Espoo Ciné International Film Festival 2015 Espoo, Finland by Tony Mitchell


Espoo (pronounced Espo) is the second largest city in Finland, situated on the shore of the Gulf of Finland and highly reminiscent of Canberra, with an artificial lake and fountain adjoining swimming pools, and mostly modern buildings scattered around. Its population is just over half a million, and it is the base of several major companies, including Nokia Solutions and Networks and Microsoft, who took over Nokia a couple of years ago. It’s just west of Helsinki, less than 20 minutes drive away, but like a completely different world. The area contains large amounts of natural wilderness, particularly in the city’s western and northern portions, a national park, and a staggering total of 71 lakes, the largest of which is Lake Bodom. The metal band the Children of Bodom derives its name from an unsolved murder which took place there, in northern Espoo, in 1960.

On summer evenings, young people sit around with a beatbox drinking beer outside the Espoon Kulttuurikeskus (Espoo Cultural Centre), where the film festival is screened in two auditoriums, and where there is also a public library. Concerts are held here featuring the Tapiola Sinfonietta along with other musical events and theatre performances. About a kilometre away is the Kino Tapiola, a pleasant old-style cinema which has a terrace and a bar. The name Tapiola comes from the forest spirit mentioned throughout the Kalevala, and is the tile of Sibelius’ last work. Further away is the WeeGee Exhibition Centre, an art gallery where free outdoor screenings take place – this year Casablanca, in recognition of the centenary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth, and Chocolat, with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche.

One of Espoo’s main personalities was the prominent crime writer Leena Lehtolainen, who lived there from1989 to 2000, before moving to the country, and received the Espoo City Award of Arts in 2000. She was also general director of the Tapiola Choir from 1988 to 1990. An expert on figure skating, she published a book entitled The Enchantment of Figure Skating, which was voted sports book of the year in 2010. Her crime novels featuring the red-headed detective Maria Kallio, who becomes the head of violent crime at the Espoo Police Department, are very popular in Finland, and have sold rights in 29 languages, although English is lagging behind, having published only three of the thirteen books in the series through Amazon. Her books have also been adapted for Finnish television, and a number of them are set in and around Espoo.

Espoo Ciné International Film Festival has established itself as a showcase for modern European cinema in Finland. During the 10-day festival over 100 feature films, most with English subtitles, are screened to an arthouse audience in the three different locations (plus another two in the regular multiplex cinema in nearby Leppävaara) with attendance figures over 25,000 each year. It’s a relatively low-key event, with a few guests – this year Anglo-Italian documentary maker Kim Longinotto and British maestro Peter Greenaway, now resident in Holland, whose Eisenstein in Guanajuato, which also screened at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, is the closing film. The director of a new documentary about Ingrid Bergman, Stig Björkman, is also present. The official opening film was Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, which has just opened in the UK, with powerful performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtnenay playing a couple in their 70’s in Norfolk undergoing a crisis in their relationship, playing to a hushed full house.

The English film Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the first world war, has already been seen in Australia, and was another highlight here. A much weirder, spookier film made in Britain was the Danish movie Bridgend, a first feature directed by documentary film maker Jeppe Ronde, set in the eponymous county borough in Wales, formerly devoted to mining, where there has been a teen ‘suicide cluster’, almost all by hanging, which has never been solved. As of February 2012, there were seventy-nine known deaths since January 2007, which have never been explained. There have been no suicide notes. Bridgend is not far from Swansea, home of Dylan Thomas, whose ‘Death shall have no dominion’ features briefly in the film. Already the subject of a US documentary by John Michael Williams, the suicide epidemic in the area, which is picturesque in some respects, has continued to be a conundrum.

In Ronde’s film, Sara, a teenage girl (Hannah Murray, Cassie in Skins, and also in Game of Thrones) moves to town with her policeman father from Bristol, and becomes involved with the locals, who appear to be part of a suicide cult, hanging out down by the lake, where they drink, smoke dope, swim and engage in rowdy memorial rites. They also contribute to an internet messageboard about the suicides, for which Sara is eventually given the password. She also becomes involved with a local vicar’s son, whom she persuades to leave town and go to Bristol with her, before he turns against her. There is a brooding score by French electronic producer Mondkopf, which maintains the mystery, but the film never suggests a cause for it, while hinting fairly heavily at complicity among the group. Slightly reminiscent, in atmosphere at least, to the TV series Les Revenants, Ronde did research and interviews for the film over a six-year period, and the result is gripping and convincing, even if it veers off into fantasy territory towards the end.

It’s great to be in a Hollywood-free zone for once, although the fascinating Romanian dramatised documentary Chuck Norris vs Communism, produced and directed by London-based Romanian sisters Mara Adina and Ilinca Calugareanu, a first-time director, showed all the hallmarks of Hollywood anti-Communist propaganda. In trying to make out that illegal public screenings of films by Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee and other US action heroes in the 1980s contributed to the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania, it got onto some pretty dodgy territory. Financed by Sundance Films and HBO, with executive production by RatPac Documentary, a partnership featuring James Packer, it will no doubt find its way to Australia. The main protagonist of the film is a shy and discreet Irina Nistor, who had single-handedly dubbed 3,000 films by 1989, at an average 7 per day, once doing 10 in one day. She dubbed all the actors’ parts into Romanian herself, often substituting American swear words with bland Romanian expressions, with the English soundtrack playing softly behind, as thousands of VHS copies were then dubbed off and sold to eager punters all over the country. Sometimes when dubbing was done by other people, the films were regarded as inauthentic, which demonstrates what a loyal following she built up. The entrepreneurs involved were Teodor Zamfir, a shifty character who was lauded as a capitalist hero, and shrewdly sold off the business in 1992, and Mircea Cojocaru, who was revealed to be a Securitate (secret police) officer, but since most of the Securitate were watching the films themselves, no action was ever taken. The only time Nistor was called in by the Securitate was after she had dubbed Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, as religious films were particularly taboo under the regime, and a couple of priests contribute to the interviews.

