Icelandic music phenom Bjork once cautioned the New Yorker: "You have to watch out for the Nordic cliche," she said. "A friend of mine says that when record company executives come to Iceland, they ask the bands if they believe in elves, and whoever says 'Yes' gets signed up."
Theories about why Icelanders in particular seem prone to such superstitions centre on the earliest settlers’ struggle to endure their isolated existence in such a majestic but unpredictable landscape. Sara Dosa’s feature documentary, ‘The Seer and the Unseen’, finds this landscape (shot beautifully by cinematographer Patrick Kollman) under threat by the shift in the country’s cultural values and attitudes towards the environment.
Iceland contains approximately 300,000 people with only 70,000 in the capital city of Reykjavik. It has withstood extraordinary development and pressure to accommodate tourism since the bankruptcy of the country in 2008 as a result of overdevelopment and the too-good-to-be-true availability of credit lines. "If you don’t believe in money, it doesn’t exist," a local ponders. The documentary discusses the ways that this devastating financial collapse has left a traumatic scar on the island nation. It also appears that the cycle is about to repeat itself as construction grows out of Reykjavik to more rural territories, with construction and infrastructure projects that are nothing more than development for the sake of development, paid for with credit that might never be paid back.
At the edge of the ancient Gálgahraun lava field, a short drive outside Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík, a small group of local environmentalists make camp among the gnarled volcanic rock, wild moss, and browning grass to protest a new road development that will slice the bucolic landscape into four sections and place a traffic circle in its core. The project, led by the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration and the nearby municipality of Garðabær, will provide a more direct route to and from the tip of the Álftanes peninsula, where the rustic, red-tiled compound of the country’s president and an eponymous hamlet of 2,600 people stand.
‘The Seer and the Unseen’ focuses on activist Ragga Jónsdóttir, who belongs to Friends of the Lava, a conservation group that lies down in front of the bulldozers in an attempt to halt the development in this area. They believe that any benefits from a project that snakes through Gálgahraun are cancelled out by its cultural and environmental costs. Jónsdóttir, a greying and spectacled seer who also operates an "elf garden" in nearby Hafnarfjörður, claims to be able to see and telepathically communicate with invisible elves, or the Icelandic huldufólk (hidden people). As one of Iceland's most respected seers, governmental officials, businesses and individuals call upon Ragga to consult the elves in order to learn where they can and cannot develop land. Essentially, she’s an elf whisperer. "I hardly ever see money, but I see a lot of elves," she says.
It’s revealed that the road being built by the local government is completely useless, redundant, and doesn’t serve any logical purpose whatsoever. Jónsdóttir is particularly concerned about the displacement of a sacred huldufólk boulder, "a very important elf church", which lies directly in the path of one of the roads. She knows about the elf church because she can see it, she says, and also sense its energy, a sensation many Icelanders are familiar with.
We see a few shreds of optimism in the way that the construction foreman and his workers treat Jónsdóttir with the utmost consideration, and how Jónsdóttir’s grandson reacts with wonder to her descriptions of the mystical creatures swarming them on their morning walk.
Jónsdóttir continues the tradition of honouring the elves’ presence, putting out food for them in the morning with her three grandchildren in the hopes that they can start to see what she does. However, there are fewer and fewer as interested as she is in protecting either the land or the cultural customs that were once so strong less than a century ago that Icelandic law required ships to take down their dragon mastheads so as not to disturb their fellow tenants. "Now, only half the country believes that elves may exist," she laments.
Dosa uses Jónsdóttir’s activism as an emotional tie to the plight of the island. The financial collapse and the environmental protests, however, are almost engaging enough to stand on their own. Do we really need more of an emotional link to an island, whose beauty is magnificently displayed throughout the film, aside from simply knowing that urbanised developments will irrevocably alter the landscape?
Although Dosa doesn’t ask you to share Jónsdóttir’s exact vision, you can see for yourself the threat that’s posed overall to Iceland in abandoning the beliefs that have dictated their relationship to the land for centuries. "Iceland has decided to take free-market thinking as their main motto," Ragga's husband ruefully remarks. What better way to remind yourself to respect the environment than if you treat it as if it’s the home of invisible benevolent beings? We see a few shreds of optimism in the way that the construction foreman and his workers treat Jónsdóttir with the utmost consideration, and how Jónsdóttir’s grandson reacts with wonder to her descriptions of the mystical creatures swarming them on their morning walk.
The magic of ‘The Seer and The Unseen’ is that it allows us to look past the beauty of Iceland and see the life of one extraordinary environmentalist and her struggle against the mindless wheels of bureaucracy under the Northern Lights.