Pirjo Honkasalo

At this year’s 23rd edition of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Finnish filmmaker, Pirjo Honkasalo, was invited to make the “Top 10” selection for the festival. These were her choices – The Earth by Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Russia, 1930); The Mad Masters by Jean Rouch (France, 1955); The Earth Trembles by Luchino Visconti (Italy, 1957); Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami (Iran, 1990); Kyoto, My Mother’s Place by Nagisa Oshima (Japan, 1991); Quince Tree of the Sun by Victor Erice (Spain, 1992); Brass Unbound by Johan van der Keuken (Netherlands, 1993); Tell Me What You Saw by Kiti Luostarinen (Finland, 1993); The Smiling Man by Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann (Germany, 1996); and Blockade by Sergei Loznitsa (Russia, 2005). Ten “exercises” one could fold into one’s filmschool curriculum. All of these works were ones that resonated profoundly with Honkasalo while she was still learning the craft of filmmaking in her late teens.

In the two-hour masterclass she hosted, moderated by Iikka Vehkalahti (commissioning editor of Finland’s YLE) we saw clips from these films filled with images that initially inspired Honkasalo back then – not just as an artist, but as a human being. Listening to her talk, one feels quite strongly that filmmaking was just one of the many artistic avenues she could have explored, for this 63-year-old who “feels an attraction and attachment to the logic of the dream,” and who “trusts the simple poetry of image,” can capture the revelations of deep emotional intelligence through her camera lens like very few can. You get the feeling this would have been true whether she had chosen a musical instrument, a paintbrush, a quill and parchment.


For many, this viewer among them, watching a work by Honkasalo is a singular experience, one not easily described in words, particularly the limited language used for criticizing a work within the context of a certain cinematic style or milieu. Even though she has worked in documentary for much of the latter part of her career, her definition of the genre speaks foremost to the craft of image-making: “Making the image for me is the documentary; the visual aesthetic is the essential part.” And when she does compose, like the best minimalist
musicians, it is in a very circumscribed and disciplined way.

During the talk, she laughingly recalled her producer’s predicament in the initial stages of making her latest piece, Ito – Diary of an Urban Priest, about a young Buddhist man residing in Tokyo. She had come back to Finland from an extended stay in Japan with her subject, accompanied by barely any footage. Her producer pleaded: “Please start shooting something!” Yet what engages Honkasalo is the steady pulse, or gradual transformation, of the smaller moments, her compass set for an interior quest for the answer to something only she herself could possibly know she is investigating. It struck me that calling this talk with this particular filmmaker a “masterclass” was a misnomer, of sorts, (especially the setup reminiscent of an over-lit chat show with Honkasalo and Vehkalahti sitting seemingly miles away from the “live audience.”)

ITO – a Diary of an Urban Priest

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