Pirjo Honkasalo

Honkasalo is in the literal sense of the word, the ‘first lady ‘ of documentarists in her own country, as Finland’s first woman cinematographer with an impressive filmography of remarkable, award-winning documentaries and fiction films.

She has been exploring the concreteness of documentary filmmaking for almost three decades – always on celluloid.


Anette Olsen met her in Århus.

AO: You always shoot your films on 35mm.

PH: I would be happy to go to the grave without having done one second of video!

As a method of working, thinking and distributing the film through a small box at home, video hasn’t been able to offer what film language can express.

I need to see a film on screen, and I always think in terms of cinema. If I was rich, I wouldn’t sell films to TV. Not that I despise TV as a medium, but I feel I’m using a wrong language for it and thereby it cannot express the whole content of the film. I don’t think you can make films for both cinema and TV.

Film is a visual art; it’s painting in time with image and sound. I’m looking for the absolute film, and needless to say I have not yet reached this. There are too many pictures in the world. Film should reach us at another level. Often we loose purity in the technique.

Fire-Eater is Pirjo Honkasalo’s 1998 debut fiction film

AO: You have made both documentaries and fiction.

PH: Yes. Usually you either have a head for fiction or for documentary, but for me it’s a must to do both.

AO: There must be a difference between making documentary and fiction.

PH: They don’t differ so much really, it is always about portraying the inner life of people. Fiction always involves a documentation of the actor, too; you cannot cut a life story out of a face. The attitude of the director is different though. In documentary you have to be humble, you are dealing with real people. In fiction you can’t be humble, otherwise the machine will kill you.

AO: This afternoon you talked about a certain concreteness of documentary filmmaking.

PH: Yes. I believe that a documentary is a documentation of your relationship to the subjects, whatever people claim. The big difference is that you’re actually shooting real life and real people, it is something concrete. It is a strange and daring art to express yourself through other people. In a way, in a documentary you receive all the time, but in fiction the director has to give all the time.

I have to admit that documentaries are my secret love after all, even though I have to make both.

A feast by the Ganges: from Atman by Pirjo Honkasalo

AO: You talk about going back to basics; one woman, one camera…

PH: Yes, the rest is extra. It’s luxury, it’s not needed. You need the camerawoman and the camera, you don’t even need people in front of the camera. It’s very good to remember the basics, that’s what film is all about. Sometimes you can feel very happy to have all the extra, and sometimes it turns out to be completely wrong.

If you are in doubt about what is meaningful, you can go back to documentary, to basics. In documentary filmmaking, I feel that life and filmmaking are one.

I have the feeling that if I reach for the simplest form, me and the camera and maybe a few people I need, I can react to things, and the camera is my pencil in a way. This makes filmmaking as intimate as writing. Fiction is always the big ‘circus’, but documentary can be more introverted.

AO: What is your attitude towards digital cameras? A DV camera allows simplicity, doesn’t it?

PH: DV might bring something new to film, because the small DV camera lowers the possibility of hiding empty heads behind professionalism, which is good; more and different kinds of people will have access to filmmaking. So far I haven’t shot anything with a digital camera. The way I make films, I don’t see the need of turning to digital camera. I don’t have a moral attitude towards DV, I know good things can be done with it, documentaries which earlier were impossible to shoot.


For me it has been more important to keep the picture quality, because I think the danger we face with all the digital is that we forget that film is also an art of the image. Digital equipment makes it so easy to get close to the nose of a human being, you suddenly forget what your relationship to space is. Space is very important to me, sometimes one needs the large screen to express the relationship to space. But with the digital, the style covers a very narrow area of film art.

At it’s worst, DV in fiction has created a bulk of boring psychodrama and recorded what looks like first-year acting students’ pathetic improvisations, thus taking film back to recorded theatre. Some call it Dogma.

But all this discussion on DV and such is a bit absurd. As film, video, and digital techniques all are material, cinema is not. All this material is a kind of simulator through which it is possible to try to reach the immaterial work behind it. Who cares if it is celluloid or pixels?

