“Against the Current,” a documentary about transgender Icelandic kayaker Veiga Grétarsdóttir, is not subtle. Its title, said twice in the film, has a double meaning. The film depicts Veiga’s 2,000-kilometer kayak voyage in 2018 around the island of Iceland, where she chose to challenge herself by rowing against the current. She faced the danger of possible drowning in frigid water, as well as the fact that she needed to eat as many as 7,000 calories a day to fuel her body to spend eight hours rowing. The cross-cutting between her present-day journey and Veiga, her family, and friends looking back at her youth and gradual realization that she could only be happy living as a woman suggests that she also struggled against the current of her culture and family’s expectations.
Apart from Veiga’s description of one threatening incident, “Against the Current” avoids stories of misery and trauma. After her kayak trip ends, the film shows a grossly offensive cartoon from a local newspaper, as well as other trans Icelanders calling her a role model, but it keeps Veiga’s story personal. The forces that kept her from realizing she was transgender till 2014, at the age of 36, were both internal and part of social conditioning. As a teenager in a small town on Iceland’s west coast, she began buying women’s clothes. Marrying and becoming a parent did not change her identity, although she struggled to remain cordial with her wife and eventually divorced. Veiga meets up with her again more than 1,200 kilometers into her journey.
Veiga’s interests are coded masculine – she loves working on her car and spending time outdoors. Her construction skill enabled her to take apart her stereo speaker and car so she could stash female clothes in them. Her life story defies gender stereotypes. Soon after realizing she was transgender, she went on a hunting trip (the film shows a photo of her kill) driving into the countryside dressed in women’s clothes and makeup. Her athleticism does not make her any less female.
These things matter because so much transphobia has been expressed through raising fears about trans women’s participation in sports. This line of thought, heavily promoted by Joe Rogan’s podcast, has had a dismaying amount of success even with liberals and leftists. Athletes’ transformation of their bodies is generally celebrated, but when trans women participate in sports, they are seen as male interlopers stealing awards from more deserving cis women (even though this hasn’t actually happened outside Rogan’s imagination and TERF Twitter). Underneath it lies the same old notion of LGBTQ bodies and identity as a kind of cheat against nature, with the ‘80s and ‘90s playbook used against cis gay men and lesbians just getting an update.
“Against the Current” director Oskar Pall Sveinsson — who produced S Club 7’s “Never Had a Dream Come True,” which was a US top 10 hit — shot it in the same style as his landscape photography, which can be seen on his Instagram page. He emphasizes the enormity of Iceland’s mountains and sea in long shots suggesting danger by framing Veiga and her kayak as a much smaller portion of the screen. The cinematography achieves a wintry atmosphere. It’s “nature porn” that should look great in a movie theater, down to the reliance on drones, but its beauty retains its edge. (“Against the Current” also incorporates footage Veiga herself shot on the kayak.) Sveinsson works hard to bring out the chill in the air. The extremely spare score, where a solo pedal steel guitar, cello or voice plays in the distance, aids with the mood. (Sveinsson was a successful pop songwriter and producer before starting a production company to turn to filmmaking.) But it’s also worth pointing out that Sveinsson uses nature and sea shots, which could have been taken at any time and edits them as though they’re a direct illustration of Veiga’s trip around Iceland.
“Against the Current” does have a Transgender 101 tone. It was made to explain trans identity to cis people, and a few moments, like a baby photo showing Veiga’s penis and scenes of the beginning of her gender confirmation surgery, fall into the trap of stories about trans people focusing too much on genitalia. But it’s the story of a specific trans woman’s journey, formed by the region where she grew up and the majesty of Iceland itself. Sveinsson’s direction and cinematography bring out a near-pantheistic quality: one understands why someone would want to spend 103 days rowing underneath its mountains. “Against the Current” doesn’t waste time arguing about trans female athletes’ legitimacy. It just shows the life of one such woman and celebrates her accomplishments, with great pictorial style.
AGAINST THE CURRENT | Directed by Oskar Pall Sveinsson | Zeitgeist Films/Kino Lorber | In Icelandic with English subtitles | Opens June 25th at the Quad