One of the most powerful things a filmmaker can do is to elicit beauty from the most unexpected of places, thereby challenging our preconceived notions and reframing the question of beauty itself.

Well, Russian film director Vlad Yudin has done just that in his new award-winning film, Generation Iron. Proceeding on the heels of George Butler’s Pumping Iron (1977), a now famous documentary chronicling the rivalry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, this new entry delves a bit more closely into the personal lives of bodybuilders, with a strong focus on their training. While Iron may not capture the internal psychology of bodybuilding as successfully as its predecessor, it offers instead a fuller picture of these men outside of the gym: their fears, passions and tragedies.

The documentary is both ambitious and progressive, following seven bodybuilders through their quest for the coveted Mr. Olympia title, but this broad scope eventually gives way to a more intriguing drama between the movie’s two central figures: Phil Heath, the defending champion, and Kai Greene, Phil’s most formidable adversary. Iron offers intriguing and comprehensive interviews with the athletes themselves, their trainers, friends and family, and boasts a fine voiceover performance by Mickey Rourke, who adds the right amount of spectacle and humor to an already impressive narrative. Other renowned celebrities make appearances in the film as well, such as the aforementioned Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno, who offer comments about bodybuilding in the picture – a finely layered supplement that will surely satisfy the biggest of aficionados.

There’s much to admire here. Iron does a fine job of capturing the inner torment and isolation of its characters. Yudin’s eye is free of judgment and the subject matter is interesting enough to overshadow the structural flaws. The cinematography is unobtrusive and often beautiful — lighting and mise en scene in the film effectively evoke the athletes’ solitude and internal contemplation. However, the film’s broad scope and ambition may also be its Achilles’ heel. The most intriguing stories are unfortunately pushed to the sidelines (such as Greene’s painting hobby) to make way for the rivalry between Heath and Greene, creating a conspicuous lack of closure. As such, the film sometimes gets sidetracked and loses momentum, creating a sense of excess and longevity, despite a runtime of only 106 minutes.

Yet despite its discrepancies, Iron, Yudin’s fourth film, is a welcome continuation of the director’s previous work. Two of his films, Big Pun: The Legacy (2008) and Mr. Immortality: The Life and Times of Twista (2011), which centered around the lives of rap artists, examined unexplored territory with a similarly objective eye that can be seen throughout Iron. While his subject matter might be at times reflective and overpowering, he is not always so serious, as evidenced by his second picture, Last Day of Summer (2009), a whimsical dramatic comedy about a frustrated fast food worker.

Looking to give us a glimpse into his process and strategy, as well as a deeper study into the film and its central figures, Yudin spoke with GALO about the beauty of bodybuilding, the isolation manifested from dedication to the craft, and the taboo surrounding steroids.

GALO: The bodybuilding community is such an intriguing world that it seems to be a subject that lends itself to filming. Yet, films about bodybuilders are few and far between. Why do you think that might be the case?

Vlad Yudin: I think there are a couple of reasons [for this]. I think bodybuilders, in general, don’t really want to expose their lives, and show what kind of work goes on behind the scenes. And they have very tough exteriors, so a lot of the time, they don’t want to show their true personalities or their weaknesses to the mainstream level like that — they like to keep their lives very private. And, on the reverse side, most people don’t know too much about bodybuilding to kind of demand that content. So, it goes both ways. I think most people look at bodybuilding as something taboo — they’re very skeptical about it because they think it’s not necessarily a sport, art, or beauty. They think of it as something negative, kind of. So, these two reasons really influence why you don’t see too much content about bodybuilding.

GALO: I think that’s especially true for the second reason, since most people don’t see the beauty in the sport. Can you comment on how you first became interested in the beauty of bodybuilding — what attracted you to bodybuilding as a subject for a film in the first place?

