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Woman at War by Benedikt Erlingsson - Q&A

Wednesday 1 May 2019, by Abla Kandalaft

Benedikt Erlingsson is an Icelandic director, author and actor. His first feature, Of Horses and Men, was a hit on the festival circuit and won many international awards, including the New Directors Prize at the 2013 San Sebastián Film Festival and the 2014 Nordic Council Film Prize. His latest film, Woman at War, tells the story of Halla, an environmental activist fighting the local aluminum industry in Iceland through acts of sabotage, some of them large-scale enough to become the focus of international intelligence services. Her plans are thrown into disarray by a letter she receives finally granting her permission to adopt a girl from the Ukraine.

Benedikt Erlingsson, ©Juan Camillo Estrada. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Tell us a bit about your background as a filmmaker.

I’ve been making films for 30 years, they’re just not all films, they’re called plays. I’m an old dog in show business. I’ve been involved in story-telling [briefly interrupts the interview to open the door to someone delivering chocolate] Sorry, I turned this whole hotel upside down because I wanted chocolate - I’m a theatre director and actor. I began performing one-man shows then did one with Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir [Halla in Woman at War] . I was into storyteeling theatre, Dario Fo’s work...I started writing film scripts in 2003 and made my first shorts in 2006, 2007.

Both Of Horses and Men and Woman at War have been described by critics as stylish, stylised and quirky. Has your background as a theatre director influenced your approach to film?

Everything comes from something, I’m a storyteller, and like all storytellers, I have a personal style, which bleeds through all my work but it’s on a more unconscious level. I don’t necessarily think about this, I try to avoid over-analysing it. Of course, things like the musicians [occasionally folk musicians play their instruments, incongruous in the scene and ignored by the other characters] are a theatrical device. In this film, this device is a way to visualise the inner struggle of the character. I think films should turn to theatre today, especially German theatre, it would make them more fun!

Tell us more about casting Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir.

I had her in mind. We first performed together in 1979, on stage at the National Theatre of Iceland, in a children’s play. She had the lead part. It was a play about domestic violence, a very Scandinavian theme for children! The idea was that the adults played the children and vice versa. I was playing a schoolmaster and she was a housewife or mother, and the children characters were played by adults. We performed it for 2 or 3 years, it was slavery! We were brought up in this showbiz slave factory. Her mother was an actress and my mother was a director, we come from the same milieu. Later, she was involved in the punk rock movement, moved to Germany and became a big admirer of Nina Hagen. I began writing for film.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir, photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

What inspired you to write about the sabotage of an aluminium plant?

I began to educate myself about climate change in 2013. I understood that our world needs saving. II wanted to make a fairytale about saving the world. More specifically, I wanted to make a feel-good accessible film about this apocalyptic scenario, as it’s a complicated issue. I wanted the film to save the world! I wanted to talk about those everyday heroes, like [Swedish student climate activist] Greta Thunberg, for example, who is a real leader. She’s effectively highlighted the size of this challenge and how slowly we are reacting. And the instrument we have to react with is the State. Some would say this film is advocating civil disobedience or sabotage but ultimately the power is with the State. The power it has means it’s the producers’ problem. You cannot look at the consumers anymore and say small, individual changes matter. It’s too late and that would take too long. The State has to make it the producers’ problem. We need to act like we’re in a war, we’re in war against our lifestyles. We have to introduce rules and regulations. I do think a shift is possible, we are cognitive beings, we can change our minds. We are in a very interesting phase, it’s a happy thing to be part of a generation that can save the world.

Should the film motivate us to take action?

It’s one of the biggest challenges of art to be morally good. I have an artist friend who said it’s impossible to make art that has good intentions and yet, he said, this is the first piece of art he’s seen that he believes has good intentions. In a way, it is a critique of dystopias. We should actually be making utopias. We need more hope in this fight. I can recommend a beautiful film from Macedonia called Honeyland, a masterpiece about the human dilemma.

How has having your films on the festival circuit helped you?

In the European filmmaking model, you need co-producers, so it’s helpful if you have some kind of stamp. There are so many films made, so festivals are a way to help the audience choose - I don’t know if they truly take notice or choose to go see a film because it won an award at a festival - but it gives it that level of recognition. I struggle a lot financing my films even with my excellent producer Marianne Slot, but now these honours from abroad will hopefully make me more acceptable to the Icelandic Film Centre!

How was your experience of Clermont-Ferrand?

My first experience of Clermont-Ferrand was in 2009 when I had my short film Naglinn selected. The team was initially disappointed because they thought my name was Benedicte, so assumed I was a woman. Everybody was disappointed that there was this bald man that had come instead. It was a fantastic experience. It was good preparation for everything that came afterwards. Nobody knew who I was, and I got a Special Mention for this film. I was even invited onto the stage but there was a misunderstanding, so I was just sat there on the third balcony. I was flabbergasted, I was so intrigued by the focus that I got. I was in tears seeing this panel, this audience of French intellectuals that all watched my short film, all wanted to talk about it and analyse it. I had to hold my tears, I was like a little child. I was overwhelmed by this film culture and love of film. I’m very grateful for my first experience in Clermont-Ferrand.

At times perhaps overly quirky, Woman at War is a moving and upbeat portrait of a regular woman who manages to upset a powerful industry, and make a mark on the overwhelmingly ambitious but much needed fight against climate change. Erlingsson’s decision of making his protagonist a woman in her fifties and the determinedly hopeful tone he injects in the story make Woman at War a refreshingly bold second feature, offering us the same stunning, sweeping tableaux as Of Horses And Men.

WOMAN AT WAR WILL BE RELEASED IN CINEMAS ON 3 MAY 2019. More about upcoming screenings on the film’s website.
An American version of the film is in the pipeline, directed by and starring Jodie Foster! Benedikt will be involved in a "friendly" way...

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