Our HEROINE: RAGGA Jónsdóttir
Our main subject Ragga is the heart of the film and the story unfolds from her unique perspective. The audience is invited to love and understand her as a complex, empathetic character: a loving grandmother, a clever negotiator, a wise nature-whisperer, an impassioned activist, a playful woman with a youthful heart. Ragga has been in contact with elves since she can remember. While she had many professions through the years - an artist, theater set designer, a spiritual healer, a medium and an animal trainer to name a few - she is most well-known for her work with the elves. Years ago, she opened The Elf Garden - The Centre for Elves & Huldufolk in the harbor town of Hafnarfjörður, where she has given talks and led tours introducing humans to her elf friends. In March 2017, she relocated the center to a picturesque farm northwest of Rekyjavík. Her future adventures include opening a natural history style exhibition of the hidden worlds replete with life-sized dioramas, and hosting a sanctuary for elves who have been displaced by construction projects. In 2011, she published What Does it Take to See an Elf? which she translated from her 900 year old elf friend Fróði. In 2014, Ragga received the honor of “Nature Protector of the Year,” alongside nine other environmentalists from The Friends of Lava who protested alongside her to protect the Gálgahraun lava.
A 2008 University of Iceland study reported that 54% of Icelanders believe that elves do - or are likely to - exist. This belief has been part of the country’s cultural fabric since the 12th Century. In Iceland, elves are interpreted as small, human-like spirits of nature who both care for the land and defend it against those who would destroy it. This animistic belief in diminutive, mischievous spirits of nature is a universal one, found throughout the world from the aluxes in southern Mexico and the dwendes in the Philippines to the menehune in Hawaii.
In Iceland, Prime Ministers, Members of Parliament (including one who called upon Ragga for a newsworthy consult), and economists have publicly professed their belief in elves--just as have contemporary pagans, environmentalists and artists, young and old. However, like all beliefs, there is a spectrum of opinions in Iceland when it comes to elves. For some skeptics, the belief is foolish or a tourist gimmick that makes Icelanders appear superstitious. However, most Icelanders tend to have respect for the belief as part of a cultural heritage that recalls their grandparents’ stories or serves as an idiom for connecting to nature. Whether one believes or doesn’t, elves unequivocally represent nature in Iceland. In this remote, vast volcanic island in the middle of the North Atlantic, natural forces powerfully shape everyday life. Terry Gunnell, Professor of Folklore at the University of Iceland, explains, “[The belief in elves] is about respect for nature, which is something Icelanders know is very much alive.” “When your house can be destroyed by an earthquake, when you can can be blown over by the wind, when boiling water from your taps tells you there’s lava not far beneath your feet – then you don’t mess with nature.”
“Money is probably the most successful story ever told. It has no objective value…If you take a dollar bill and look at it, you can't eat it. You can't wear it. It's absolutely worthless. We think it's worth something because we believe a story. We have these master storytellers of our society, our shamans — they are the bankers and the financiers and the chairperson of the Federal Reserve, and they come to us with this amazing story that, "You see this green piece of paper? We tell you that it is worth one banana." If I believe it and you believe it and everybody believes it, it works.
- Yuval Harari, Sapiens
THE SEER AND THE UNSEEN, however, is not just about invisible elves - the film also explores the power of belief in the “invisible hand of the free market -” which drove Iceland to its spectacular banking collapse in 2008. Iceland’s financial expansion of the 2000s was a time of unprecedented economic growth predicated on speculative wealth and predatory loans. This period - known as the “Icelandic Economic Miracle - was was a time when the country dogmatically embraced “the invisible hand of the free market,” privatizing common property, land and utilities while de-regulating their financial markets in order to create a space for free speculation. Foreign capital flooded the country; Icelandic banks borrowed over ten times the country’s income, inflating the debt to over 850% of the country’s GDP. Bankers and politicians celebrated what seemed like new found wealth encouraging everyday citizens to take out loans, to buy property, and to try their own hand at the ballooning stock market. Meanwhile, companies took out massive loans to build dams, factories and real estate empires, ravaging the Icelandic countryside. However, when foreign creditors began to realize Icelandic banks couldn’t sustain the inflated growth, they recalled their loans, exposing the reality that the money that drove the economy was essentially built on IOUs - and, corrupt dealings behind the scenes. The speculative wealth vanished, and the country went bankrupt. The stock market crashed by 97% overnight. The belief in this great economic miracle was revealed to be a myth.
THE SEER AND THE UNSEEN provides a playful, unexpected way of understanding how essential it is to see the cultural dimension to economic systems: that they too are products of belief and humans making meaning. Our film illuminates the power of faith that lays at the heart of the systems that govern our world, revealing that something so illusory and mysterious as belief can have such a material impact on our lives.