Review: Óskar Páll Sveinsson’s ‘Against the Current’

Against the Current Documentary

Content Warning: This review references suicide.

Touching and personal, Óskar Páll Sveinsson’s Against the Current follows Veiga Grétarsdóttir, the first person to circumnavigate Iceland counterclockwise (against the current) in a kayak. Grétarsdóttir’s story grows even more personal as viewers learn of her journey transitioning as a trans athlete and mother, with the tale of her grueling months-long experience around the country interspersed with the story of her transition from childhood all the way through adulthood.

With unparalleled imagery from the air of Iceland’s stunning coast (cinematography also by Sveinsson), Against the Current is, quite simply, a pleasure to watch. While the narrative takes the viewer on two emotional journeys, there is even a third smaller narrative: the quest to discover the natural beauty of Iceland. Spanning bird cliffs and treacherous waves scaring even the most experienced of kayakers, the sublime force of Iceland in Sveinsson’s film is overwhelming in the best of ways. Against the Current captures Iceland from above and from the surface, with cameras strapped precariously to Grétarsdóttir’s kayak, splashing its way through the wine-dark sea.

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Against the Current Documentary

Against the Current’s subject comes from the small town of Ísafjörður in northwest Iceland, the snow-covered landscape making kayaking seem more like a nightmare than a fun pursuit. But Grétarsdóttir, who audiences learn has held a variety of different jobs and is an extremely dedicated athlete, ruggedly trains daily in freezing water and air. Against the Current’s sticking point is that the more than 2,000 kilometer trek around Iceland in a tiny boat is less difficult than the focal athlete’s transition, an extraordinarily difficult emotional, mental and physical process over the course of years.

Grétarsdóttir’s kayaking trek is contrasted, quite literally, with her transition. Against the Current reveals that she felt an urge to wear women’s clothing from a young age, which she mostly suppressed despite feeling severe gender dysphoria. After marriage and two children, as well as surviving two suicide attempts, Grétarsdóttir bravely decided to fully transition and live freely as a woman. The talking head interviews with her friends, many of them from childhood, describe her immense strength and resolve, which she carries throughout every part of her life.

Sometimes, Against the Current feels like two stories with equally fascinating interlocking parts that don’t quite fit together. The film cuts abruptly between the kayaking story and the transitioning story, attempting to make comparisons without explicitly drawing a line between two very difficult and personal yet vastly different experiences for Grétarsdóttir. However, the most interesting parallels can be found in the smallest places of Sveinsson’s film rather than in the more heavy-handed comparisons. As a teen, the subject would constantly wash her car and keep it sparkling clean, a pastime she enjoyed much more than her brothers and other male friends, who preferred to take girls out in their vehicles. Today, Grétarsdóttir channels this impetus into cleaning her kayak, always keeping it in tip-top shape, an investment and pride into her life and her personal passions.

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Against the Current Documentary

Grétarsdóttir found it fitting to be kayaking literally against the current just as she has been traveling metaphorically for the entirety of her life. Sveinsson handles her journey with great care, tying in rich anecdotes of her experiences meeting other trans women and support groups in Iceland, a country that most of the interviewees acknowledge is considerably more accepting than Western European and Scandinavian countries. To see Grétarsdóttir’s parents, friends and doctors embrace her generously is something which should not feel so monumental, but seeing them strongly reaffirm the subject’s true self onscreen and throughout her life is grounding and nothing less than heartwarming. However, trans and LGBTQ+ individuals still face heavy discrimination in the country, which Grétarsdóttir seeks to combat with her inspirational journey as an athlete conducting a first in history.

As Grétarsdóttir reaches the final stretch of the journey in Against the Current, she is greeted with a huge crowd of people welcoming her back to her hometown. As family, friends and fans of all ages scramble to meet her, it’s clear that her undertaking has made a sizable impact at the confluence of multiple communities: LGBTQ+ individuals, athletes and Icelanders alike. Sveinsson’s Against the Current defines itself as an idiosyncratic, deeply personal character study of a remarkable woman, who the world eagerly waits upon to see what she accomplishes next.

Olivia Popp (@itsoliviapopp) is a film, television and culture writer with a particular interest in stories about suburbia, queer socialization, Asian America and speculative worlds.