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Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, known as Ragga, is a gentle, thoughtful woman who says that since childhood she has been able to see and communicate with the elves, dwarves and trolls who are an integral part of Icelandic myth and history. Now a grandmother and a seer often consulted about where elves are and what they are saying, she is also an environmental activist and the heroine of The Seer and the Unseen. While its mystical subject defies logic, Sara Dosa’s verite film is cogent and appealing thanks to a savvy strategy. Dosa respects Ragga’s beliefs without endorsing them, and positions her activism as a metaphor for saving the environment. In fact, the activist group Ragga is part of focuses on protecting nature. Think of her as a poet rather than an elf-whisperer and this beautifully constructed film works for even the most rational viewers. Dosa sets up the trajectory of The Seer and the Unseen gradually, first introducing viewers to Ragga as a character, then to her particular environmental cause, and eventually the entire Icelandic economy. This director knows what she’s doing. Her 2014 documentary, The Last Season, about a Cambodian and an American war veteran who bond, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award.

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Born from molten lava bursting its way to the surface, the country of Iceland possesses two parallel worlds tied together by nature. One world is the one we live in as humans. First trampled upon by the Vikings, but today a one-time vibrant urban center struck hard by the economic collapse of 2008. The other world is of the elves, living in nature among the coastal lava rock fields. They are known as the “hidden people,” these elves live in harmony with nature but unseen to most people.

In her film, The Seer and the Unseen, director Sara Dosa tells the story of one woman, Ragnhildur “Ragga” Jónsdóttir, known as the “Seer” who serves as the liaison between the modern world and the elves. Ragga is not only able to see the hidden ones, but she communicates with them as well. She is their only voice in a changing world. As the only seer, Icelandic citizens come to her for consultation. For example, a gentleman approaches, who wants to add more space to his apartment building. He and Ragga inspect the site to ensure no damage comes to the nearby Elven homes and to seek their blessing. The elves agree to the gentleman’s expansion plan. One morning, the city decides to build a seemingly unnecessary road straight through an Elven village. They are displacing hundreds, if not thousands, of elves from their homes. Joined by local environmental activists, Ragga stands defiantly in the path of the bulldozers in hopes that saner heads will prevail, but the local government has plans that will not be thwarted, and the village is razed to the ground as Ragga sits in a jail cell while it happens.

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A grandmother takes on the powers that be in The Seer


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.

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.

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by guy lodge

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.

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An Icelandic woman who claims to see elves proves to be a wonderful guide towards seeing the bigger picture about our stewardship of this earth. n an early scene from “The Seer and the Unseen,” the owner of a bed and breakfast in Hukadalur, Iceland comes for a consultation with Ragnhildur “Ragga” Jonsdottir to go over his plans to expand his property, having heard he might be building on occupied territory. He wouldn’t know from looking out the window himself as there is undeveloped land for as far as the eye can see, but Jonsdottir, a regally silver-haired elder, would as an expert in spotting elves, who have been said to co-exist with humans since the time of the Vikings and quite possibly before in these parts. While Jonsdottir continues the tradition of honoring the elves’ presence, putting out food for them in the morning with her grandchildren in the hopes that they can start to see what she does, there are fewer and fewer as interested as the B & B owner in protecting either the land or the cultural customs that were once so strong less than a century ago that Icelandic law required ships to take down their dragon mastheads so as not to disturb their fellow tenants. Although director Sara Dosa doesn’t ask you to share Jonsdottir’s exact vision, you can see for yourself the threat that’s posed overall to Iceland in abandoning the beliefs that have dictated their relationship to the land for centuries. With a calm, articulate central figure around to describe the situation that’s unfolding as if it were a dark fairy tale, the filmmaker masterfully draws a line between the 2006 real estate boom that left the country’s economy in tatters by 2008 as a result of overdevelopment and the too-good-to-be-true availability of credit lines and how the cycle is well underway to repeat itself as construction grows out of Reykjavik to more rural territories such as Garðabær where Jonsdottir makes her home.

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Hot Docs 2019 Review: The Seer and the Unseen


Sara Dosa’s documentary The Seer and the Unseen sounds like it has a quirky, somewhat outlandish premise, but it’s actually a resoundingly empathetic film that looks at Iceland’s ongoing economic woes from unique spiritual and ecological perspectives. It sounds strange, but viewers will be taken aback by how smart and universally relevant it all is.

