Not Just A David Vs. Goliath Struggle, 'The County' Is Richer With Remarkable Power
A new film from Iceland, The County, pits a solitary farm woman against a tyrannical agricultural cooperative. There are vague echoes of a David and Goliath struggle, but the film is richer and more nuanced than that cliche, and that this microcosm has remarkable power.
The first time you see Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir), she is in her barn where she’s chained up a still unborn calf to pull it out of its mother. Inga strains and leans backward; the cow complains. The calf’s forelegs and head appear, while Inga keeps up all the pressure she can muster. When the calf is finally out, Inga falls on her back, exhausted.
This is Inga’s incredibly hard life. She drives the cows into the barn, feeds them, puts them in stanchions and sets up the electric milkers. At night, she falls into bed exhausted. Her husband Reynir slides in beside her; they exchange a bit of tenderness and go to sleep. Their farm lies in the north of Iceland; their two grown children live a ways away in the south.
Soon Reynir is dead — possibly by suicide. Inga stares down a deep ravine at the toppled semi-truck he drove for the local agricultural co-op. And that’s the problem. The coop has become too powerful and corrupt. It no longer helps the farmers; it overcharges them and blacklists members who buy food or supplies or equipment from Reykjavik, the capital. Inga tells the co-op director she knows he forced her husband to rat out anyone who strayed from the co-op’s control.
Reynir did it because otherwise the co-op would have forced the couple off the farm.
Writer/director Grímur Hákonarson has real feeling for the plight of Iceland’s small farmers. His 2015 film Rams won a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival for its picture of two feuding brothers who lose both of their sheep herds and farms to the neurological disease scrapie. In The County, no physical disease destroys Inga’s farm; its the slow erosion caused by a social force — the co-op.
Inga is up for the fight. It’s there in her vulnerable but fierce look. She takes to Facebook and calls the co-op the “co-op Mafia.” It’s like the infamous company stores of American mining towns, where miners were dragged down into paralyzing debt, so they could never free themselves from their horrific jobs. And with a burst of furious imagination, Inga attacks the co-op building itself.
For the most part, Icelandic movies do not present the world with little rays of sunshine. The County takes place in claustrophobic interiors. The insides of the hospital where Inga views Reynir’s body, or the co-op offices feel sterile and overwhelmed by blunt right angles — the walls, doors and rectangular windows.
The outdoors is terrifying in another way. The County shows magnificent open spaces that seem to stretch forever, with mountains in the backgrounds. But the immense expanses are also treeless and harsh, and filmed under heavy gray skies. In a way, Inga and the farmers who side with her are trapped between two awesome forces — the power of impossible to control nature, and the the indoor coop with its power to take someone’s precious farm. Both are arbitrary and both are out of Inga’s control.
Iceland carries a long tradition of independence and democracy. The Icelandic parliament, called the Althing, has been in continuous existence since the year 930, longer than any other parliament in the world. When unhappy co-op members meet, their postures and manners show that they know instinctively how democracy should work, and in The County, you feel Inga’s outrage at the attack on independence and fairness.
The County is a mighty film. It takes place on an island with few people and a vast landscape — like Wyoming, although it’s less than half the size of Wyoming with roughly 60% of Wyoming’s population. Yet director Grímur Hákonarson has created a picture that captures fundamental problems of our time — a solitary woman fighting for her modest life against domineering powers.