‘This Is The Hardest Thing I Have Ever Done’

Icelandic director Baldvin Z (Baldvin Zophoníasson) usually works with fictional productions but in 2017 he released his very first documentary Beyond Strength that tells the story of strongman Reynir Örn Leósson. After the first screening of the film at the Nordisk Panorama Film Festival, Cinema Scandinavia sat down with Baldvin to talk about his project.

In your documentary, you use archival footage, talking heads interviews as well as animation. The latter is extremely distinctive, and those red eyes definitely stand out and stay with the viewers for a long time. How did you develop this particular concept?
I really meant what I say at the beginning of the film; I’d been hooked on this guy since I was five years old. I started the project back in 2008, and while doing the interviews, I realised that it would be quite tricky to make this film without any other material. I knew that the archival footage was somewhere, I just needed to find it. Then it took me many, many months to digitise it; some of it even turned into dust in my hands, but I was able to save ca 100 minutes of it. However, there was still something missing when we started the editing.

I am not a documentary film-maker, I work on fictional productions, but I wanted to make this documentary because I needed to get it out of my system. But I wasn’t able to tell the story just with the interviews and the old footage. So we were thinking of doing some re-enactments, which was definitely an option but not for me. I wanted to go to some other direction. Then I met Emil Asgrimsson, who did the animation for me. He is such a creative guy… I started to tell the story to him – because everybody whom I had met for 25 years heard about this man – and he was very fascinated by it. I also explained to him that something was missing from the film, so we sat down with the interviews already edited and he said, ‘Let me just go wild!’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you a couple of scenes, go wild, and then we talk.’ And he came up with the red eye thing, and I was amazed by it, so we kept going on and wrote a script for the whole animation.

But all these happened during the period of 6-8 years, probably because I was mainly working on my other projects. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I salute every documentary film-maker. I adore this job. I want to make a documentary again when I’m old.

That’s indeed a long time… And you’ve just mentioned that you mainly direct fictions. So why didn’t you make a fiction film about Reynir then?
I actually started with a script. However, back then I’d only made one film, so I had the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to make the film I wanted to make about him. And I thought, ‘Let’s try with a documentary, that can’t be so hard to make!’

There are several interviews in the film, mainly with family members. Was it easy to convince them to participate in the project?
I wasn’t able to convince everyone, many family members didn’t want to participate in the film; some of them were even against it. For example, Reynir had two wives and I could interview only the second one. Actually, Reynir’s second family were all in from the beginning, and, at some point, they even wanted to put money into it, but that never happened. They owned the old films so I got permission from them to use them.

I think, for some of them, it was finally the right story to be told. In Iceland, Reynir is not remembered as some hero but as a drunk. And I didn’t want to glamorise him either and say he was a hero. He was my childhood hero in flying cars and whatnot, but while doing the interviews, I realised this was going to be a dark film. This was not going to be like ‘he was so strong, and he was so clever’. I had to be truthful about that. I also told this to the family and said that all my findings would be in the film.

Have they already seen the film?
Yes, and some other family members also came to the premiere in Iceland, and everyone was happy with it. The first wife saw it on TV, and she said a few words about it. Not so much, but she is okay with the result. 8-10 years ago when I phoned her for the first time, she sort of just screamed at me and told me to leave her alone. This is, of course, quite understandable considering the events.

You did a quite, let’s say, spiritual interview with Reynir’s daughter, Linda. Did she also attend the event?
Yes, and she came to me after the premiere and said that he [Reynir] was very happy with everything.

In the film, we can see a bit of turmoil during her interview. What exactly happened then?
There were quite a few things happening that day. We rented a room in the north of Iceland, so it was not Linda’s home where we interviewed her. She knew that I was going to ask her about that thing her mother said to us three years before. Between these two interviews, I reached out to Linda several times to convince her to do an interview. She kept saying no, but then she finally agreed to do it. So I started the interview and I was slowly getting closer to that particular topic. After half an hour, my cameraman stopped me and said, ‘Baldvin, there is something wrong here.’ All the lights we put up were out. They were on battery but suddenly all of them were empty. The sound guy’s battery was also empty. You can imagine… We changed all the batteries, and then started the interview again. And when I started to talk about these things, the candle went down. We were there with her for three or four hours.

After the interview, she went away and we just sat there in silence and packed our things. We went to my sister and she asked us, ‘So how was it?’ We hadn’t spoken about it yet and we were like, ‘Okay, are we going to talk about this? What really happened there?’ I would say it was also weird when she shook my hand – as if she was doing some energy thing with me, and the two other guys who were there with me felt it too. She is really abnormal. She was like five or six months old when she started to walk, for example.

Was this the only abnormal activity you’ve experienced during the project?
When I started the project, I also met Leo, the son from the first marriage, he had the old films in the basement. I talked to him several times and asked him about them but he kept saying he didn’t have them. Once he told me, ‘If you’ll call me again you can be sure I’m going to beat you up’, or something like that. Actually, I was telling this story to Linda when the candle went down… So one day I called Leo again and begged him to meet me for just one coffee. I said, ‘I’ll come to your house, and if you don’t like me I’ll go and I never bother you again.’

He agreed so I went to his house, and this was the first time we met. He looked at me and asked, ‘Is this your mother?’ He was talking about a woman who stood next to me – my mother died when I was very young. I was like ‘How does she look like?’ He described her and it was exactly like my mother! We bonded well and when I was leaving the house he warned me to be careful on my way home. He said something about the weather, but it was good weather, yet while driving home the weather changed and I almost had a car accident.

