While most Sydney film buffs were indulging themselves at the Sydney Film Festival, I was in the far north of Finland, officially known as Lapland, at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, so-called because the sun, such as it is, remains shining for 24 hours a day. About 100 ks above the Arctic Circle, June temperatures rarely rose above 7 degrees, but that didn’t stop festivalgoers donning their summer attire, and numerous hipsters, students and cinephiles wending their way north to stay in the camping ground or other digs for the duration. I managed to get shared accommodation in a school dorm about 1.5 ks away from the main action, which involved a reasonably pleasant walk through the Nillimella campsite and across the Kitinen river, which freezes over in winter but is swimmable in summer, to the local school, where a giant circus tent (Iso Teltta or big tent), seating 1500, has been erected along with a smaller tent (Pieni Teltta, or small tent) seating about 200. The school hall (koulu) is also used for screenings as is the local cinema, the Lapinsuu, a charming old-style cinema with posters from previous festivals and pictures of Finnish movie stars from the 40s and 50s in the foyer.
I shared my digs with Anssi Luoma, a 60 year old Finn who owns a small cinema in a place called Ylistaro in Ostrobothnia in Western Finland, where there is also an annual film festival, with a population of 5,500, who was described to me as a ‘swell guy’. He didn’t speak much English, but his alarm clock played Morricone’s theme from Sergio Leone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly, dutifully at 7 am every morning, although screenings generally didn’t start until 10. He knew I was from Australia, and managed to cite Dead Calm and The Man from Snowy River, but apart from that we weren’t able to communicate much apart from nods and smiles and the odd ‘terve’ (hi). But he certainly seemed like a swell guy, and had apparently won an award at the MSFF the previous year, when it had snowed. Sodankylä, ‘gateway to the great north’ and not far from the Russian border, has a population of less than 9,000, and is noted for its snowmobiling, as is most of Lapland, and the local language is Northern Sami, although the Sami population is only 1.3 percent. According to wikipedia, the town is also famous for ‘authentic and uncommercialised Husky, Reindeer, Skidoo and Santa excursions’. This year the film festival broke attendance records, with more than 30,000 paying guests, and the locals were out in force with pop-up shops, four 2nd hand vintage shops, and a local band with a female saxophonist playing film themes like James Bond, alternated with an accordionist playing to the queues for the big tent which wound in huge loops around the school courtyard.
The main curator of the festival for the past 29 years was Peter von Bagh, a film polymath in Finland, who sadly died at 71 in September last year. He was an academic, film historian – the author of more than 40 books – publisher, chief editor of the Finnish film magazine Filmihullu, director of over 60 films for the cinema and TV – including the 261-minute Sodankylä Forever, a documentary consisting of interviews from the first 25 years of the MSFF originally broadcast on Finnish television, and in 2010 published as a book, later translated into English – as well as a television presenter, and one of the most distinguished figures on the Finnish film scene for over fifty years. He was also a specialist in the visual arts and popular music. His book on world cinema – never translated into English – inspired the Kaurismäki brothers to take up film making, and they have been present as members of the committee at the MSFF every year. His book on the films of Aki Kaurismäki has been translated into numerous languages, but not English. The MSFF story goes that in 1985 a Finnish film director, Anssi Mänttäri, found himself in Sodankylä in November in total darkness, drunk out of his mind, and had an epiphany at 4 am – what a great place to have a film festival! And who better to suggest it to than the Kaurismäki brothers in Helsinki, who asked von Bagh to be festival director, and six months later MSFF volume one took place. Ever since, international directors have guested at the festival – this year the main guest was Mike Leigh, whose Mr. Turner was the people’s choice, and had a re-screening at the Lapinsuu at the end of proceedings. A brief film re-cap of highlights of this year’s festival shown as a curtain-raiser included a still of a wasted-looking Aki Kaurismäki deep in conversation with Leigh – what I wouldn’t have given to overhear that exchange! Leigh joined in the spirit of the festival, which is really an anti-festival in many ways – by introducing Secrets and Lies in the big tent by saying he thought directors who gave long speeches introducing their films should be shot. There is an apt quote from Claude Chabrol in 1992 on the flyleaf of Sodankylä Forever saying ‘I hate film festivals. The only exceptions are the Midnight Sun Film Festival and a certain Cognac festival. Here I feel I am among friends, among people who love cinema’. One of the main festival rules is no digital projection wherever possible, only 35 or 70mm celluloid. Aki Kaurismäki is quoted saying ‘Film is light. Digital is numbers’.
