The high quality and status of Finnish documentaries were apparent at DocPoint Helsinki, a brand new documentary film festival held on February 7-10.

«It’s a success,» Kai Nordberg said to me, «Look around!» And right he was: hundreds of people were queuing up for a screening at Kiasma, the new museum of modern art in Helsinki, and all my hidden scepticism dissipated.

There was room for another festival with a strong focus on new national productions combined with a good selection of French films and a retrospective from the Marseilles festival. Festival attendance figures of 6,000. Not bad at all. Good press coverage, seminars, discussions. Hospitality. I went there for the Finnish films.

The Finnish Model

Scepticism… on the other hand, who else but Finns would dare to launch a festival for documentaries? Right now, Finns are experiencing a golden age; a lot of high quality films are being made, and international recognition is evident. It is all due to a strong collaboration between filmmakers, YLE, Finnish public television and the film institutions. Not only the internationally reputed YLE TV1, with Eila Werning, and YLE TV2, with Iikka Vehkalahti, have broad slots for documentaries. FST, the Swedish language channel also has a documentary profile, as does the new YLE Teema Channel. The AVEK foundation with changing commissioning editors is another very important player as is, of course, the Finnish Film Foundation. But if it weren’t for the talented filmmakers – what would be the point in a small country that doesn’t have an enormous documentary-filmmaking budget?

Markku Lehmuskallio

Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio

Let’s go back to the day before, to the opening night at the Rex Cinema. Festival and film director Arto Halonen, onstage in front of a packed auditorium, salutes colleague Markku Lehmuskallio who is given a Lifetime Achievement Award for his impressive work that has essentially opened our eyes to the life and culture of the indigenous people of the North. The awards ceremony was followed by the world premiere of Mothers of Life; which Lehmuskallio made with Anastasia Lapsui, herself a Nenet. Nenets are the protagonists of the new film that includes stunning, almost metaphysically beautiful, 35mm images of the people and their reindeer. In the films jointly made by Lehmuskallio and Lapsui since the ’90s, they have always focused on legends and myths in their depictions of daily life. Lehmuskallio chapters his stories and refrains from a classical, narrative structure. I asked him why. “I don’t really know. It just comes like that. Maybe it is because I never attended film school!” Lehmuskallio’s films have been shown all over the world. “Except for the North Pole”, he says.

Made by Filmmakers 

Although it might be an old-fashioned concept word from way back in the sixties, solidarity is the word that comes to mind in trying to describe the prevailing festival atmosphere, thanks to the initiative of the filmmakers. Arto Halonen (director of films like The Star’s Caravan) and his colleagues introduced the films and led the discussions in the festival café. And I will never again assert that Finns don’t talk! They like to discuss films, at least.

That was also one of the main reasons for the founding of Elephant Films Ltd. two years ago. Located in a big loft, it houses six of the most prominent directors: Arto Halonen, Visa Koiso-Kanttila, Timo Korhonen, Anu Kuivalainen, Kiti Luostarinen, John Webster – and a seventh member; Georg Grotenfelt, who does not work in this venue.

Visa Koiso-Kanttila.

“We felt kind of lonely in our work,” says young Visa Koiso-Kanttila. “In documentary filmmaking you are always on your own, even if you are working for a producer. You are struggling with all the ethical, economical and practical questions. So we all felt like meeting other colleagues to discuss our work, art and life. In Elephant Films we have a lot of discussions and support each other on scripts and in the editing process. In legal terms we all have our own companies, and for films (on national issues), we hire a freelance producer and make the films at our own company. We have all had our difficulties with real production companies. For instance, I have directed films where I didn’t know the size of the budget. On the other hand, I would never hesitate to go to one of them, if I had a bigger production involving foreign funding.”

This creative model is not copyrighted!

Film and Filmmaking That Heal

The Kiasma auditorium was packed for the screening of I am Writing to You Down Here on the Earth by Jaakko Virtanen, who has made an excellent, courageous and touching film about his own traumatic childhood when he lost his father and mother in close succession. The film – which must have been rather therapeutic for the filmmaker – is built on two pillars. Under hypnosis the director recalls situations from childhood that are put into a visual context by public and personal archive material. They are linked through the letters his mother wrote to Aunt Leena.

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