Elves and Development Collide in Sara Dosa’s Latest Doc

A quirky headline — “Elf Lobby Shuts Down Construction of Road” — prompts the Berkeley native to head to Iceland.


Ragga on the fjord. The film screens April 17 at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland as part of SFFILM.

Photo courtesy Sara Dosa

Sara Dosa studied Iceland’s economy among her other graduate courses at the London School of Economics. It was only natural, therefore, that she’d continue to keep an eye out for news from that curious place. Of course, you needn’t hold a joint master’s in anthropology and international development economics — or even be able to find Iceland on a map — to be captivated by this headline: “Elf Lobby Shuts Down Construction of Road.” The story described a uniquely Icelandic collision between ancient folk tales and ephemeral beliefs and 21st-century modernity.

Dosa had never visited Iceland, but she was inspired to start a pen-pal friendship with Ragnhildur Jonsdottir, a seemingly ordinary grandmother whose special relationship with elves was the focus of the article. Ragga, as her friends call her, had organized a protest with like-minded neighbors against a less-than-essential highway slated to run through the middle of a centuries-old elf community. (It’s worth noting that the defining characteristic of our age, enthusiastic greed, was behind the Icelandic banking policies that contributed to the 2008 global crash.)

Now think what you may about elves and their metaphysical kinfolk. Dosa’s ethereal new documentary, The Seer and the Unseen, premiering at SFFILM (aka the San Francisco International Film Festival), is a captivating experience for anyone remotely open to the mysteries of natural world. And, for that matter, the least bit concerned about runaway development.

“I like to call Ragga Lorad, like the Dr. Seuss character,” Dosa said. “She’s so in touch with nature that she can speak on behalf of it. If skeptics in the audience can understand her relationship to the elves as allegory, they can be delighted how we can all tap into a kind of magic in our daily lives.”

Dosa, who was born and raised in North Berkeley and is moving back to her hometown later this year, is establishing herself as a chronicler of the invisible yet profound interplay between people and their landscape. Her marvelous debut documentary, The Last Season (2014), explored the friendship between Vietnam veterans (from each side of the war) and fellow matsutake hunters in the rural Pacific Northwest who depend on the wild, seasonal mushroom for their income and, to some extent, their survival. The unassuming intermediary of The Seer and the Unseen enjoys a more secure, comfortable life, but her sense of responsibility to her land’s preexisting inhabitants impels her to both public demonstrations and private, longshot negotiations.

“One of my greatest takeaways from Ragga,” Dosa said, “is what she says toward the end of the film, ‘The way we see the land can determine our relationship with the land.’ She sees nature as so alive that witnessing its destruction is truly devastating to her, whereas there has been a trend in Iceland to treat the land as something that needed to be developed.”

Dosa is enjoying quite a year, with Netflix currently streaming ReMastered: Tricky Dick and the Man in Black, a historical doc about the intersecting paths of Johnny Cash and Richard M. Nixon that she completed after Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple took on another project. The Seer and the Unseen is all hers, though, with its invitation to reconsider our relationship with the natural world — and our certainty about what’s real and what’s illusory.

“Before the crash, the belief in the market seemed magical,” Dosa noted. “Then the belief in the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market became something absurd. For Ragga, the belief in elves is second nature and just a part of her daily life.”