Fittingly the 30th edition kicked off with a day-long celebration of Peter Von Bagh, which included rare screenings of some of his early films, such as the 1968 short Pockpicket, a hilarious reversal of Robert Bresson’s classic Pickpocket in which the wealthy protagonist tries to sneak banknotes into people’s pockets and handbags around Helsinki. Probably the most internationally well known of von Bagh’s films is the ‘city poem’ Helsinki Forever, a 2008 documentary celebrating Finland’s capital city through a montage of sequences from films set in the city, including some of the Kaurismäkis’. This is his standard method, using sequences from the history of Finnish cinema, of which he has an extensive knowledge, having been the director of the Finnish Film Archive, to build up an impression of an era. His only fiction feature, The Count, a 1971 black and white portrayal of a famous Finnish serial Don Juan who was engaged 68 times and served a prison sentence as a result, was screened on 70 mm in the Big Tent to great acclaim, as were a number of his documentaries.
The main event for me had to be the 70mm restored version of Vertigo, voted the best film ever made by the critics of Sight and Sound, for which I sat in the front row of the Big Tent. (A trick I soon discovered was that front row seats were invariably reserved for VIPs who didn’t show, so no point in queuing, just grab a VIP seat!) One result of this almost overwhelming exposure to Vertigo was being able to hear aspects of Bernard Herrmann’s music I had never heard before, such as little organ touches, and a harp sequence. I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times already, but it never ceases to reveal its mysteries. A similar screening was done for Kubrick’s 2001, but I’m rather over that – waiting for the hyper-psychedelic star gate sequence would have been interminable. Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala was also given the full treatment. Other highlights included the Serbian film No One’s Child, the first feature by Vuk Ršumović – already a winner at last year’s Venice Film Festival – a powerful study of a boy ‘raised by wolves’, found in the forest by hunters and transported to an orphanage, before being transferred to Bosnia, drafted by accident into a war, and eventually retreating to live among the wolves. Set in 1990s Yugoslavia, its political allegory is plain, as is its debt to Truffaut’s 1970 Wild Child, which was also shown at the festival, but as No One’s Child clashed with an over-subscribed discussion with Mike Leigh, few were able to benefit from the comparison.
New films are hardly a priority at MSFF, although Finnish film made over the past year tend to be highlighted – the emphasis is more on classics or obscure, neglected films, such as the ‘Master Classes’ on Slovak cinema of the 1950s and 1960s curated by Olaf Möller, a lugubrious, pot-bellied German with a sharp wit, in the small tent, which proved to be surprisingly enjoyable. Less educational were the films of US director Whit Stillman, the only American among the distinguished guest directors, who specializes in films about obnoxious over-privileged young Americans in European cities, such as the 1994 Barcelona, or in the US, such as 1998’s The last Days of Disco. I got stuck in a sneak preview in the small tent of the pilot for his new TV series, un-ironically called The Cosmopolitans, about a bunch of US yuppies trying to make it in Paris, where the director now lives. I’ve met so many ghastly Americans just like these in so many European cities I just want to run out of earshot, and this film simply confirmed all my prejudices. They only ever listen to American music, and the only non-American character in this gaggle of over-educated morons is an Italian, who of course turns out to be the villain. ‘Charming!’ commented one audience member – yeah, right. Unfortunately Finns seem to share the French obsession with the USA, but fortunately it is not so evident at the MSFF.