AO: Let’s talk about stories. You don’t seem to be fond of the term of story?

PH: This thing about narration, narration, narration irritates me a lot. I think film is an art that can reach much deeper levels than telling a story.

Stories don’t interest me. A story can be a product of a thought, but inventing a story is not my starting point. Film is a world where you can ask yourself questions. If you know what you are asking, you can start shooting a documentary. If the shooting furnishes a story, fine. If not, don’t force it into a story; just listen to the material.

Many filmmakers are now so concerned with learning the American style of storytelling and are limited by it, they never find their own handwriting. Because they are so tied up by this panic of everybody wanting to tell stories. Not everybody is a storyteller. One can be a dreamer, a philosopher, a poet, a maniac, a prophet, a Hieronymus Bosch or have a Buto dancer’s mind. The arts of music, dance, painting and literature seek new forms and structures for new thoughts, whereas film leans backwards and gets increasingly conservative.

I consider myself to be quite a good storyteller, actually, but a story is never the beginning. A story might come out of a film, but I never even start a fiction film by thinking, ‘How about developing a good story?’. You can start with a metaphor that interests you. For example, start to write five scenes around this metaphor and make it concrete. And then play with it and make it into a script. Rather than starting with the linear story, because often very artificial things happen to the characters. The storyline easily becomes a wicked and insidious dictator.

I go for a theme. A theme becomes important in my life at a certain moment. Then I try to find a concrete form. And also a place that will surprise me. If I go there with a question in my mind, it will turn into something; I will react to it.


AO: You have said that film is a medium where you can look into the silence of man. What do you mean by this?

PH: The silence of man is the only thing that really interests me. I mean that film can express something you can’t really talk about. That’s why I can’t really answer your question (laughter).

You can show something that you can’t talk about. But even so, as a director I might not even know how it is there. I try to seek it and reach the level where I can show it. I can’t decide it. It either comes or it doesn’t. It is not something you can rationally ‘order’.

AO: So you have a gut, intuitive feeling when you work?

PH: Yes, very much so.

AO: Your new project “Melancholia or Black Bile” is about the icons of the enemy, children being trained as soldiers in Chechenya and Russia. How did you find the idea for this documentary?

The 3 Rooms Of Melancholia

PH: I hadn’t really thought of making a new documentary. Somehow, for a long time, nothing had created as strong feelings in me as what is happening in Chechenya. The fact that the Russian intellectuals accept it, and the fact that the world considers the situation to be one of Russia’s internal affairs woke the political animal in me once again!

As a neighbour to Russia and a member of the generation that kept their mouths shut, which actually knew that the Gulags existed without interfering and accepted not to interfere, now it is happening all over again. ‘What do we transfer to the next generation and how do we break this circle?’ seems to be one of my themes. Where to find the cause that can stop the Evil that is transferred from one generation to the next. And the sum of all these things aroused my interest in the subject.

AO: In the text you wrote for “Melancholia“, you say that “stripping away the icons of the enemy calls for the acceptance of grace along with righteousness. Grace is illogical and irrational – in other words, a profoundly, gratuitous liberation from the compulsion to hate.”

What do you mean by grace?

PH: I think it is one of the most important aspects in life. It has a lot to do with transferring the burdens to the next generation. We are so educated, which of course is good, to find the reason and the causes, and justice. But life is not a locked location; so many times the only way to solve a problem is to reach a level where the problems just cease to exist.

AO: You say that making documentaries is a purifying process?

PH: Yes, I need documentaries, because they are so merciless to the director. You only get as much as you are worth.

Selected filmography

1998: Fire Eater (fiction)

1996: The Cindarella of Tallinn

1996: Atman (Part III of the trilogy of the Sacred and the Satanic)

1993: Tanjuska and the Seven Devils (Part II)

1991: Mysterion (Part I )

Modern Times Review