“Cleaning up the swamp’ is a phrase likely to be retired fairly soon; it’s synonymous with creating a deeper, darker swamp rather than actually removing one. Nevertheless, the notion that one honest individual can change decades of corruption is a seductive and powerful one, and that’s pretty much the story we get in Grímur Hákonarson’s accomplished drama The County.
Inga (Arndís Hrönn Egilsdóttir) runs a dairy farm with her husband, but he’s hopelessly compromised by his relationship with the local co-op, a co-operative that supposedly looks out for the prosperity of individuals, but does the opposite in practice. For the director, Inga’s situation is one constructed to create insight into real world problems.
‘There’s a place in the north-west of Iceland where the only co-op is, it went bankrupt in the 90’s, but only survived in this area,’ says Hákonarson ‘It owns most of the enterprises, including the only newspaper. It controls the distribution of products, banking fishing, everything but tourism. I’d heard Mafia-type stories about how they work, I thought about making a documentary about it, but no-one wanted to be filmed talking to me, so a feature film was the route I chose.’
Inga has been shielded from the worst excesses, but when her husband dies, she takes over the farm and discovers that her husband was something of a rat, an informer who regularly provided information about other farmers to the co-operative to stay afloat. Inga refuses to pay the same tribute, and with a Facebook posting, sets herself on a collision course with the aging, male-dominated co-op holding all the cards in their on-going dispute.
‘These scenes are based on real things which have happened. Inga and her husband are fictional characters, I thought it made sense for a woman to be fighting against a male-dominated, conservative body, so it felt timely to have the main character a woman and a rebel.’ says Hákonarson. ’She finds that she’s sacrificing her freedom for her economic security.’
The County’s most striking scene sees Inga using farming equipment to engulf the co-op offices in, shall we say, farming materials of a liquid kind; if The County gets a remake, this scene will be the first moment to get scripted.
‘It was a fictional idea that I knew of, similar things have happened, someone threw yolks on the parliament, French farmers have used sprinklers to spread on government buildings,’ says the director. ‘That scene changes the story because suddenly people get behind Inga and her struggle becomes political as well as personal.’
There’s also a notable theme developed about the dangers of mechanisation; watching how technology is used to replace the farmer’s job of milking his cows is a sobering visual.
‘In the script, there was more about the mechanisation for farming, but I see it as a visual metaphor for how the farmers get stuck in a world of machinery, just as the cows are themselves. And we use sounds from the farm for the music, when Inga gets irritated, the robot sounds transform into a revolutionary music.’
When the world is changing in a rapid and unhappy way, it might feel that it’s quite a leap to expect audiences to be interested in the problems affecting milk distribution in Iceland. But writing this in May 2020, The County is probably the most essential film of the year so far for anyone who cares about exactly how we might emerge from the worst natural disaster in a century. The bitter-sweet ending here is both rousing and yet realistic; Inga loses a battle, but also wins something more important, and the manner of her eventual triumph says something valuable about how each individual can help create a better world.
I interviewed Grímur Hákonarson at the Doubletree Hotel in Glasgow 2020.
The Country is released on Curzon Video from today. Link below.