Real Life Nordic Noir: Out of Thin Air

In 1974 two men vanished without a trace in Iceland. They were never found, and six suspects were held in solitary confinement. Between the media and local pressure and the highly questionable techniques of interrogation used by the police, the six suspects signed confessions of murder despite not remembering committing the crime. Out of Thin Air is an investigative overview of the crime, the interrogations, and the response of the Icelandic people in what is considered one of the biggest cases in recent history.

Directed by Dylan Howitt / Produced by Andy Glynne from Mosaic Films & Margret Jonasdottir from SagaFilm / Country: The United Kingdom & Iceland / Language: English & Icelandic

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (World Premiere)

Dylan Howitt

How did you hear about this case?

There was a radio documentary on the BBC, and it was immediately clear that this was an exceptional story. It’s such an iconic case in Iceland, so mysterious and still unresolved and talked about more than forty years later. But I don’t think many people outside of Iceland know anything about it. So, we (Andy Glynne, the producer, Ant Adeane, the assistant producer, and myself) decided to look into it more.

Erla Bolladóttir

How did you then approach the making of the documentary?

Initially, we just went in and talked to everyone we could. We met with the police who investigated the disappearances in 1974, journalists, lawyers, clinical psychologists, prison guards. Sigursteinn Másson, who made an influential documentary in the late 90’s about the case was a great help. To be honest, it was feeling like an incredibly difficult and complicated story to tell, and it was only when we met two of the six convicts in the case, Guðjón Skarphéðinsson and Erla Bolladóttir, that a possible film-making approach became clearer. Just to tell the story in the first person and the present tense as much as possible, through the eyes of all the people who were there, both the convicted and the police. However, it turned out impossible to be that comprehensive; none of the investigating police and judges who were involved in the case in Reykjavik from 1975 would speak to us and actually have never given an interview to anyone. Also, two of the six who were convicted have never given an interview either. We invited all of them to be involved but without success.

I must admit there were times I regretted this decision to tell the story in the first person! It is such a difficult and complicated story to tell without narrator or a character that is investigative – a policeman or a journalist studying the case that the audience can follow. Think of how Serial or The Jinx used those elements to drive their storytelling. But, hopefully, what you do get from this way of working is a visceral and emotional experience of what these people went through.

Considering the case, what stood out to you?

The more I considered the case, the more elusive it became. If you strip it down to just what we know to be true, there’s so little there. There are so few facts. So what happened was people began projecting their own ideas. I began to see the story as a giant projection screen; a blank space onto which the population of Iceland projected their fears and prejudices, the police projected their theories, even the convicted projected with the stories they told. The people who were being accused gave really detailed – quite cinematic – confessions. But there was no solid evidence. It’s so strange. For a country like Iceland, that’s so civilised, peaceful and friendly, it’s hard to believe something like this could have happened. But it did, and we explore how.

Could something like this happen again today?

The legal system has changed a lot. Back then the police and the judiciary were hand in glove, not clearly separated like today. The key investigator in this case was a judge, not a policeman, and he had the power to extend custody very easily for thirty days at a time. It was a system very open to abuse. Also, the media in Iceland is much more robust now.

Crimes of this nature are very rare in Iceland, but at the start of the year a girl went missing and it became a huge deal with everyone talking about it, much like this case in the 1970’s. But this time they found the girl’s body and the people who did it, whereas the two men who disappeared in the 70’s have never been found.

You’re a British director coming into Iceland to make a film about their biggest criminal case in recent history. Did the outsiders perspective help you?

When I started the research, Icelandic journalists would say to me watch out for this case, it’s a horrible ‘black hole’. It kind of was! There are so many different opinions to negotiate and it’s so political. Some people are sure to dislike our approach.

At the same time, this documentary is a co-production with an Icelandic company so, hopefully, it’s not an entirely foreign perspective. We produced the documentary with Margrét Jónasdóttir from Sagafilm who was amazing. In our early discussions, she said it was good to have an outsider’s perspective because in a country like Iceland where everyone knows everyone, it’s quite hard to stick your neck out and point the finger at somebody else because at the end of the day you do have to live there. It’s probably easier for me to come in and point the fingers and take the blame!

But I like to think the film is very Icelandic in style and aesthetic. 95% of the names in the credits are Icelandic. For example, we had the fantastic director of photography, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson (Of Horses and Men, The Deep). I co-directed the re-enactments with Óskar Jónasson (In Front of Others), who was great. The music was beautifully composed by Ólafur Arnalds (Broadchurch, Life in a Fishbowl) and Bjarni Massi (Rams) was our very talented art director. The quality of the artistry and the craftsmanship from the whole Icelandic crew was second to none. So lots of what you see is Icelandic, but the overarching narrative and approach are from an outsider.

It’s not surprising the film is so cinematic in feel, then…

We knew we wanted a cinematic feel from the first meeting we had over a beer in a pub in London. I wanted to evoke the specific time and place – that part of Iceland in the mid-seventies. So, we worked hard on picking locations, clothing, hair, music, the whole thing. Bergsteinn shot with vintage lenses, the whole colour palette evokes the 1970’s, especially when combined with all the great archive footage we have. In the first part of the film we wanted to put the audience alongside Erla as she travels through the story -– meets Saevar, is arrested, interrogated, put in her cell, and is trying to remember what happened.

The documentary seems to fit neatly into the current Icelandic wave of film and television the UK are loving. How do you create a documentary for the two countries?

The film will be shown on the BBC, on RUV, and on Netflix. One of the biggest challenges was how to make a film that audiences in the UK and the world could follow and enjoy, and that also brings the story to Icelanders in a different way. Because Icelanders know this case inside out, whereas the rest of the world don’t know anything. So that was difficult! We had to make hard choices about cutting some of the complexity of the story so that people outside Iceland could follow it. When we did test screenings, we found, for example, that people got really stuck with the Icelandic names, and just couldn’t capture some of the twists and turns. I hope Icelanders will forgive certain omissions.

Forty years later, everything about this case seems mysterious indeed…

It’s still a mystery and this is still very current. All the murder convictions have just been sent back to the Supreme Court.

Could we see an Out of Thin Air 2, then?

Yeah, it’s a possibility! •

Out of Thin Air premieres on Netflix on the 1st of July following BBC and RUV screenings.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.