In 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. A flashpoint has emerges when a new road is set to be built on land where Jonsdottir believes there is an elf chapel, and there’s a particularly ripe metaphor when her husband points out that while the country has been fine relying on one central highway for most of its history, the division into two is a reflection of a culture headed in two different directions less likely to intersect in the future.
As depressing as that realization may be, “The Seer and Unseen” rejects despair while being far more pragmatic and sophisticated than most environmental docs that rely on the steady stream of gratuitous shots of natural beauty to suggest what might be soon lost, though there is no shortage of stunning imagery captured by cinematographer Patrick Kollman. Instead, it enchants with a charming guide in Jonsdottir, whose good humor is representative of fellow activists who sing “Jailhouse Rock” with their own lyrics during protests, and striking just the right balance between illuminating the wonder she can see in the world with acknowledging the diminishing space there is for it in our hearts and minds when physically no place is seen as off-limits for development. With the economic booms bound to come and go, Jonsdottir can be seen at one point observing of the money pouring into housing and retail that there isn’t necessarily demand for, “I think it’s even more invisible than the elf world,” and it’s Dosa’s ability to make such abstract yet pressing concerns so tangible and within reach that makes her latest film as extraordinary as its setting.