Director Guðjón Ragnarsson’s Raise The Bar lifts the lid on gender inequality in Iceland

We saw Raise the Bar at the 2021 Canadian Hot Docs documentary festival and were really moved by the powerful film following a young girls basketball team in Iceland. Their male coach teaches them to be strong physically, mentally and emotionally, to not only succeed and command respect in sport but also in other areas of life.

When the team are not allowed to compete against the boys in a tournament, it starts to raise issues and questions about gender equality on and off the court. To make matters worse some of the parent’s begin to question their coaches unorthodox method of coaching.

We interview the director to get some more information on the filming of the documentary and his thoughts on the issues raised in Raise the Bar

Tell us how Raise The Bar first came about for you – how did your path cross with the coach?

I met Brynjar (the coach) through a mutual friend back in 2015. At first I thought that he was one of the most unique character I ever met and we hit it off and got to know each other. I learned early on about his impressive career as a businessman and basketball coach, but one thing surprised me… he was coaching a little girls team in my home town.

A typical man with his experience would probably be coaching a men’s national team but no… not him. He told me that I had to meet the girls so I went to a practice and… well I was shocked. The intensity was brutal and the girls behaved like professional athletes, then only 8 years old. Watching this I fought the urge to run on to the court and hug them and somehow protect from this tall screaming man, but I didn’t. I just watched the entire practice. 

The intensity was brutal and the girls behaved like professional athletes, then only 8 years old.

It’s funny to say that Brynjar is very calm when he is not coaching but on the court he changes his entire behaviour. In Iceland, this kind of coaching is unheard of on the women’s side so I thought that this was going to be a very interesting project to document. I came to the next practice with a camera in my hand.

In Iceland, this kind of coaching is unheard of on the women’s side so I thought that this was going to be a very interesting project to document.

How difficult was it to convince the parents about the documentary and the message you wanted to get across?

There were times when I had to convince the parents how important this story is sure, but in all it was not that difficult. Some parents quit along the way and that was hard for me, to see girls go but it all worked out in the end. Everybody knew what the teams goals were and every single parent wanted their daughter to be empowered.

Some parents quit along the way and that was hard for me, to see girls go but it all worked out in the end.

Being behind the camera, was there ever a frustration?

I can’t recall ever being frustrated, I mean I love these girls, I look up to them and I respect them. 

This was a long period (5 years) and I admit that sometimes my motivation wasn’t 100% but all I had to do then, was film one practice and I’d be switched back on again.

I felt like I was a part of the team. The girls and Brynjar really inspired me.

The girls were the real heartbeat of this piece and their determination and enthusiasm was inspiring.
Have you ever considered a piece where you follow up with them in a few years?

I have thought of that, yes. The team is still being filmed to this day. Let’s leave it at that. 

Your film really does raise awareness of gender equality in Iceland when it comes to sport – has much changed since the film’s release?

The girls have finally been given the respect they deserve. They’ve been covered by tv-news, radio, podcast and papers and people seem to really love them. Brynjar (the coach) has also gotten a lot of attention, good and bad. As to the gender equality in sports, I say nothing has changed. We can do so much better, this frustrates me beyond words.

What is next for you and where might one be able to see Raise The Bar in the future?

I just finished a new documentary where I visit a whole other subject, It’s a film I directed with the same producer, the amazing Margrét Jónasdóttir  with the respected production company Sagafilm.

The film is the autobiography of an Icelandic surgeon that was born in 1870. He was the pioneer in nature healing in Iceland and he also founded a health clinic that is still doing amazing things today. I’m also writing a feature script.

My girlfriend Auður is an amazing actress and she has two roles at the moment with two theatres here in Iceland so I’m spending all my days with our 11 month old son Ragnar, so I’m a lucky man. 

Raise the bar has started its festival life, so we have a lot to look forward to. We have Cat & docs as our sales agent and we are in the progress of presenting the film to buyers.

I, of course want this story to travel all over the world so it can inspire people of all ages to take space, speak up and shape their own future.

Interview by Alex Minnis

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