Trombones sound in mock militaristic style, and a maddening drum beat that recurs somewhere in the subconscious ripples through the teal-soaked Icelandic landscape. A strident figure, wielding a bow and arrow, steps up to take the shot. She launches a steel arrow attached to a cable that will sever the power of an electricity pylon – the supply of power to her town’s aluminium smelting plant. Within minutes, a government search party will be out on the fjords, looking for the saboteur. Meet our protagonist: the search-helicopter-evading, choir-leading, moss-hugging Halla Sigurdsson. She’s better known to her townspeople as the ‘Mountain Woman’, a lionhearted environmental agitator.
Halla is on a solo mission to topple the multinational might of Iceland’s growing aluminium industry, which is damaging the environment that many Icelander’s feel a spiritual connection to. Chinese investment is booming however, and so the Icelandic government is keen to put a swift stop to Halla’s furtive environmental resistance through direct prosecution, or through the stoking of a culture war against acts of ‘environmental terrorism’. Our storyline follows the vigilante’s efforts to escape capture and deliver on her quest of anti-industrial resistance.
The quest could be sabotaged however, by the arrival of a single letter. Halla, after years of waiting to become an adoptee parent, is informed that a Ukrainian child is looking for a new home, after becoming orphaned during the Russo-Ukrainian war. Halla is flung into a crisis of morality, torn between her commitments to the environment and the new responsibility of raising a traumatised child.
This opening might lead viewers to believe that this is a tale of how one woman manages to topple the extractive sector, go on to raise an orphaned child, and successfully juggle the frenzy of life’s commitments. Director Benedikt Erlingsson, however, brings a subtler perspective. A comic, often droll style softens the moralising tone of the tale, allowing us to make our own assessments of the heroine’s judgement. We’re followed by a frenetic orchestra that comically soundtracks moments of anxiety. The film replicates the absurd sensation of being overwhelmed by moral panic – a state that many of us feel during our present environmental crisis, yet struggle to express.
The film also raises pertinent questions about the role of activism during unprecedented environmental decline. The recent Extinction Rebellion protests saw thousands march on Parliament Square, blocking roads and staging sit-ins to demand urgent, policy-led action to mitigate the climate crisis. More than 600 activists were arrested. The group also drew criticism for its blockades of UK printworks, delaying the distribution of the Murdoch-owned News Corp’s newspaper titles, including The Sun, The Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph. The film subtly questions whether such acts become self-defeating, or whether they sow the seeds for widespread environmental change by bringing these issues to the public debate. The majority of viewers will applaud Halla’s courage and determination when viewed on screen, but does this feeling of admiration become muted when activism plays out in the real-world?
As more characters become complicit in the criminality of Halla’s environmental activism, the film explores the ways that we choose to execute our purpose: do we have an overriding commitment to the Earth; should the wellbeing and safety of our loved ones take priority over our personal convictions; or is there a way to collectivise these imperatives into a meaningful existence? While corporate sabotage is probably not a mainstream solution, Woman at War feels relevant to each of our own personal battles during the environmental and climate crises.