This year’s festival was held on 12–16 January urging doc-lovers to head north during the coldest season to enjoy a fine choice of domestic and international productions, as well as a special programme of children’s docs that gave volume and profile to the popular festival.The new artistic director of the festival, Kristina Schulgin, replacing Arto Halonen, emphasized creativity and authored works in this year’s selection of 250 documentary features and shorts. The short format proved apt for presenting the most intriguing and creative approaches to cinema language. Apart from the New Finnish Documentaries, the programme offered a look at British and Chinese docs, thematic sections entitled Relative Landscape and Memory of History presented various international productions and the retrospectives of Chris Marker and Peter von Baghs gave focus to cinema and memory. Peter von Baghs received the Aho & Soldan Life Achievement Award. In addition, a selection of documentaries from Finnish Film Schools was screened and last, but not least, was DocPoint’s special feature: DOKKINO, a focus on documentaries for Children and Youths.
In the DocView selection of films from the Gulf of Finland area, the Russian documentaries stood out as poetic highlights. Factory is Sergei Loznitsa’s counterpart to his previous film, Landscape, which was remarkable for its long, panning shots moving from left to right round the camera axis in a merry-go-round effect depicting life in a Russian village in a winter landscape: people waiting, freezing and chatting at a bus stop. In Factory the camera has moved from cold exteriors to the burning hot interior of a steel factory. It is like a look into Hell with fires and big vats of molten steel gleaming in the dark. The static camera uses long takes to record the repetitive movements of women and men working silently as human machines at the conveyor belt and the melting furnaces. The fascinating imagery is a metaphor of the dehumanization taking place in the name of industrial progress, and the short condensed format is good at holding poetry and sustaining an atmosphere that is easily lost in longer films.
Another Russian filmmaker, Pavel Medvedev, gives a deeply personal view on what it is like to be deaf and to live in a ‘silent’ world in Wedding of Silence. He contrasts noise and voices with silence in an elaborated soundtrack – for those who hear, it is silence, for the deaf, it is a different kind of space, a space where communication takes place. The last image in the film – a huge bell made by deaf workers in a metalworking factory in St Petersburg –wonderfully connects this film to the previous one, Factory (they were shown together). In the Dark by Sergei Dvortsevoi, a moving story about a blind man and his cat, which has already won numerous awards at international festivals, was a natural choice to complete this section.
One of the most powerful cinematic experiences of the festival was delivered by UK director Daniel Gordon with the spectacular and unsettling A State of Mind. Shot in North Korea, the filmmaker and his associate producer Nicholas Bonner provide us with a rare insight into North Korean society. The filmmakers follow two Korean families whose young daughters (13 and 11 years old) have been chosen to participate in the Mass Games. Mass Games are shows in which thousands of gymnasts perform at public celebrations. The film is shot over eight months leading up to the Mass Games of the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the “victory” over the South in the Korean War. A huge event honouring the North Korean dictator Kim Jung-il. The devotion and determination of the young gymnasts who long to perform for their Great Father is amazing. Sometimes they train outdoors in 20-below temperatures.
State of Mind is not a critique of a dictator state, it is a film about and with two ordinary Korean families and their daily life in a completely controlled society where you can lower the voices of propaganda coming from the radio but never turn them off. The fantastic scenes of Mass Games performances throughout the film are simply dumbfounding and having met two of the thousands of moving, coloured ‘spots’ in the stunning choreographies of human bodies making patterns, you want to watch even more and are even more amazed.
Observational, slow-paced, lingering images and discreet humour characterized many of the Finnish docs. A number of films evolved around lifestyle changes caused by external forces such as globalization, industrialization or personal choices.
About a Farm is the young director Mervi Junkkonen’s film about her birthplace, a farm, and the end of an era of farm-life. She films her family and their quiet life with herself as the narrator and observer of a lifestyle and history she will not continue.
