Although Iceland hasn’t been nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar since 1991, the Scandinavian nation has submitted some of the most intriguing films over the years. Benedikt Erlingsson’s “Woman at War” is no different, telling a unique story of an environmental activist who wages a one-woman war against her local aluminum industry, while facing major upheavals in her personal life. With several surreal elements in the narrative, the film showcases Scandinavian cinema’s penchant for absurdism and dark humor. In a recent interview with Erlingsson, however, he revealed his strong influences from Greek art and literature. Below is an edited version of our discussion.
Shane Slater/Awards Circuit: The film’s protagonist is so fascinating. What inspired this complex character?
Benedikt Erlingsson: There are lots of archetypes behind her. The environmental fight is very often led by women. It seems they are really taking on the challenge and have been doing so throughout the history of man. I am also a product of a matriarchy. I have very strong grandmothers and mothers, so I think they are also inside this character. The same could be said about my co-writer. We are both the product of strong mothers and grandmothers. So I think we have good examples all around us in our society.
If you go further into the archetype you can think of Artemis and even Pippi Longstocking. So it’s been around us like a soundtrack.
SS: This is quite a demanding, physical role. What made you realize that Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir would be perfect for the part?
BE: I know her very well. We worked together in theater. She plays both men and women brilliantly. She even played Don Quixote in Icelandic theater. She’s a brilliant actress and I have a lot of professional and personal respect for her. And she’s also an activist in Iceland.
SS: There are some absurdist touches throughout the film, such as the band that follows the lead character. How did you come up with this idea?
BE: I like to work with musicians. So I thought of a way to make music a big aspect of the film, so I would be forced to work with them a lot. We did the music before shooting.
On the other hand, there’s also the Greek chorus. And this is used to visualize the inner conflict of the character. We see this all the time in the theater.
SS: Scandinavian cinema likes to use humor when portraying politically charged issues. What is your perspective on the effectiveness of this approach?
BE: I cannot say anything about other Scandinavian directors. For me, it comes naturally. You can tell serious stories with deep lessons and at the same time do it in a light manner. I sometimes think about the Greek comedian and playwright Aristophanes. His comedies are often very political and metaphysical.
SS: How have the responses been to the film and its very complicated character?
BE: It’s been very warm, surprisingly warm. Of course, the crimes are so serious and the government’s reaction to the character in the film are also criminal. So she has moral support for her actions. I think women have been particularly happy about this and that makes me very happy. Women of all ages have really celebrated this character. And I’m very fond of women, so it makes me extra happy.
SS: Will you be continuing in the same socially conscious vein in your future work?
BE: Well, my first film wasn’t political. I tried to pitch it once to an American actor and he called it a horse porn! So I’m moving up from horse porn to a political thriller or action film. In a way, I don’t even know what to call this film. In Germany and England, they call it a comedy. But I was not making a comedy. Just wait until I make a comedy!