×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

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)

More Film

  • Weathering With You

    Japan Box Office Leaps to $2.4 Billion Record in 2019

    The Japanese box office leaped by 17% in 2019 to set a record $2.4 billion score, according to figures announced Tuesday by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, locally known as Eirin. The previous high was the $2.2 billion recorded in 2016. The Makoto Shinkai animation “Weathering with You” was the highest earning film [...]

  • Lionsgate Developing 'Memetic' Apocalyptic Horror Movie

    Film News Roundup: Lionsgate Developing 'Memetic' Apocalyptic Horror Movie

    In today’s film news roundup, Lionsgate is developing graphic novel “Memetic” as a feature, the latest Laura Ziskin Prize is announced and Firelight Media creates a fund for nonfiction filmmakers of color at the mid-career mark. PROJECT LAUNCHES Lionsgate is in final negotiations for motion picture rights to the apocalyptic horror graphic novel “Memetic” for [...]

  • Sylvie's Love Review

    'Sylvie's Love': Film Review

    Sultry music swells as the camera swoons over a young couple in a tender nighttime embrace. The 1950s residential New York City street is carefully rain-slicked and lined with shiny classic cars: an obvious stage set. Gene Kelly might just have swung on that lamppost; Doris Day might lean out of an upstairs window to sigh [...]

  • Martin Scorsese Irishman BTS

    Martin Scorsese's Body of Work Extends Far Beyond Male-Centric Mafia Movies

    Actors sometimes complain about being typecast, but it’s a fact of life for anyone in entertainment. John Ford is usually labeled a director of Westerns, despite “The Grapes of Wrath” and  “Mister Roberts.” David Lean is known for his epics, but he also directed “Brief Encounter” and “Summertime.” Vincente Minnelli? The director of musicals, overlooking [...]

  • Oscars Oscar Academy Awards Placeholder

    Will Oscar Campaigning Turn to Mudslinging?

    On March 5, 1963, Army Archerd wrote in Variety: “There’s been a not-so-subtle campaign pyramiding since Oscar nominations that Omar Sharif is an ex-Egyptian soldier who fought in the Israeli War. Forget it: Omar sez: ‘I never fought in any army.’” Archerd also denied the rumor that Sharif was Muslim. Two big takeaways: 1. Mudslinging [...]

  • Blake Lively

    Why Blake Lively Isn't Trying to Be the 'Female James Bond' in 'The Rhythm Section'

    “The Rhythm Section,” Reed Morano’s new espionage thriller about a female assassin who sets out to avenge her family’s untimely death, is not a female-led approximation of a “James Bond” film. Though Barbara Broccoli, the magnate producer whose family has been solely responsible for the franchise, is producing the movie, “The Rhythm Section” is decidedly not [...]

  • Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez. Kristen Anderson-Lopez,

    Kristen Anderson-Lopez Talks Responsibility, Representation in 'Frozen 2' and the Biz

    Gender parity isn’t an issue in Oscar-winning songwriting-composer Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s house, what with her longstanding collaboration with husband Bobby Lopez, but at the Oscars luncheon on Monday, it was a different story. “There were 13 female directors represented in the shorts and documentary fields,” Anderson-Lopez notes, adding, “but how do we get from there to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content