Finnish documentaries are highly visible in the European film landscape and for good reason. The genre is respected and celebrated in its own country where filmmakers, television and funding bodies collaborate.

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

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.

I Am Writing You Down Here on Earth

After the screening, Virtanen extended his thanks to persons like veteran documentarist Lasse Naukkarinen whose Miina! was another of the festival’s strong doc events. When in hospital, Virtanen saw the portrait of the wonderful but also very fragile woman who is in constant conflict with the authorities because they accuse her of neglecting her cows, cats and dogs. The director felt that this urge for freedom, which Miina represents, had a healing effect on him… and the next day he left the hospital.

It is a small and very warm and gentle masterpiece that Naukkarinen has made out of his close knowledge of the protagonist. When shown on YLE TV2, it attracted a viewing audience of 600,000!

Cleaning Women

Since several of the films at the festival have already been reviewed or otherwise mentioned in DOX – The Idle Ones by Susanna Helke and Virpi Suutari, Blatnoi Mir by Jouni Hiltunen, Three Smiths by Pekka Uotila who was also the cinematographer behind Earth by Veikko Aaltonen – there is a little more space to highlight the refreshing and humorous Cleaning Up! by Rostislav Aalto and the touching Three Wishes by Klaus Härö. The two young directors demonstrate the diversity of Finnish documentary today. Their films have a light, direct approach to their themes, which was naturally appreciated by a festival-goer who had just spent hours watching powerful films with a heavy narrative pace.

The Idle Ones

Swedish language documentary Three Wishes deals with hospitalized children who are seriously ill and demonstrate an enormous power in handling their life situation, whereas Cleaning Up! is a music documentary that follows a band of three male youngsters travelling to dark cellars in the Baltic States. There is absolutely no sign of vodka and caviar on the tour, and the three do their shows dressed like women playing on instruments from the cleaning world, like a clothes rack. The camera and microphone capture the dreams of their lives to perfection, exuding a self-irony about their careers reminiscent of early on-tour Beatles films. It is real fun.

Always on a Sunday

Apart from Lehmuskallio’s films on indigenous people in the North of Russia and the two good TV documentaries from the same country, Sabine Forsblom´s warm and thoughtful The Good Person of Saint Petersburg and Seppo Rustanius Accusations against the Utopian, all the Finnish films dealt with Finland and Finns.

So did Kai Nordberg´s Journey into Light about couples in therapy, a very insisting and universally relevant film from today, and The Real Estate Agent by Timo Korhonen about a man who always has to work during weekends, but never loses faith and optimism when he is out there trying to sell houses with his constant cell-phone contact to the world of potential clients – and to the family who suffers from his absence.

‘How can one make interesting films about such subjects,’ I was asked, back from the festival. See for yourself, look to Finland.

Yes, Kai Nordberg, it was a success.

Markku Lehmuskallio was born in 1938 and became a forest guard in 1963. Interested in photography, he was encouraged by a friend to buy a 16mm camera and started making documentaries for Finland TV. Together with Anastasia Lapsui, of the Nenets people, he made In Reindeer Shape Across the Sky, 1993 Paradise Lost, 1994 The Farewell Chronicle, 1995 Anna, 1997 and Seven Songs from the Tundra, 2000.

Most recent films:

2001: Mothers of Life
2001: Shepherd

 


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