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BENEDIKT ERLINGSSON The man behind the woman

Woman at War
is the latest film from Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson (Of Horses and Men), starring Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir as the woman carrying out a one person war against a mining giant, in an attempt to protect the Icelandic highlands. Not only has the film been critically acclaimed, but it has also been scheduled for an American remake by none other than director Jodie Foster. With Woman at War screening at UWA Somerville (December 17-23) and ECU Joondulup Pines (December 26-30) as part of the Perth Festival Lotterywest Films, DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to Erlingsson about “The Mountain Woman”, and other inspiration.

What inspired you to make Woman at War?

The state of the world… the apocalyptic. The world needs saving, more than ever before. Climate change issues are really complicated, and they touch on many areas of our lifestyle and society, both personal and political. And l wanted a film that could create some new and positive insight into the subject.

You touch on a few issues in this film….environment, society, corporate responsibility, or lack thereof…one of the issues that particularly interested me was the way a message can be controlled and subverted by spin doctors.

Exactly. It’s an old lesson that goes back to the start of democracy. Even the name PR, public relations, it started as PM, public manipulation. They changed it to PR for better public relations.

Probably didn’t focus group well.

It is all about the narrative, and storytelling. I am PM because I’m manipulating my viewers…and so are politicians…this is a very grey area.

The pseudonym Halla goes by “The Mountain Woman” is she a folk hero, or a figure of myth….?

It is a symbol, a spirit, a goddess, one of Icelandic national symbols. Such symbols are common in Europe. We have Britanica in England, after the Celtic queen that fought the Romans, we have Helvetia for the Swiss, and I think even the French have something like this. We have the Mountain Woman. On our national day there is an actress dressed up as the mountain woman and she recites poetry. She’s the keeper of our Independent spirit and our nature. Kind of a protecting angel.

Was it difficult to cast Halla?

It was obvious at the end, but I had to go along way, longer than I should have. His often like this, often you go over the river many times to fetch the water. I was very grateful for her to accept the role. She in many ways was an inspiration for it. She is one of the woman at war in Iceland, one of the Amazons active in the feminist debate. We have many strong women like that.

And of course Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir gets to play dual roles. You set up a dialectic between the two sisters, one seeking to effect outside change (through bucking the system), the other focusing inside, to change herself. Where do you think our responsibility lies, to promote external or internal change?

We have a responsibility to both. We have to go inside to get the wisdom to react outside. Yet at the same time it is not enough to take care of just yourself, we are responsible for the environment, and each other. We are on a dangerous path as the human race, and have to react.

You’ve alternatively described Woman at War as an eco-thriller and a fable. Which do you feel it is?

It’s a bastard this film. I mix it all the time and I like to mix it, so I can go whatever you want. I can call it environmental-action-arthouse-thriller…and a musical. And Comedy! Both England and Germany have called this a comedy…I was not making a comedy! I was making it straight. So just choose what you think is best.

How did the score become so incorporated into the film, to an extent that the band and singers not merely appear in the background, but interact with characters?

I like to work with music and musicians, and I come from a theatre background. It is a Greek chorus. We discovered pretty early on in theatre that musicians on stage won’t hypnotize the public so they forget about the actors. It is an old device and I think it’s fun. I like to comment musically, l think we are stuck in a film cliche, and I like to play with that.

It’s just been announced that Woman at War is getting a Hollywood remake, how do you feel about that?

I feel great about that. I’m honored that Jodie Foster wants to take up the mission of this film and carry it into American Society. Because America are a young nation, so they have problems with understanding other cultures. So it’s great that someone like Jodie wants to help them and make a beautiful American film about it. She’s the best choice I think. It’s very important for Americans too… they are fucked these days… I think they need the “Mountain Woman” there to help them.

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