Dosa (The Last Season) profiles the uncommon profession of Ragga, a seemingly normal, kind-hearted, and not even slightly eccentric family woman who possesses the rare gift of being able to communicate with the likes of elves, trolls, and other unseen spirits that walk the earth in realm overlapping our visible world that most others can’t see or interact with. Ragga’s work has lots of precedent in the country and roots in Viking tradition. (The first law the country ever passed was one ensuring that these spirits not be disturbed.) Today, Ragga advocates for these spirits amid periods of economic boom and bust for the country, marked frequently by construction and infrastructure projects that are nothing more than development for the sake of development, paid for with credit that might never be paid back.

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Ragnhildur Jonsdottir is the environmental activist and purported “seer,” who communicates with the elf community, at the center of Sara Dosa’s sublime new documentary “The Seer And The Unseen.” Better known as Ragga to her community, Dosa’s film tracks Ragga’s consultations with various project managers and builders, attempting to maintain a balance between Iceland’s natural environment, which Ragga believes is filled with various elves, and the country’s rapid growth and development. While the set-up to the film is, somewhat, absurd, Dosa treats her subject with empathy, not so much pushing against Ragga’s beliefs but, instead, using elves as a metaphor for the environmental activism that Ragga and her group, Friends of the Lava Conservation, participate in.  The existence of elves, dwarves, and even trolls is, in fact, so centralized with Icelandic mythology that Ragga’s consulting business, in which she serves as a mediator between the spiritual and the real world, is constantly busy. Even those who don’t exactly believe in the spiritual respect Ragga, often noting that they rather be safe and try to appease the elves instead of risking whatever wrath may come from disrupting their environment. Dosa’s film begins by tracking the day to day of Ragga’s life, but soon circles around a central development. The focal point of the film, a road that is being planned that would run through a lava field in Reykjavik, outrages Ragga and her eco-friendly group. Quickly the government and the activists take opposing sides, and the film focuses in on the protests that the Friends of the Lava Conservation enact.

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In Sara Dosa’s charming trek to the wild outdoors of Iceland, it happens that many of the film’s imperiled subjects are invisible, perhaps only mythical creatures, who communicate through a kind of medium. The kindly Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, the film’s heroine, is an elf whisperer. The elves, whom half of the island’s population believe are real, are unnerved by an apparently pointless road construction project that will lay waste to a lava field outside Reykjavik. It is home not only to the elves, but other spiritual entities out of Icelandic folklore, dwarves and trolls—not always friendly creatures who shouldn’t be angered. If much of the story eases the audience into the idiosyncratic belief system and sweet-natured ways of Ragga, as she’s called, Dosa builds drama out of the fight to stop the road and save the lava field. Ragga and her activist group, Friends of the Lava Conservation, face off against the police in one of the most non-violent non-violent protests ever committed to tape. It’s a measure of the wide disparity in cultural temperature between a United States ripped apart by neo-Nazi marches and police shootings and Iceland, where the cops and the protesters gingerly attempt to out-polite each other. Though the film might, at face value, seem to propose a bit of a joke about superstition, what it delivers is a winning portrait of empathy.

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A fascinating look into the power of Fairies in Icelandic contemporary society.


Iceland has withstood extraordinary development and pressure to accommodate tourism since the bankruptcy of the country in 2008. The protection of land occupied by ancient elf communities housed in volcanic lava rock in the path of development is the environmental mission of Ragnhilda Jonsdottir, an unusual woman who navigates the path between the spirit and the human world to provide the elves perspective. It seems that the elves are the environmental conscience of Iceland.

The culmination of the documentary are her attempts to save The Elf Chapel of Galgahraun and visually gripping attempts to lift the huge lava boulder out of the path of development. She belongs to a community of activists, Friends of the Lava, a conservation group that lies down in front of the bulldozers in an attempt to stop road development in this area. By following Ragnhilda, we come to believe this mission is vitally important to the conservation of the Icelandic culture in a world that is increasingly preoccupied with materialism. The cinematography is beautiful– it is Iceland after all!