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The notion of an Icelandic elf whisperer who communicates with invisible spirits and sprites that are tucked into a parallel existence in nature might give one reason to pause and perhaps scratch one’s head.
Berkeley filmmaker Sara Dosa knows that well and acknowledges that her latest fascinating documentary, “The Seer and the Unseen,” available to stream and popping into Bay Area theaters for special screenings in the days ahead, might well have its skeptics.
This week’s Pass the Remote is dedicated to Dosa’s film, which delights in making us appreciate the hidden attributes of nature and the important role of the in-need-of-protecting silences that exist there.
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Certainly, the film’s main subject — grandmother, environmental activist and seer Ragnhildur “Ragga” Jónsdóttir — encounters her fair share of doubters.
“Ragga often likes to joke herself that her favorite question that she gets is — ‘Are you bonkers?’” Dosa says. “She gets that a lot, and people often dismiss her beliefs as crazy.”
“I absolutely don’t,” says the award-winning filmmaker during a Zoom interview. “The belief in elves as spirits of nature is quite a universal belief. It’s found all over the world.”
That includes in this country, says Dosa, who once thought of pursuing a career in cultural anthropology. She points to the presence of “little people” in Native American culture as well as the Menehune in Hawaiian tradition.
While some might not be willing to suspend their own disbelief, it was of the utmost importance for Dosa that her documentary respect Jónsdóttir and not turn her into a punchline.
“I so admire her strength and her conviction,” Dosa says. That admiration is felt in nearly every frame of the beautifully shot film.
As Dosa did with her immersive 2014 documentary “The Last Season,” a cinema verite work that observed the relationship between two Central Oregon mushroom hunters, one a Vietnam veteran and the other a former platoon leader of Cambodia’s Khmer Freedom Fighters, a consideration of tantamount importance was to gain the confidence of her subjects and treat them with respect.
“I felt with our cameras, and the way we edited the film, it was so important to me for people to understand Ragga … and not to make her a caricature to be made fun of but as a person who has this gift and this gift allows her to enter a relationship with the natural world in a way that, even if you don’t believe in elves, you understand how important it is to see life in nature.”
“The Seer and the Unseen” addresses that with care and sensitivity, but it also covers Iceland’s 2008 economic collapse, a perilous period when the country’s banks went bankrupt due in part to cryptocurrency.
In “The Seer and the Unseen,” Iceland’s bullish growth and expansion in the wake of that devastating time jeopardized land some consider precious in the area. It’s an issue that not only resonates with Americans but also others across the globe, Dosa believes.
“It has been really interesting to hear people connect in the U.S. (to the film) regarding their own experiences and their own kind of relationship with value and what really has value. … You actually understand what happened in Iceland with its financial collapse,” she says, adding. “That belief, in my mind, is more absurd than a belief in elves.”
The fallout from trying to restimulate the economy via a growth boom has encroached on the natural splendor of Iceland. And it was a planned road that cut through the habitat of elves in a lava field that led Dosa on the path to making her documentary about one of the central figures leading a protest to halt it.
Dosa’s own interest in nature-focused topics, which she partially credits from running around in Tilden Regional Park, along with her love of Iceland and the music from there, nudged her on the path to “The Seer and the Unseen.” All that and an eye-catcher of a headline about the road construction and the protests.
Dosa pursued Jónsdóttir after reading articles and bought her book, which is a translation of a work written by a 900-year-old elf. She then jotted Jónsdóttir a note, and they became friends.
“As soon as I met her, I (thought) I really want to know this woman and I want the world to know this woman,” Dosa says.
So after spending all that time with Jónsdóttir is Dosa a true believer in elves?
She’s coy on that one.
“People just have to come to the screenings to find out.”
Upcoming filmmaker Q&As for ‘The Seer and the Unseen’
Dosa and producer Shane Boris will be featured in Q&As after these screenings:
- 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael, https://rafaelfilm.cafilm.org/seer-and-the-unseen/
- 6:30 p.m. Sept. 13, Roxie Theater, San Francisco,
- 7 p.m. Sept. 16, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Berkeley, https://www.rialtocinemas.com/index.php?location=elmwood&film=2021_seer