‘I’m not a criminal. I’m trying to stop crimes against us.’ So speaks Halla, the protagonist of Benedikt Erlingsson’s 2018 feature film, Woman at War: an Icelandic comedy-drama about environmentalist direct action. Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is a middle-aged woman who conducts a choir, practices tai chi, and – in her spare time – uses a bow and arrow, and some improvised explosive devices, to sabotage electricity pylons. The pylons she targets, deep in the Icelandic Highlands, provide energy to an aluminium plant owned by global mining conglomerate Rio Tinto – embroiled in near-constant controversies around corruption, poor labour practices, and environmental degradation.
The film opens with Halla in the midst of her sixth action targeting the plant. Fleeing across the moorlands, pursued by a police helicopter, she seeks assistance from a taciturn farmer. He lends her his car so she can escape – helping her out with a gruff, unceremonious anti-establishment common sense – and immediately the film positions itself on Halla’s side: her actions are those of a reasonable and likeable person. This is eco-sabotage with a respectable face – understandable, justified. At one point, Icelandic politicians read Halla’s strongly-worded manifesto out in full, off their phones, in a meeting with a Chinese trade delegation. It is remarkable to sit in a cinema and hear a militant statement calling for eco-sabotage read in full. The politicians respond cynically: they do not engage with Halla’s statements, but create a media storm to distract from it and bring all activism into disrepute. In doing, Woman at War articulates a position which does not dismiss industrial sabotage as just extremism, but forces the viewer to re-evaluate its potential efficacy.
It is remarkable to sit in a cinema and hear a militant statement calling for eco-sabotage read in full
Hoping to overturn the destruction and degradation of the Icelandic Highlands, Halla sets out to halt the factory’s aluminium production and, in the process, dissuade foreign investment. The Iceland depicted in Woman at War is not the benign, cosy Scandinavian social democracy we are often presented with; it is a contested space threatened by environmental destruction at the whim of international financiers. Iceland is a neoliberal state which mobilises the language of environmentalism while historically failing to meet its commitments to international climate agreements. Despite projecting an image of ecological sustainability, it is a country beset by environmental ambivalences: while 85% of its energy comes from domestic renewable sources, Iceland also has higher CO2 per capita emissions (9.8 tonnes in 2019) than many other countries, including Japan (8.7t), Germany (8.4t), and the United Kingdom (5.5t). This contradiction between Iceland’s self-image and its ecological reality are at the heart of the film. (At some point in the next few years Jodie Foster is set to direct, co-produce and star in an American remake of Woman at War, and it will be interesting to see how this movement from Iceland to the United States will complicate the dynamic of Erlingsson’s film.)
The Iceland depicted in Woman at War is not the benign, cosy Scandinavian social democracy we are often presented with; it is a contested space threatened by environmental destruction at the whim of international financiers
Woman at War’s framing of environmentalist direct action makes a refreshing change. The few other feature films to explore have erred towards the normative, choosing moralism over politics. Kelly Reichardt’s 2013 Night Moves depicts three radical environmentalists who use a fertiliser bomb to destroy a hydro-electric dam that’s disrupting salmon breeding patterns in the Pacific Northwest. After their act unintentionally results in the death of a man camping near the dam, the activists (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard) become consumed by guilt. Even without the accidental death, Night Moves casts doubt on the efficacy of blowing up a dam for environmental reasons, suggesting that the energy companies will always find a way to build more of them, to destroy more habitats. The activists become disillusioned with the potential for direct action, resigned to the inefficacy of their efforts, and trapped in despair stemming from guilt. In the end, Night Moves environmentalism becomes a vehicle by which questions of personal guilt can be examined. The film leaves the viewer with a feeling of queasy, trapped disillusionment.
