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Hot Docs Film Review: ‘The Seer and the Unseen’

Sara Dosa's elegant documentary finds unexpected environmental and economic dimensions to its offbeat subject, an Icelandic elf whisperer.

Director:
Sara Dosa
With:
Ragnhildur "Ragga" Jónsdóttir

1 hour 29 minutes

The words “away with the fairies” tend to be used pejoratively, though if you applied it to Ragnhildur “Ragga” Jónsdóttir, she’d calmly and cheerfully accept at least part of the phrase. It’s the “away” bit to which she’d object: In Jónsdóttir’s view, she’s very much present with the elves, trolls and sprites who make up Iceland’s apparently vast population of folkloric huldufólk (hidden people), and acts as a vital intermediary between these creatures and her human cohorts who neither see nor believe in them. As the heroine of Sara Dosa’s sprightly, surprising character portrait “The Seer and the Unseen,” this alleged elf whisperer makes for a highly unusual documentary subject and storyteller, at once wholly, earnestly truthful and questionable in her convictions.

That conflicting combination makes Jónsdóttir vulnerable to careless film treatment: It’s easy to see how a director could err on the side of the condescending or the stiflingly precious in documenting her peaceable eccentricities. Dosa’s film, however, elegantly threads a very fine needle, affording Jónsdóttir a generous platform for her beliefs while taking no position as to where she falls on the visionary-crank spectrum. By framing her concern for the huldufólk as a potentially symbolic dimension of more tangible environmental activism and conservation, meanwhile, “The Seer and the Unseen” provides a lens for even the most skeptical viewers to identify real-world weight in her whimsy. Serving also as a layered snapshot of a nation in multiple forms of limbo — economical, ecological, even spiritual — in the wake of 2008’s near-ruinous banking crisis, this deft, inquisitive film ought to beguile audiences and buyers alike as it travels the festival circuit.

Jónsdóttir claims to have been able to see and commune with huldufólk beings since early childhood, though it’s only in the last decade, she says, that she has become open and vocal about her relationship to them. It’s a conscious change that she likens, with a wry smile, to “coming out of the closet.” Thanks to a national mythos inherited from the Vikings, seers like her used to be more prevalent in Iceland, with laws even passed to protect supernatural interests. “Now,” she notes mournfully, “only half the country believes that elves exist.” Some might say that’s still rather a lot, or describe the dwindling statistic as a kind of national evolution — taking physical form in a surge of new building and infrastructure across the financially recovering country that, according to Jónsdóttir, violates and erases the elves’ natural habitat.

One such project, the contentious construction of a new highway across an unspoilt lava field on the outskirts of Reykjavik, provides “The Seer and the Unseen” with a clear, compelling narrative spine, setting up a David-versus-Goliath dynamic that should prove irresistible even to viewers who find the huldufólk talk utter hogwash. Jónsdóttir is a member of an environmenalt activist group, Friends of the Lava Conservation, whose motivations are precisely as earthy or otherworldly as individual members prefer them to be. While our heroine’s primary concern is that the road is set to bulldoze through a sacred elf chapel — a great mossy boulder to more cynical eyes — you needn’t believe in pixie preachers to mourn the potential destruction of a dazzling landscape, painted in grand, weather-sodden strokes by cinematographer Patrick Kollman. Is there any bad reason to advocate the protection of nature, after all?

Dosa has a knack for integrating personal and political stakes with a light touch; she earned an Independent Spirit nod for her debut feature “The Last Season,” about the improbable bond between a Vietnam vet and a Khmer Rouge refugee. Without trivializing the matters at hand, “The Seer and the Unseen” tempers complex national interests with droll human ones: Indeed, it’s easy to imagine scenes of the protest itself, complete with lyrically modified Elvis Presley singalongs and stubborn we-shall-not-be-moved faceoffs with exasperated police forces, fitting right into an oddball fictionalized telling of the same story. (Imagine “Woman at War” with a little more hygge.)

Any such film would be lucky, however, to have a protagonist as intriguing as Jónsdóttir herself anchoring it — a gentle maverick whose powers of persuasion work even on larger, more powerful opponents. Even the film falls a little under the woman’s spell by the end, as the camerawork and intricate sound design succumb to her demands to pause and listen to the land in a lyrical parting shot: You may hear more insects than elves amid the mottled rocks and windswept grasses, but there are worse instructions to heed.

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Hot Docs Film Review: 'The Seer and the Unseen'

Reviewed at Hot Docs Film Festival (Making Believe), April 28, 2019. (Also in San Francisco Film Festival.) Running time: 89 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — U.S.-Iceland) A Signpost Pictures production in association with Cottage M, Austan Mána, Compass Films, RYOT Studios. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York City.) Producers: Shane Boris, Sara Dosa. Executive producers: Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk. Co-producers: Heather Millard, Arnar Sigurðsson.

Crew: Director: Sara Dosa. Camera (color): : Patrick Kollman. Editor: Erin Casper. Music: Giosue Greco, Tara Atkinson, Dan Romer.

With: Ragnhildur "Ragga" Jónsdóttir. (English, Icelandic dialogue)

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