Lights, Camera, Activism
Words by Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir
Photography by Golli
Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is one of the nation’s most beloved actors. Recently, she’s been getting international attention for her role as an environmental terrorist Halla in the film Woman at War. The role is another fruitful partnership with frequent collaborator Benedikt Erlingsson, her co-star in Ormstunga, a comedy play based on one of the Icelandic sagas, and her director in critically-acclaimed Of Horses and Men.
In Woman at War, Halldóra plays Halla, an environmental activist trying to sabotage electricity lines in the highlands. It involved a lot of running over mountains, across rivers, and through moss. “It was very demanding. I was at every day of shooting except for two,” Halldóra tells me. “I had to prepare myself physically because I know that if you’re running in front of a camera, you have to be able to do it eight times.”
The Icelandic film industry is having a moment these days, with plenty of quality films being produced. While there are great films being made, it’s still difficult for an Icelandic actor who wants to focus on film acting. “I can never say that I am going to be a film actor. Very few actors can say that, maybe only Ólafur Darri [Ólafsson, of Trapped fame] and Jóhannes Haukur [Jóhannesson, who appeared in Game of Thrones. They have enough work in other countries.” In light of the dearth of film roles in Iceland, Halldóra is pleased with her starring role in Woman at War. “For me, it’s a once in a lifetime role. But you never know what happens, I might get another call.”
In the movie, Halldóra plays not only the leading role but also the main supporting role of Halla’s twin sister. It’s one of her bigger roles, but she’s felt good about working with long-time collaborator, director Benedikt Erlingsson. “It’s very easy for us to work together,” Halldóra says about Benedikt. “We’re free with each other. I’ll scream at him and he’ll get tired of me, but we work everything out. We never have a falling out.” Halldóra has been in several theatre productions and films with Benedikt, such as his acclaimed film Of Horses and Men and a two-man staging of Ormstunga, which toured Iceland and Scandinavia for four years. “We’ve been like brother and sister,” Halldóra tells me as she recounts the highlights of their joint projects. “We know how to work together.”
Halldóra’s character is very passionate about protecting the environment: so passionate that she turns to sabotage. The idea seems far-fetched, but it actually has some real-life inspiration. “[Benedikt], an old-school enemy of whaling who chained himself to a whaling boat in his youth, he has that activism in his blood. He told me years ago, that if he were to disappear, it was because he was in hiding, probably in connection to the powerlines to the Straumsvík aluminium smelter being cut.”
Halldóra herself is no less passionate about protecting the environment. “Global warming is a very dangerous thing. In Iceland, we must be on guard against big industry, making sure they don’t keep making more power plants, producing cheap electricity to power factories and the consumption-driven society we live in.” While she hasn’t been arrested yet, Halldóra is adamant that activism is necessary for progress. “What will most quickly halt global warming is some sort of activism, peaceful activism, where no physical harm is done. Just like strikes and workers’ unions are what heightened social awareness and created the welfare society we enjoy today.”
The external struggle in the movie is between Halldóra’s character and the authorities, but perhaps the most central struggle in the film is the internal one. Halldóra’s character finds out that she is becoming a mother and has to choose between her family and her fight. Benedikt himself never did disappear either. “He became a family man, with three children and a wife. He personally experienced this feeling that you can’t do the type of activism that means jail time when you’ve made the decision to become a parent.” Instead, he did what he could do: made a movie.
For Halldóra, the solution is to work locally. “I’ve figured out that my place as a privileged person is to make sure Iceland becomes a utopia. We have to strive to be better, because we have the chance.” Halldóra also says it’s important to think long-term. “Just look at Gullfoss, and Sigríður frá Brattholti’s fight to protect it. She walked on sheepskin shoes to Reykjavík to stop people building a power plant over the waterfall. Now it’s our main tourist attraction. We have to think at least thirty years ahead and figure out where we’re being greedy.”
The role of Halla may be partly inspired by Benedikt’s own past, yet he chose to make the character female. According to Halldóra, “Our community wants to see women do heroic things. Producers usually put men in the role of the hero, but in our lives, women are every bit as much activists as men.” Yet Halldóra says “Both men and women can see themselves in Halla’s shoes.”
As I ask Halldóra about women in the entertainment industry, she tells me that she only recently realised there was an imbalance. “I was about 30 when I first realised that I wasn’t getting offered the same pay as the guys. I just thought it was really weird, we’d gone to the same schools and done similar things, but then guys around me were getting much better offers than me.” The misogyny wasn’t as overt or violent as it had been but that just made it so much harder to fight. “That’s what I felt was the most interesting thing about the #metoo campaign was all the mundane, everyday stories. You can deal with violence, fight it, but underlying culture, that’s an invisible enemy.”
For the past year or two, women have been very visible in the film industry, directing and starring in some of the most acclaimed Icelandic films. Halldóra thinks the future for women in film is exciting. “I think our time is just getting started. I think the future will hold many more scripts where the president is a woman, the CEO of the company is a woman, the head of the secret service is a woman, the bully is a woman and the psychopath is a woman. It takes two to five years to write a good script, so I think these stories are coming.”
This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.