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017) also considers eco-activism, though obliquely. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a priest who is introduced to a depressed radical environmentalist, Michael (Phillip Ettinger), recently released from prison after some unspecified acts of eco-sabotage. Toller tries to help Michael, but fails; Michael commits suicide. Provoked by his failure, Toller reads up on climate change, channeling his grief into a plan to commit a destructive action of his own. First Reformed takes the threat of climate breakdown seriously, spending time on facts and figures, on the inescapable reality of the crisis. But it shies away from arguing for political solutions to the problem. In Schrader’s vision, radical direct action in the name of environmentalism is presented as a sign of derangement: it is the path taken by those who have lost their mental equilibrium, not a reasonable or necessary effort to halt the acceleration of global heating.
In Schrader’s vision, radical direct action in the name of environmentalism is presented as a sign of derangement
All these films – all art-house productions, well-received at film festivals, likely to play to audiences who are fully persuaded of the climate crisis’ severity – present environmental direct action as the work of individuals on the fringes of mainstream society. They all imply that the personal risk of committing sabotage is too great, and the consequences too complicated. It is significant that Erlingsson chooses a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman as his face of direct action. Halla is from a demographic stereotypically found at Extinction Rebellion protests: well-meaning older, wealthier white liberals. Halla can (initially at least) escape suspicion because of the colour of her skin, age and class. If she can get away with this, a viewer from a similar demographic might think, could I?
This leveraging of privilege underpins the XR strategy of mass arrest. However, this tactic also alienates non-white activists who do not have the privilege of seeing arrest as a heroic gesture. Near the beginning of Woman at War, a brown-skinned South American tourist is arrested in Halla’s place because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. This character is freed from prison, but has further antagonistic encounters with security forces throughout the film; scenes which risk turning racial profiling into a punchline. Woman at War begins to raise the question of the relationship between racial injustice and environmentalism, but is ultimately unable to transcend the vision of a white eco-saviour.
Woman at War begins to raise the question of the relationship between racial injustice and environmentalism, but is ultimately unable to transcend the vision of a white eco-saviour
Erlingsson’s film is a step forward in depictions of direct climate action on film. Woman at War does not get bogged down in ambivalences, but makes the case for a more radical protest against the poisoning of our world. As Andreas Malm has argued in his recently published book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, industrial sabotage – taking place alongside peaceful, non-violent protest – is a necessary next-step in the fight against climate change. But Halla in Woman at War acts alone. She is not as part of a larger radical movement, but a lone wolf calling herself ‘The Mountain Woman.’ This solitude limits her actions. There are limits to individual protest.
Towards the end of his book, Malm describes the exhilaration he felt as a participant in an action organised by Ende Gelände against a German power plant in 2016: ‘All the despair that climate breakdown generates on a daily basis was out of my system, if only temporarily; I had had an injection of collective empowerment.’ Some documentary filmmakers have begun to realise the necessity of a shift in focus away from the individual activist and towards the collective movement. One example can be found in the work of Vincent Carelli, an anthropologist and filmmaker who has spent the last four decades collaborating with the Guarani-Kaiowá people in Brazil and Paraguay, teaching the indigenous population to make their own films, to tell the story of their struggle against genocide, dispossession by agribusiness, and the rise of far-right nationalism. Or, in the US context, we can look to Spike Lee’s exploration of the collective response to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, in his works When the Levees Broke (2006) and its follow-up If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise (2010). We need more cultural depictions of radical environmentalism, across all art forms and modes of creative expression. We need to move beyond presenting a heroic individual valiantly struggling alone against enormous global forces, and start looking more closely at stories of mass protest, of solidarity, and of the collective empowerment that is the future of the climate movement.
The Israeli State’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories is a well-documented international crisis, and the project’s whitewashing and social justice implications are relatively well known. In this article, first published in IFLA! Issue 6, Zainab Mahmood reviews the occupation’s ecological component. Her words remain more relevant than ever today. She finds profound environmental tensions between the lifestyles afforded to Israeli citizens and those who live in occupied territories, and that greenwashing is frequently used to distract from colonial actions.
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As the XR ‘Big One’ gears up for a more moderate approach to mass protests this month, factions within the movement have turned to increasingly radical activities. Olly Haynes explores how the thinking behind climate-based direct action has evolved in the UK and beyond. Edited by Katie Urquhart and Jackson Howarth.
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