As with most film festivals, one gets to miss a huge number of films – on this occasion, because some were screened at 3.15 in the morning, which is fine in theory as it’s still light, but after 15 hours of watching films there are some limits to one’s endurance. I didn’t see anything by the other guest directors Malgoraza Szmowska, a Polish woman, Miguel Gomez, a Spaniard, or Nils Malmros, a rather serious-looking Dane, but I did see one by the German director Christian Petzold, The State I am In (2000), a moving study of a teenage girl on the run around Europe with her clandestine political militant parents in the 1990s. Forced to wear horrible clothes for security reasons, she tries to make some kind of life for herself through her own clandestine activities with a boyfriend. The film is misleadingly compared in the program to Sidney Lumet’s 1988 US film starring River Phoenix, Running On Empty, but it’s much better than that. It turned out to be Pezold’s first film, and I look forward to seeing more of his work.
Anther TV miniseries, this time by a Frenchman, and set in Normandy, Bruno Dumont’s 2014 Li’l Quinquin, was a sheer delight. The eponymous protagonist, a pre-teen country wide boy with a hare lip on a bike, with a ravishingly beautiful girl friend called Eve, who rides shotgun and plays trumpet in the local band, are the catalysts for a totally bizarre series of murders involving people chopped up and put inside dead cows, a farmer drowned in his sludge tank, and a teenage girl singer (Eve’s sister) devoured by pigs. A Moroccan boy who commits suicide as a result of racist taunts injects a note of seriousness into events, as a bumbling, twitching detective and his deadpan sidekick attempt to find the murderer without success, and we are introduced to a panoply of bizarre local characters and events. It should be too over-the-top to work, but somehow it does. Dumont normally specializes in austere, solemn philosophical films, so this one is totally out of left field.
As one would expect, there were lots of Finnish films, including a rare 1989 Aki Kaurismäki television adaptation of Sartre’s play Les mains sales (Dirty Hands), with his favourite actors, the late Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen. It’s all rather wooden, and Pellonpää is totally unsuited to the role of the protagonist, whose code name is Raskolnikov, although Outinen makes a good fist of her part, and the director gets a laugh when he appears as a gauche henchman clutching a machine gun. This was followed by a documentary about the making of Kaurismäki last film, Le Havre, which includes a hilarious account of the entire Finnish cast and crew turning up at the Cannes festival preview of the film clutching cans and bottles of alcohol, and not winning any awards. ( As von Bagh commented in an interview with Cineaste, ‘we went to festivals only to learn what pitfalls to avoid’). There’s also a screening of the unsuccessful film Kaurismäki made in London, I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), based on a story idea by von Bagh, with Jean-Pierre Leaud and Joe Strummer, but that was a 3.15 am screening and I was in the arms of Morpheus. Mika Kaurismäki was represented by a new hour-long documentary about him by Juho Suomalainen, in which he comes across as an engagingly cosmopolitan character who has lived in Brazil and made numerous music documentaries as well as a diverse range of feature films. Never as well known as his younger brother, despite mentoring him, he is shown directing his latest and first period film, The Girl King, about Queen Cristina, in Turku castle, a rather risky looking multi-national European production. He also recounts how his 1985 film Rosso, set in Italy and freely adapting Dante, in which the lead actor, Kari Väänanen, learned Italian for his role as a Sicilian assassin, was filmed from frozen cans of film stock retrieved from the fridge, with the length of each film strip determining the length of shots. Kaurismäki also learned Italian during the film, and there is a hilarious excerpt from the press conference in which both lead actor and director speak Italian while Aki Kaurismäki mis-translates them into Finnish and an English translator gets totally lost. There was also a 3.15am screening of Rosso, but I had already seen it on DVD.
