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.

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