For his first movie outside his native Iceland, filmmaker Baltasar Kormakur plunged into "the most horrific world I’ve ever been in" — that of the grim business of organ trafficking.
Not an obvious choice of subject, but the resulting movie "Inhale," which opened in North American cinemas this weekend, is a gripping no-holds-barred investigation of a truly terrifying trade.
The film, which fans say could make Kormakur Iceland’s most famous export since Bjork, tells the story of an American couple ready to do anything to find a lung for their sick daughter.
To this end district attorney Paul and his wife Diane (played by Dermot Mulroney and Diane Kruger) travel from their comfortable Santa Fe home life to the Mexican border town of Juarez, in search of organs for sale.
Kormakur, whose work notably includes the 2000 film "101 Reykjavik" with Victoria Abril, was offered the chance to make a film in the US after the success of his home-based movies here.
"In my position you’re mostly sent things like horror films, not necessarily the best scripts because you haven’t made anything in the States," he told AFP.
"I knew a little bit about the stories of organs trafficking, and it intrigued me," he said, recalling his love of thrillers like "Burning Mississippi" or "Witness," "movies that take you to a new world."
Traveling to Juarez, across the border from the Texan city of El Paso, "I saw the most horrific world I’ve ever been in," added the 44-year-old, who uses an almost documentary style to tell the story.
With a population of 1.4 million, the city is considered the most dangerous in Mexico. More than 2,500 people have been killed there this year, mostly in the war between police and drug traffickers.
"There was no way we could get the insurance to shoot down there so we had to recreate that world in El Paso," said the filmmaker.
For Kormakur, the son of an Icelandic mother and a Spanish father, the movie also marked his return to a country where he moved to live when he was 11 years old, and which even then was scarred by violence.
"To move from Iceland to Mexico at 11 years old has quite an impact. The bus driver, when I was going to, school, had a gun, because there were so many kidnappings at this time," he said.
"A bus driver with a gun, you can’t imagine that in Iceland!"
He insists his film is not making any moral judgments. "I’m not drawn to hip, the cool. I like the raw, reality of things," he said.
"It’s great to have the opportunity to talk about things like that, and get people to think about it. I’m not like preaching or saying what’s right or wrong."
And he added: "This is an horrific trade. I read stories about grandmothers selling their grandchild to be used for organs," he said.
"Anyone saying ‘You’re making a dark picture of Mexico,’ these people have not been there. These people don’t realize how desperate the situation is in these places."