Review: THE COUNTY, The Strength of One, The Power of All
Things that start off with the best of intentions often, over time, become the very thing they were fighting against (see the pigs in Animal Farm). And a waterfall begins with a single drop of water. So movements for change often begin with a single person, the one willing to speak that which others are only thinking, the one with either little or nothing left to lose, or simply no more time or patience to put up with ill treatment. How do the Davids triumph over the Goliaths, in a world that continually squashes the former and protects the latter?
Icelandic filmmaker Grímur Hákonarson (Rams) returns to familiar territory in his recent feature The County. The plight of farmers, their vulnerability to both the natural world and the artifical one of business and regulations, provides a tale the the fight of the small against the mighty. With steady beats and a steady pace, we watch as one woman goes from contentment to grief to rage to determination, uncompromising and unstoppable.
Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) and her husband Reynir have operated their small dairy farm for decades. All the local farmers answer to the local Co-Op, which runs just about all the businesses in town, and through whom the farmers and others have to buy all their supplies (even at exhorbitant prices), lest they find themselves shut out. But when Reynir dies, Inga finds the farm drowning in debt, and the Co-Op will not give her any relief. So Inga decides to fight back against their tyranny.
The routine of the farmers is deceptively complex: they get up early, they clesn the stables, they milk the cows, they feed the cows, they do their shopping. In the vast, bleak, yet beautiful landscape, there would seem to be comfort afforded in this routine. And yet, all their actions are governed by the debt they owe, both financially and in proverbial blood, to the powers that control them. This Co-Op, which was created to free them from the tyranny of the market, has become its own tyranny, allowing no room for negotiation, no consideration for real human lives and problems. Instead, they exploit them, forcing Reynir to rat out his fellow farmers when they too are desperate to survive despite the Co-Op's tyranny.
And suddenly Inga, who might have thought herself a kind yet ordinary woman, finds herself becoming extraordinary. Or is she just someone who's had enough? She sees the injustice before her for exactly what it is. And since they will take her farm away from her anyways, why not fight back? Inga's broken heart becomes whole again by fighting not only for what's hers, but for what's right, and she has little hesitation and little fear. She realizes how little she as an individual means to those with power; but she won't go down without a fight, no matter the consequences.
Hákonarson takes us step by step, as each side of this rather dignified cold war ups the anty. While those in power, the head of the Co-Op and his main henchman, are content with understated intidimation and controlling power behind the scenes, those who have been indoctrinated into their power are content to more openly threaten Inga. It might seem to be some harmless verbal abuse and property damage, but Inga knows it could escalate, and the Co-Op knows they don't need to get their hands dirty to play dirty, and no doubt they will.
Hrönn Egilsdóttir is wonderful as Inga - she is the kind of person we all wish we could be, willing to stand up for what's right because that's what you do, not unafraid, but unbending. She doesn't know if she'll win, but the other option - letting the Co-Op win unopposed - will leave not only her, but her entire community continually under their boot. She, her farm, her neighbours, all against this backdrop of beauty and loneliness. The power of the collective can overcome, even if not everything is a victory.
With a steady hand steering a powerful and complicated ship, Hákonarson puts us in the place not only of these farmers, finding themselves constantly at others' mercy, but anyone in a similar position, at a point when the world is well aware of how Capitalism and the power of money has hurt the world, and people, to the breaking point. The County is a firm and unsentimental reminder of the force of community.
The County opens in theatres and virtual cinemas in the USA on Friday, April 30th.
- Grímur Hákonarson
- Grímur Hákonarson
- Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir
- Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson
- Þorsteinn Bachmann
- Ævar Þór Benediktsson