In The North Star, directed by Erkko Lyvtinen, the threats of losing jobs make the municipal manager of a small town fight EU regulations to save the future of the town’s railway carriage factory.
Freedom to Serve by the young directors Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen presents three young men who have to make their choice of whether or not to join the army or become conscientious objectors. In a well-balanced film that links the dilemmas and choices of the characters with the issue of the state’s interference in people’s private life and convictions, we get to understand the motivations of the young people and see how the consequences of their choices affect them.
One fresh exception from the ‘traditional’, observational approach was the short film The Crawl. The short format offered examples of truly creative films, and the The Crawl by Finnish filmmaker PV Lehtinen is simply a cinematic masterpiece. It’s a film about a young competition swimmer, Sirja Luomaniemi, who dreams of challenging the woman who holds the world record. But the film is more than a portrait of a woman athlete. It becomes a poetical vision with almost mythical overtones relating the human body to the element of water, shot in beautiful slow-motion images and underwater takes. Lehtinen demonstrated his attraction to the watery element in his film The Diver (2000), about the swimmer Helge Wasenius. The Crawl is the second film in a projected trilogy about the relationship between people and water.
Arto Halonen, the former festival director of DocPoint is now back in filmmaking, and he presented his new feature documentary Conquistadors of Cuba. The film portrays the partially blind mechanic Maximiliano, who is trying to fix a car that used to belong to Che Guevara. Alongside the story of Maximiliano, there are three four-wheeled protagonists: three historical cars, old US beauties that belonged to men whose lives were connected to people like Batista and Che Guevara. The film team produced black & white “newsreels” to provide the historical facts of Cuban history, and the stunt of making up archive material does not seem inappropriate because it is not made in an attempt to make a historical documentary. It works more like factual and entertaining input to the main story.
Through Children’s Eyes
For the third time, DocPoint presented a programme especially designed for children and young audiences. The DOKKINO series showed films dealing with issues close to young people’s lives and preoccupations, as well as films made by children themselves. With the purpose of raising media awareness through the documentary genre, the DOKKINO organizes screenings of documentaries and workshops for upper secondary school pupils to make them become acquainted with the documentary genre and make films themselves. The project started in 2002 and has turned into a year-round event, jointly organized with DocPoint’s major partner Finnkino.
“The project starts two or three months before the festival to give the students in the workshops enough time to get an idea of what documentary film is, how to use cameras, edit programmes and so on,” explains the cultural producer of DOKKINO, Kirsi Hatara. “Each year they are given a topic as a starting point, and this year it was ‘My Thing’. Professional directors work as tutors at the workshops to guide the school kids in groups of ten.”
One reason for the schools to get involved in this project was that the pupils who do not have enough education or who encounter problems in class can be encouraged to find new ways to express themselves and get self confidence. “Some workshops are done in an intensive course of one week or over several months where the students work more slowly. It’s up to the director and the school teachers to organize it,” says Hatara, who continues “By making documentaries, the children get an idea of what the genre involves and the difference between documentary and fiction. It’s also an opportunity for them to look at their own life and the questions they’re dealing with.”
Only few of the docs screened in the DOKKINO programme were subtitled in English and the lack of English subtitles, also at other screenings, was a bit frustrating. Hopefully the festival organizers will make it a rule to screen the international versions of the films to consider foreign guests.
One film I fully enjoyed was The Other Way by Tine Svendsen (Denmark) about a young teenager, Nicky, whose father, a biker, was cruelly killed when Nicky was little. “Life is a like a big shit, and you have to take a bite of it every day,” says Nicky whose life so far has borne some resemblance to that cynical life philosophy. But he gets his chance when he decides to go to a screen test for a role in a feature film. Nicky tells his story with adult self-awareness and self-irony. In all his ‘tough’ fragility he’s just a kid who hasn’t had enough love in his life, and he knows it.
The DOKKINO screenings gave a glimpse of what moves young audiences and how these future viewers relate to the documentary in their own films, adding a very valuable aspect to the festival.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).