So, I’m not a believer but many things in this project have made me doubt my own beliefs. And I don’t have any answer about how Reynir did those things. I think you have just as many answers as I have. I want the audience to ask the same questions as me: How did he do it? What was it? Is it a supernatural thing? I don’t know…

Once I did an interview with Eva Sigurdardottir who directed the short film Cut. She says: ‘Fitness competitions are HUGE in Iceland! Iceland is famous for having won the World’s Strongest Man a number of times […].’ Did the strongman community reach out to you after the premiere?
No, they did not, but I talked to a couple of them regarding Reynir’s stories. They were all telling me that ‘This is bullshit.’ I was ‘Okay, so what do we have to do to prove that it was bullshit?’ One of them talked about a challenge between Reynir and some strong guys in Iceland; ten guys were in the gym doing 400 kilos and he wasn’t able to lift it, or something like that. So they could all see that Reynir was just a flaw. I asked him to direct me to someone who was there but everyone I talked to said he wasn’t there and gave me another name. Eventually, I came into a circle. I told them that I could not put this into the film without an interview with someone who actually witnessed the event. They even told me that it was in the news but I have every news article written about Reynir, every newscast, but I found nothing on this. I think it never happened, actually. Because some of the guys who were doing these strongman competitions back then in 1975-78, they hung up on me and said, ‘I don’t want to talk about this.’

The other part I would like to ask you about is the case with Volvo. We can see in the film that Reynir had a meeting with the Swedish company to talk about one of his inventions. No deal was made but a company started using a similar device in its trucks. So he was kind of convinced that his idea was stolen. Did you talk to Volvo about Reynir?
We tried to find the person from Volvo who actually met him back then but they couldn’t trace him down. They thought he had died. I reached out to the lawyer’s wife, because he had also died, but she didn’t want to talk about it. Even though Reynir kept saying Volvo stole his idea, the reality was that he went to Sweden, got drunk, and blew it. The film-maker, the only guy who was with him, said it was nothing, they [Volvo] were never going to buy this thing – never ever. Sadly, we couldn’t find anybody from Volvo; it would have been perfect to tell this story from their point of view. I don’t think they stole the idea from him, though.

I’m just wondering how many things Reynir actually invented…
What I think was interesting is that he was already thinking about the environment, using oxygen and water to generate power. He didn’t have an education but he was a smart guy in a somewhat weird way. I had no clue of some of his inventions. Similarly to others probably, he was also working on a machine that runs by itself without energy, but that didn’t really work.

Making a film can be also quite tricky. How did you finance it?
The Icelandic Film Fund supported the project, and I worked with small companies giving me a hand. And, of course, a lot of unpaid work on our side. That’s the only way to do it.

Where has the film been screened so far besides the premiere in Iceland?
We started our journey within the festival circuit at the Lübeck Nordic Film Days in 2017, and now we’re here in Malmö. I don’t know what comes next because I haven’t really sent it anywhere. I need to do something about that.

How did the audience respond in Lübeck?
I didn’t make it there. I’m going to meet a festival audience for the first time here at Nordisk Panorama.

What takeaway message do you want the audience to go home with?
If there is a message in this film, it is just believe in yourself, and you can do whatever you want to do. I think that is what Reynir did. He really believed in everything he did, that he could do it. There is no bigger message in the film. I didn’t start this film to make any point or deliver a message to the world. I’m just getting to know the film now. It is always really interesting to experience the film with an audience. You learn so much about your film. Because usually film-makers are like ‘I just wanna make a great story and it’s gonna be fantastic to watch’, but then you start to hear all the emotional stuff the audience is getting from your work. So I’m really excited about the screening tomorrow.

Good luck with that! What other projects are you working on right now?
My latest fiction film Let Me Fall premiered in Iceland three weeks ago, and it was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. I don’t know what happened but the film just exploded in Iceland. For three weeks, we’ve been the number one film in the country. This is so incredible!

What’s the story of it?
It’s about two girls struggling with drug addiction. First, we meet them when they are 15 and 18, and then 15 years later after they have become clean, when everything has changed. It’s very raw and very real. I wanted to make Christiane F. of our time, which is a German film released in 1981. I have to tell you, it was extremely difficult for me to direct Let Me Fall because the main characters are girls and I’m a guy, and I’m telling these girls’ stories. When I was reading reviews written by women, I noticed they usually mention that they were worried about a man making this film, but they point out that I did it or something like that. I’m very thankful for that. The discussion about drugs in Iceland has also changed a lot. Both in the parliament and among the population the conversation is about changing the system, so it’s really affective.

The film is based on interviews with girls who lived on the streets and we got two diaries belonged to a girl who died many, many years ago. So there is no fabrication in the film; the story itself is fictional but all the events taking place are real. At the Toronto International Film Festival, the Q&A lasted so long, and people were still crying after it ended. So, yes, it’s an extremely dark and sad film but there is something so real about it.

I’d like to finish the interview with expanding on this issue a bit because Iceland has a certain image around the world. Thousands of tourists visit this tiny Nordic country every year, and we can all see the photos how beautiful the landscape is. Of course, Iceland hit rock bottom a decade ago but managed to get out of the financial crisis. So I’d like you to talk briefly about this dark side we barely see. Is drug addiction a huge problem in Iceland, for example?
Yeah, it’s booming now. People have easy access to drugs; people buy it in Spain and smuggling into the country. A young person dies every day. When casting the younger version of the main characters, I met the parents who were asking me, ‘Why are you doing this? It’s not happening in Iceland.’ And I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ People are now realising this, so now I’m telling everybody that what they see is the sugar-coated version of the situation. I wasn’t able to do the whole deal in this film because nobody would watch that. The same epidemic is in fact happening all over the world, and Iceland is not an exception. We have a beautiful nature but we have our problems too.

Photo of Baldvin Z by Vilhelm Gunnarsson

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.