VY: Well, to me, it really wasn’t about beauty or anything else. I wanted to make an honest film about bodybuilding. It really intrigued me. I thought it was one of those sports that was very misunderstood and unexplored, so it was more about discovering something about it, and [in] making an honest film. I wanted to talk about the good and the bad. I didn’t want to make it about beauty or glorifying something. I really meant to make a film about what drives these men, and women too, but mostly men in this film, specifically — what drives them to take their bodies to this extreme level. And, to them, it’s beauty and art; to their fans, it’s beauty and art; to some people, it’s not. But, really, something motivates them to transform completely into these almost living statues. So, I really wanted to discover that for myself.

GALO: The film seems to emphasize the loneliness and isolation of the bodybuilders, the feeling that they are social outsiders and extremely introverted. For instance, Kai Greene flexes with a mask in front of spectators as if hiding parts of himself, or looks plaintively out a window whilst focused on his paintings. Hidetada Yamagishi is shunned by his family and disconnected from his homeland. How does this isolation connect with bodybuilding?

VY: Yeah, some of them are lonely, some of them have families, but I think, as a society, people are very judgmental of bodybuilding. I personally didn’t know that, because when I’d go to the gym sometimes and see bodybuilders, I never looked down on them. I kind of look up to them, or [to] someone in great shape, in general. But society is sometimes very judgmental. I heard crazy stories from bodybuilders where they’re at the airport [and] people [are] looking down on them, or some people are straight out mocking them… When I heard that, I was very surprised. So, maybe that causes a sort of isolation from mainstream society? But, of course, [in the film] Hidetada seems lonely at times, and Kai is in his own world a lot of the time [and] is sort of isolated as well. But they do have friends — they have a lot of friends in that world, in the bodybuilding world. Most of them are judged by just regular people.

GALO: I was quite moved by the contrast between Victor Martinez and Phil Heath. Victor’s story is so tragically hopeless, while Phil seems destined for success. Could you comment on how these two figures relate to one another in your film, perhaps in terms of the theme?

VY: You know, we cover seven guys in the film. [I wanted to follow each one], but it’s very tough to do that. I think, logically, it would have been nice to make a film about just two or three guys — it’d be easier to follow. But the reason that we have seven characters is because they all represent different sides of a bodybuilding career, and bodybuilding in general. For instance, what happens to the guy who used to be a star but suddenly had a setback? This is Victor’s story. But that can happen to Phil also — that can happen to anybody who is not careful in their moves and [sustains] an injury. So, each person represents one story of a bodybuilder. At the same time, they have differences, of course, in their personalities and their stories. So, they’re kind of all the same but different as well — it’s complicated.

Victor’s story is of a guy who had everything but then lost it, and in bodybuilding it’s very easy to lose everything just because of an injury or, as in his case, because of arrest. He spent six months in jail and that was a huge setback for him. When you watch the film, you see that Phil has confidence and he has all the traits that make a champion, but at the same time, there are places where you can see a vulnerability. And bodybuilding is all about perception, right? It’s all about the looks. So it is that perception that can change [how you] look [and feel] on stage, whether there is someone there who can throw you off, or if you don’t feel confident. It’s a very interesting sport, very different from any other sport I’ve seen.

GALO: At the end of the film, Kai says he made Phil “bleed,” proving that Phil is beatable. I got the impression that part of this vulnerability lies in Phil’s ego and pride. What was your impression as to the role of ego in the bodybuilder? How does it affect the athlete and his peers?

VY: Ego really means a lot, and if you go back and look at Pumping Iron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, he had the same type of ego and the same type of confidence. But the thing is that ego only works if you actually are on the level, you know what I mean? For example, you see other guys in the film who have ego, but it doesn’t, unfortunately, work out for them. It really depends on how well you can back it up. It’s very entertaining. I feel like [Phil] is a very entertaining character in the film. His monologues and the way he carries himself, it’s [all] very entertaining to watch. I feel that, in sports in general, when you have a good rivalry, and you’ve got the confidence behind it, it makes for a very interesting scenario that entices you to watch. [With] two guys who are nice to each other and always polite, you kind of lose that excitement, you know? Phil is just full of energy and just full of excitement, and I think between Kai and Phil there is resistance [because of this]. It adds a lot to the film. I loved it and everyone else did as well. I think it’s one of the high points in the film.

(Interview continued on next page)