Other more recent Finnish films included The Grump, which is already something of a Finnish franchise –originally a series of radio plays, then novels, and now a film by noted director Dome Karukoski. The film was seen by half a million people – one tenth of the population of Finland – in the past year, and deals with a cantankerous old farmer who hurts his leg and comes to the city to stay at his son’s house. His daughter-in-law, a successful businesswoman, has to bear the brunt of his carmudgeonly habits, which eventually cause destructive results. The film comments pointedly on city lifestyles, mod cons, eating and driving habits, while the grump embodies the good old rural values of no nonsense clean living. It’s a tad sentimental, and the grump inevitably goes back to his farm and is reunited with his comatose spouse, but the film satirises contemporary urban values and the lead actor, Anti Litja, in his fur hat, is likeable enough, especially in a sequence where he beguiles a group of Russian visitors and unwittingly helps his daughter in law clinch a deal with them. Absolution, a Finnish-Irish co-production by Petri Kotwica, the director of Black Ice, featured Kiia, a church organist and choir conductor, who hits something with her car on her way to the maternity ward. Her husband, the local Lutheran priest, claims it was a deer, but Kiia subsequently discovers it was a person, whose wife she befriends in an attempt at retribution. Her husband’s hypocrisy is dealt with severely, and the situation lead to another crime – all set in beautiful Finnish countryside. The main Irish input appears to have been in Stephen McKeon’s music, but it is good to see small nations collaborating like this, and hopefully Absolution will get a wider release.
Black Dog on My Shoulder, a mixed metaphor of a title for a ‘lost’ film by none other than veteran director Anssi Mäntäri, shot in 2009, is part of the director’s ‘death trilogy’, although the second part, Resurrection, was shown in 1985. Mäntäri also edited the film, wrote the screenplay, and plays the lead role of a hard drinking jazz drummer whose grand-daughter relates to him far more easily than to her middle class parents. His brother Asko wrote the music. The film begins with a rather elderly jazz quartet playing in a bar – piano, vibes, drums and sax, and the saxophonist suddenly instigates a free-form solo, walks out of the venue into the night, still playing his sax, and then shoots himself. He is replaced by a straight talking trumpet player who objects to ‘playing shit’, while the drummer protagonist, also a singer in Louis Armstrong style, goes into something of an identity crisis. The film moves around some of the notable jazz haunts of Helsinki, which contributes considerably to its atmosphere, as the band struggles to keep going, and the drummer acquires a hotel cleaner lover, whom he installs in the sax player’s old apartment. After something of a Dante-esqe descent into Helsinki’s depths, he eventually disappears on to a hotel roof after a gig. The rest of the band chase after him, and he throws his newly-acquired hat into the night, saying ‘you can’t blame a man going after his hat, can you?’ He then disappears over the edge, and the film finishes on a freeze frame of his grand daughter getting off the ferry in Denmark. An intriguing film, but the Q&A was in Finnish.
Speaking of multi-European co-productions, a recent article in the Guardian about this year’s Cannes Film festival commented about the fact that many European and non-English speaking directors now seem desperate to make films in English, as it is the main language market for films, in what used to be called ‘Euro puddings’, where accented European actors speak bad English to little effect. To counteract this – perhaps – came Goya, or the Hard Way to Enlightenment, a 1971 East German, Soviet Union, Bulgarian, Yugoslav co production, an epic film about the Spanish painter, made in Russian and shown here with only Finnish subtitles! Or perhaps Jean-Jacques Annaud’s French-US 1988 co-production The Bear, set in Canada, and also shown in the big tent on 70mm, with very little speaking at all in it, apart from the bears’ grunts, growls, squeals and groans, in which a huge male grizzly defeats a duo of hunters and their dogs in what may have been a bit much to bear in Finland, a nation of avid hunters.
There were more fun aspects to the festival too, including a sing-along screening of Prince’s film Purple Rain, in which the audience were led on by a Finnish Prince travesty, and a Finnish film karaoke session, both of which filled the Big Tent with rapturous crowds. There were also screenings of silent films, Jacques Feyder’s The New Gentlemen a 1929 French comedy restored by la Cinémathèque Française and accompanied by the Helsinki-based Avanti! Orchestra, and Frank Borzage’s 1929 Lucky Star, a Hollywood melodrama accompanied on piano by Antonio Coppola.
I have to admit I fell asleep towards the end of the final screening of Mr.Turner, but as I stumbled back to my digs at midnight on Sunday, marvelling at the houses and trees reflected very cinematically in the water of the Kitinen, as someone who dislikes film festivals generally, I had to conclude that this unique event, which has now been running 30 years, is one of a kind anywhere in the world. Thank you, Anssi Mäntäri, Peter von Bagh, and everyone else involved in this event.
Photos by: Santeri Happonen, Saana Kotila, Juho Liuk.