'Out of Thin Air': Film Review | Hot Docs 2017

Out of Thin Air Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of HotDocs
Haunting but disjointed.

Dylan Howitt's documentary recounts the complex story of Iceland's most notorious murder case.

The continuing craze for Scandinavian crime fiction should benefit Dylan Howitt’s documentary about Iceland’s most infamous murder case. Chronicling a convoluted tale, the truth of which may never be known for certain, Out of Thin Air is a stylishly executed but narratively muddled effort that confounds as much as it engrosses. Recently given its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs, the film should find especially receptive audiences on cable and streaming services.

The film concerns the 1974 disappearances of two unrelated men whose bodies were never found. The first, an 18-year-old man, vanished on a wintry night after attending a party. Months later, a 32-year-old father received a late-night phone call, drove to a café, parked his car and was never seen again.

Suspicions fell on a group of young people including Erla Bolladottir and her boyfriend Saevar Ciesielski, who had previously been involved in an embezzling scheme. Along with four of their friends, they were accused by the police and subjected to intense marathon interrogations that resulted in their confessions. All were sent to prison, with Saever, who had been described as “evil incarnate” and compared in the media to Charles Manson, receiving the longest sentence. After their release years later, it came out that they had essentially been tortured and that their confessions may have been built on false memories.

The film vividly captures the country’s innocent atmosphere at the time of the horrific crimes and how shocked the Icelandic people were by the sudden intrusion of the “big bad world,” as one commentator puts it, into their peaceful lives. The nation became riveted by the trial, and everyone seemed to have an opinion about the suspects’ guilt or innocence. And even though the crimes took place more than 40 years ago, the case is still ongoing — the country’s Supreme Court has recently agreed to hear new arguments.

Director Howitt employs a skillful mixture of archival footage, talking head interviews and gorgeously photographed, dreamlike recreations, often redolent of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. He particularly focuses on modern-day interviews with Bolladottir, who despite having confessed to shooting one of the victims now steadfastly denies any involvement. Where the film runs into trouble is in its recounting of the complex storyline. Since the truth has so far proven elusive, it makes sense that it raises more questions than it answers. The problem is that situations and characters rush at the viewer in a bewildering blur, and even the questions it raises prove confusing. Long on moody atmosphere but short on narrative coherence, Out of Thin Air ends up being as frustrating as it is haunting.

Production company: Mosaic Films
Director: Dylan Howitt
Producers: Margaret Jonasdottir, Andy Glynne
Executive producers: Kate Towsend, Lucy McDowell, Andy Glynne, Laufey Guojonsdottir
Director of photography: Bergsteinn Bjorgulfsson
Editor: Mikka Leskinen
Composer: Olafur Arnalds
Venue: Hot Docs

85 minutes