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Sara Dosa • Director of The Seer and the Unseen

“In Iceland, magic is normal”


- Cineuropa met up with California-based director Sara Dosa to talk about her new Icelandic-US film The Seer and the Unseen after its European premiere at New Horizons

Sara Dosa  • Director of The Seer and the Unseen
(© Dorota Lech)

Presented in the Oslo/Reykjavik section of Poland’s New Horizons Film Festival (25 July-4 August), Sara Dosa’s tender documentary The Seer and the Unseen [+see also:
interview: Sara Dosa
film profile
introduces Ragnhildur ‘Ragga’ Jónsdóttir, who puts her unusual ability to communicate with Icelandic “hidden people” to good use, trying to save the environment along the way – and proving once again that in order to believe, you don’t really need to see.

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Cineuropa: It’s surprising that everyone, including her family, approaches what Ragga does or says rather calmly. She claims she can talk to elves, and yet it’s not a big deal.
Sara Dosa:
You’re right – nobody makes a fuss about it. In Iceland, about half of the country believes in elves in some form or other. It’s not something that’s seen as weird, because it has been part of the cultural fabric for many years. Some people think of it as superstition, but they don’t want not to believe, if that makes any sense, because bad luck could befall them.

Unlike so many other mythical creatures, in Iceland they are expected to stay out of sight. It’s even advised not to throw rocks, as you might hit “hidden people”.
The way Ragga describes it, you can access this world through other senses. But when we started making the film, many people were asking if we were going to have any animation. “How are you going to represent the elves?” they asked. I wanted them to remain invisible because this way, it’s true to what many Icelanders experience. I also found it intriguing stylistically. I have always loved magical realism, and in that kind of storytelling, magic is normal. I think it’s a beautiful way to see the world.

At one point, she says that she “came out of the closet” as a seer late in life. So how did you first discover her?
I’d wanted to make a film about Iceland for such a long time. I always felt it was such a beautiful, powerful place. I started researching headlines coming out of the country and came across one that said: “Elf lobby shuts down construction of road.” I studied the Icelandic financial collapse as a student and was interested in the country’s relationship not just with the natural landscape, but also with the “invisible hand” of the free market. And in that article, they referenced “the invisible elves”! They also kept quoting this woman who seemed at once very serious and playful, talking about environmental politics. She clearly believed in elves and didn’t take herself too seriously. You know that moment when you read something and go: “I really want to know more about that person”? I had that feeling.

Ragga has already appeared in footage shot by international journalists, but often, they would be dismissive of her beliefs. Was it important for her to know that you believed her, or at least that you accepted who she is?
It was very important. I am also an outsider, and they were sceptical at first. I would be sceptical of me, too [laughs]. Luckily, I had an amazing Icelandic crew, starting with my co-producer, who ended up as a cultural translator. When I first contacted him, he told me that many foreigners tend to paint this picture of Icelanders as superstitious and “backwards”, believing in all these silly things. My belief in elves is ever-evolving, but for me, Ragga is telling a story that can be seen as an environmental allegory. With each film, I want to make sure that my subjects feel like collaborators, and I really wanted her wishes to be respected. It’s always tricky, especially with documentaries, as you want your story to have integrity, but it’s a subjective film. I wanted her to feel that I was taking her seriously and that I believed she was communicating with something powerful. I get angry when I see people treating her beliefs as a gimmick. That happens, too, but for her, it’s her life’s work: to educate people about what elves are and what they mean as a form of environmental activism.

Has she always been so strong? Because one can always double-check if someone’s invisible neighbours are fine with the planned extension of the house, but starting a conflict with the government is quite different.
She understands that one single action can lead to so many things. Her fight to save the elf church, which I show in the film, ended up establishing all kinds of protection for lava fields. It turned out they have protected more than any other municipality in Iceland. There is a huge ripple effect to her work. It’s not in the film, but later on, she moved to another house in the countryside. It was perfect, except for one thing – an aluminium plant looming on the horizon. As you know from [Benedikt Erlingsson’s] Woman at War [+see also:
film review
interview: Benedikt Erlingsson
interview: Benedikt Erlingsson
film profile
, that’s a huge environmental enemy in Iceland. I remember her joking: “Ok, that’s my next fight.” She will keep on going because even when people don’t believe the elves are actually there, hopefully they can still understand how special nature really is.

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