THE SEER AND THE UNSEEN – Review by Pam Grady

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A grandmother takes on the powers that be in The Seer and the Unseen, Sara Dosa’s sophomore feature that made its debut at the SFFILM Festival.

The documentary’s depiction of efforts to stop development across one of Iceland’s magnificent lava fields is enchanting—and not just because Iceland’s legendary elves are the titular “unseen.”

From an American perspective where political arguments more often than not devolve into rancor and recriminations, it is moving to watch this clash between capitalism and downright magical forces play out with such warmth and mutual respect.

Like everywhere else in the world, Iceland was hit hard by the financial crash of 2008. The road and a new housing development are seen as progress in the recovery from that calamity. Environmentalists are aghast that a lava field is about to be bulldozed out of existence. Ragga Jónsdóttir, a soft-spoken, self-described seer has another concern. As she matter-of-factly explains it, the lava fields are swarming with life, the residence to elves with whom she communicates and who are petrified at the thought of losing more habitat. (Some, she explains, are refugees whose homes were destroyed in other projects.)

Even as protesters throw themselves in the way of the road builders’ heavy equipment, all seems lost as the police simply remove them and construction commences. It’s a tragedy for Ragga, who worries over the elves, but she soon rallies to try to preserve a large rock outcropping she describes as the elves’ chapel.

Up to this point, Dosa has done an excellent job in explaining the economic issues in Iceland, where the new development fits in the grand scheme of things, and the pushback against it, but is within the elves’ chapel segment that The Seer and the Unseen becomes exceptional. Part of this is all Ragga, who is a charming woman and forthright in her convictions. The other part is that Dosa is a fly on the wall as Ragga confers with a local pol and a construction foreman and his workers, making her case for the chapel. These are opposing forces coming together to talk, one armed with particularly arcane knowledge that the others might treat as the stuff of folklore, yet they treat each other with utmost consideration. Ragga might not have been able to stop the road but contained within that grandmotherly mien, there is a kind of majesty and power.

Over the past several years, Iceland has become a must-do on world travelers’ bucket list. The Seer and the Unseen will no doubt add a few more tourists, thanks to cinematographer Patrick Kollman’s gorgeous lensing of the country’s fjords and lava fields. What is better than that in this enthralling documentary is its peek into the life of one extraordinary woman and the real country behind the glossy brochures and Instagram posts.

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Pam Grady

Pam Grady is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Box Office, FilmStew, SF State Magazine and other publications. Her career began at Reel.com where she was an editor and staff critic.