Soul in pain

GRIEF / An outstanding piece of direct cinema turned art cinema, offering a glimpse into the human soul at the moment of suffering.
Director: Mina Laamo
Producer: Mina Laamo
Country: Finland

«Men don’t cry. But if the emotions are feminine, the future is female», says one of its’ subjects in the middle of this unusual, extraordinary documentary. «Showing and understanding emotions is becoming more important … because presently people aren’t feeling well». Indeed.

It is our times that demand this film. But one becomes aware of this only after watching it. Showing the urgent need to know our feelings better is one of the many qualities of this magnificent film best described as a hybrid of documentary and artwork. But don’t be misled. While the tag «art cinema» conventionally signifies a certain degree of generalised abstraction, this film is an outstanding document precisely because it intertwines with art. The purely imaginary, «artistic» parts of the film further add to and enforce the potentials of direct cinema and directly contribute to the capacity of this film to show something that we did not even know that can be seen. It helps us know our souls better.

Sorrow Tamers, a film by Mina Laamo
Sorrow Tamers, a film by Mina Laamo

Cruelty, actually

The protagonists of Jean-Luc Godard’s modernist manifest, the film Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960), agreed with William Faulkner, who in The Wild Palms wrote that «Between grief and nothing I will take grief». Grief was considered a sophisticated feeling, and suffering was a kind of quality, a way to show attitude. Besides, according to the romanticist understanding of art, it was the prerequisite for good art.

Sorrow and grief existed before our times, and humanity developed several ways to deal with them. It is a totally personal feeling that each of us has to face in our own way, yet the universal aspect was always at the forefront. Thus, for example, the French philosopher Clément Rosset considered the absolute certainty that love would not last to be the cruelest part of it. In the book published in 1988, he called this The Cruelty Principle (Le Principe de cruauté) – we know that love does not last, but we are still falling in love, even more, every time we fell in love, we do so as if love will last forever, simultaneously knowing that it will not.

Sorrow and grief existed before our times, and humanity developed several ways to deal with them.


Freud concentrated on the common aspect of the expression of sorrow caused by the loss: mourning. The sorrow following the loss of a loved person – be it because the person has left us or because s/he died – represents the same kind of psychic structure, the mourning. He believed that with time, the intensity of this feeling fades out. Yet as it perishes on the individual level, its’ frequency among the population made sadness one of the most common motives in popular cultures of the global north. There are beautiful melancholic songs in every musical genre: in trip-hop, there’s Morcheeba’s ‘Who Can You Trust?’ («Things have changed this time around – I’m on the rocks and looking down – And I can’t see for all the darkness ’round here…»), the queen of soul Ella Fitzgerald sings ‘These Foolish Things’ («A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces – An airline ticket to romantic places – A fairgrounds painted swings -These foolish things remind me of you…»), Italian diva Ornella Vanoni ‘L’Appuntamento’ («Ho sbagliato tante volte ormai che lo so già – che oggi quasi certamente – sto sbagliando su di te …»). The Cape Verdean mornas, made famous by Amandido Cabral and Cesária Évora, celebrate ‘Sodade’, Longing («Longing,… For this land of mine, Sao Nicolau»), a feeling common to all Cape Verdians, those who remained but would like to leave and those who left but would like to come back. Sodade, an ambiguous, melancholic «memory of something with a desire for it».

Sorrow Tamers, a film by Mina Laamo
Sorrow Tamers, a film by Mina Laamo

Peeling off the layers of glam

Melancholic music is helping people accept their sorrow by making it glamorous and appealing, but today, it seems, this doesn’t work anymore. The loss is ubiquitous, and there is too much sorrow around. Today, even Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black sounds bland, and she only wrote this song 15 years ago. Sorrow Tamers is an intimate, poetic film and does not address this directly. But it does bring to the fore a particular aspect of modern history. Along the process that we call progress, another process was and still is, going on: the human suffering is increasing. Knowing our feelings is essential with the war looming across the border.

Due to the myriad modes outlined above of making the sorrow glamorous, it was never perceived as what it was, the hidden side of the progress. But this outstanding observational documentary achieved the impossible. Listening to those who suffer at the very moment of their suffering, in a detached and simultaneously attentive way, caught the sorrow and grief at their peak. It provided an insight into the soul in pain. Radically shifting the attention from the look of the others to the grief experienced on the skin of those suffering caused the layers of social taming of sorrow to peel off. The glamour of popular music, the psychology, philosophy and literature, romanticist notion of art and film modernism, including the model masculine denial «boys-don’t-cry», one by one lost their spell.

The loss is ubiquitous, and there is too much sorrow around.

A warrior in armour

The film approaches each subject differently, letting their individual, idiosyncratic ways come to light. A girlfriend whose relationship just ended, a mother who lost her son, a daughter who lost her mother, a man who got cancer, a sister who lost her brother. At a certain point, a foreigner living in Finland is introduced, and with him, he is mourning a particular kind of loss, the loss of something he expected to find but did not find in Finland. This indicates, somewhat surprisingly, that new feelings might appear historically and that feelings, even if bodily phenomena, have history. «I didn’t expect so many Finns to have such hate», states the subject, and this fact traverses the linear flow of testimonies, proving that perhaps the motive to know these feelings is not curiosity but a more fundamental, urgent need. Perhaps a more thorough change is going on indeed, towards the future as female.

Among the plentitude of exciting, unexpected revelations in this film are the richness of visual information. Starting with the insight that the sorrow is not black, black comes when the mourning is over. The grief is of a glittering, sudden, and sharp colour of light and has a look of a faceless warrior in armour.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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