Violence, Landscape, and Gender in Woman at War

Woman at War Poster

An English-language poster for Woman at War (2018).

I recently got the chance to see Woman at War, an Icelandic film that’s been receiving excellent reviews. Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson and staring Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, it tells the story of Halla, a choirmaster who leads a double life as The Mountain Woman, waging a one-woman war against the expansion of heavy industry threatening the climate and Iceland’s natural environment. She’s very good at it too, until she is offered the chance of fulfilling her life-long dream of becoming a mother, and suddenly has to make some difficult decisions. The film is fantastic, and it draws on some really interesting debates and issues related to the geographies of protest.

Halla’s tactics are the cause of much controversy amongst the Icelandic media and politicians in Woman at War. She only ever commits violence against electricity pylons, never animals or people, but she is criticised for this nonetheless. When deciding on their tactics, activists must walk a fine line between doing something that will get attention and alienating people by going ‘too far’. Most of us consider violence against people and animals unacceptable whatever the cause, but people tend to be more tolerant of violence against objects. Despite this, Halla’s opponents use her tactics to undermine her argument. Her critics also accuse her of bypassing the democratic system and making unilateral decisions about Iceland’s future that she has no right to make, as she is not an elected official. In this way, Woman at War raises interesting questions about whether or not protest is democratic. It is widely understood that dissent and protest is an essential part of a healthy democracy, but how much pressure can we put on elected officials before it becomes unethical? Generally speaking, protest marches, rallies, petitions, and lobbying are considered acceptable, but violence, blackmail, or bribery is not. But does this lines shift if politicians refuse to engage, or if the future of the human race is as stake (as many people believe it is because of climate change)? This is not a debate with an easy answer.

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Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as Halla in Woman at War.

Halla wages her one-woman war by sabotaging electricity pylons that supply an aluminium smelting plant. Sabotaging machinery and equipment is nothing new for the more militant wing of the environmental movement, but Woman at War was released during a surge of non-violent direct action on behalf of the environment by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future (also known as the school strike for climate movement, kick started by Grea Thunberg). Although these groups argue that non-violence is the most effective approach, they share a sense of urgency with Halla about the need to do something quickly. They are not alone; for example, The Guardian has recently announced a change in the language it will use, favouring “climate emergency/crisis/breakdown” over “climate change,” and “global heating” over “global warming.” Woman at War is not preachy, but it does convey a sense that drastic changes are needed very quickly.

Landscape is another prominent theme in Woman at War. Large portions of the film take place in Iceland’s rural highlands, and Halla has a strong connection to the natural world around her. It is her intimate knowledge of the landscape that enables her to evade capture, using crevices and streams to hide from helicopters and throw dogs off her scent. As well as the world as a whole, it is this landscape she is seeking to protect through her activism, and in return it protects her. When the film’s action shifts to Ukraine, the contrast with the Icelandic landscape is stark; the large cooling towers and desolate factories a warning against exactly the kind of economic development that Halla is trying to prevent in Iceland.

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Halla takes refuge in a hot spring in Woman at War.

The final theme that jumped out when I watched Woman at War is gender. When the chance to adopt a little girl from Ukraine is presented to her, Halla realises she must choose between being and activist and a mother. She takes her role as eco-warrior very seriously, but she has dreamed of becoming a mother, and it is obvious that she would devote just as much attention to this new role. Perhaps the choice between her passion and her dream of motherhood is more literal than that which most women face, but I’m sure that many can identify with Halla’s dilemma, and it was painful to watch her agonise over it. However, it is also Halla’s concern for future generations that drives her to her activism, she is trying to protect the world on their behalf. So perhaps without her motherly instincts, she would not have embarked on her one-woman crusade. Activists often sacrifice a great deal in their fight for what they believe in. Woman at War confronts the emotional toll of these sacrifices, as well as examining the forces that drive women to take action.

Woman at War is an excellent film. Despite it’s topical storyline about the future of humanity, it manages to be very funny at times, and retains a note of hope. It is both entertaining and thought-provoking, a difficult balance to strike. It hasn’t had a big cinematic release in the UK, but if you get the opportunity to see it, then I thoroughly recommend that you do. Who knows, perhaps Halla will inspire you to go out and save the world.