, The Last Season, about a Cambodian and an American war veteran who bond, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award.
Ragga is heard in voiceover, seen with her grandchildren putting a dish of honey outside the door for the elves who live in the yard, and talking to an offscreen, unheard interviewer. (Much of the film is in English, including Ragga’s on-camera interview, with smaller sections in Icelandic with subtitles.) She emerges as thoroughly likable, not a firebrand or proselytizer, clear-eyed and sensible about the skepticism of the unbelieving world.
As a child, she says, she hid her ability to talk to spirits because the other kids would have thought she was crazy. But within the last decade she has become outspoken about it. The cameras go along as the owner of a bed and breakfast, planning an addition to the inn, asks her to consult. He wants to know if there are spirit creatures living on the land who might be upset. She looks around, points to places where she sees elf settlements and tells the owner they would not be disrupted. The elves appreciate his asking. For him, the consultation seems to be a harmless reassurance, almost superstitious, but neither of them seems like a crackpot.
The pic soon focuses on the cause engaging Ragga and her group, Friends of the Lava Conservation. They are fighting against plans for a road to be built over a lava field in a suburb of Reykjavik. The group protests, refusing to move from the path of the bulldozers until police come and haul them away. Dosa’s pacing is shrewd throughout. Just when it seems as if this protest is happening off the radar, her cameras pull back to include television news crews covering the event, the camera people in bright yellow identifying vests that say "Media."
The film deftly links that road to the Icelandic economy, rebounding after the 2008 crash. Experts and quick news clips tell us that deregulation led to a boom and an influx of foreign money, then to the crash. Only recently has the country gotten back on track financially, with construction once more threatening to blight parts of nature.
Although the road-building continues, soon the elves are asking Ragga to at least save their church, located inside a giant bolder in the construction’s path. She lobbies the town officials, and is surprisingly effective, getting them to move the rock aside. As Ragga and the cameras watch, a crane lifts the boulder, which seems about to break apart. The film creates enough suspense to make you hold your breath, even if you are convinced no elf has ever worshipped there.
The movie’s tone is not far from Ragga’s own. "I won’t try to convince you," she tells a small group as she leads a snowy tour of a park where elves live. She asks only that they try to look with the open eyes of their childhood selves, and let the adult parts of their brains kick in after. She herself is a realist about what she can do. "You have to save whatever can be saved," she says, happy that at least the church was preserved. Ever an optimist, she mentions having seen angry dwarves and trolls, but her emphasis is on more benign spirits.
Even though the filmmakers documented Ragga over several years, Erin Casper’s editing and Patrick Kollman’s camerawork make it look seamless. Spectacular views of nature — ice and sea, flowers and hills — are juxtaposed with scenes of sprawling, ugly construction sites. The look is crisp and uniform, the comparisons effective. After the silence of a natural scene, the sound of machinery is jarring.
As the title hints, Ragga is both a seer, as in visionary, and a see-er to whom the spirit world is visible. This captivating film does not ask viewers to see elves with her, but to observe and hear the quiet, enduring, threatened natural world all around.
Production company: Signpost Pictures
Director: Sara Dosa
Producers: Shane Boris, Sara Dosa
Director of photography: Patrick Kollman
Editor: Erin Casper
Music: Giosue Greco, Tara Atkinson, Dan Romer
Venue: San Francisco International Film Festival
Sales: Submarine Entertainment