And virtually the only non-Hollywood film among the whole tawdry bunch of action films was Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, which had been banned in a number of countries, including Italy, where I once attended an illegal public screening in Rome. The quality of the videos was often so bad that audiences had to imagine what was happening in parts of the films, but what impressed them, as interviews with groups who attended screenings together revealed, was the flash cars on the streets and the shops full of consumer products, rather than the antics of the action heroes. It certainly made a change from what was presented to them in the propaganda news, and there was what the director calls ‘the shared experience of watching films in a dangerous and underground space’, but to suggest that these films led directly to the downfall of Ceausescu is complete nonsense. One punter was reminded of Ceausescu, who burned down churches in Romania, by the Hollywood version of Nero, the Roman emperor, who fiddled while Rome burned, but that was about as far as it went. I am not trying to claim that life under Ceausescu was anything but disastrous and oppressive in the extreme, but to suggest that Chuck Norris and Sylvestor Stallone were catalysts for revolution is patently absurd.

The highlight of the festival for me was another dramatised documentary, May Allah Bless France! featuring Strasbourg-based Congolese-French rapper, slam poet and author Abd al Malik (aka Régis Fayette-Mikano), a remarkable character who converted from being a petty thief and drug dealer, ‘a good student by day and a juvenile delinquent by night’, to Islam in 1999, after growing up with six brothers and his mother, a solo parent, causing French journalists to accuse him of links with terrorism. The film won the international critics prize at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival. He’s the only rapper I’ve ever heard refer to Derrida and Deleuze in his rhymes, and he devoted a whole theatre piece, later televised, to French author Albert Camus. He also directed the film, based on his autobiographical memoir, and began his career in the group NAP (New African Poets), along with his brother Bilal and his cousin Aissa, and other French-African guys from the Neuhof quartier of Strasbourg, going solo in the early 2000s. Although the lead part is played by an actor, Marc Zinga, who came from the theatre, he does a fantastic job, even performing some of the raps (with English subtitles), which are really intelligent, often accompanied by a very classical-sounding solo piano.
The music for the film was written by the director’s older brother Bilal and the French techno musican Laurent Garnier, and the film was edited to the pre-composed music. Régis’ wife Nawel, a singer of Maroccan origin, played by Sabrina Oazani, also plays an important role in the film.

With a double major in Philosophy and Classical literature, Abd Al Malik is also involved in a project fighting functional illiteracy in France, and part of a breed of highly educated French-African rappers which started with MC Solaar, who deserve much more media coverage than the US do-dos like Kanye West we tend to get saddled with. The author of three books and four solo albums (and another four with NAP) and winner of numerous music and literary awards in France, including the French chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, he demonstrates that hip hop can be an active agent for social change, literacy and education, setting an example for African and Arab migrants of the French banlieues who are still struggling to be recognised as French citizens. The film shows another side of Islam that puts all the recent negative publicity surrounding Charlie Hebdo into perspective. Fayette-Mikano was encouraged by the director of La Haine (1995), Matthieu Kassovitz, now 20 years old, to make his film, and there are certain similarities, not least in its black and white photography, and the director says his film ‘picks up where La Haine left off’. But although he regards La Haine as ‘the first movie where a filmmaker actually wanted to show a tough neighbourhood from both a loving perspective and an artistic approach’, he thinks it is not from ‘an insider’s persepctive’. He was also influenced by Italian neo realism, especially Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers.

Another surprisingly good music documentary was Matt Reid’s Between Dog and Wolf, named after the latest album by Yorkshire post-punk group New Model Army, who have had a consistent cult following for the past thirty years, although their lead singer Justin Sullivan is the sole remaining original member.
They also have a strong following throughout Europe, especially in Germany, where they are highly regarded for their live performances, rather than album sales, and when I was in Bratislava in the late 1990s shortly after its split with the Czech Republic I was surprised to see a New Model Army club there. They were also one of the only groups ever to play live in Top of the Pops in the 1980s, and were generally mocked by the British music press for wearing clogs, one of their trademarks. Between Dog and Wolf is a Medieval French expression meaning ‘dusk, the time of day when you can’t tell if that shape moving through the trees is your hunting dog or a wolf’, and the album was their first to chart in the UK Top 40 Album Charts since The Love of Hopeless Causes in 1993, peaking at No. 34 in October 2013. Sullivan, who has one of his front teeth missing, comes across as a surprisingly congenial character, and the band’s name derives from Oliver Cromwell’s army. Despite having had strong political lyrics in their early days, they were always left out of leftist ventures such as Red Wedge as they were regarded as too disreputable, and some regarded them as rather right wing in their affiliations. They were formed in Bradford after Sullivan moved there in the late 1970s to go to college, and their mentor right from the early days was Joolz Denby, a noted British crime writer, tattooist, photographer and spoken word artist, who still lives with Sullivan although they have never been romantically involved. She did the illustrations for Between Dog and Wolf, and has been an unofficial sixth member of the group, with often fractious relationships with other women involved with the group.

Another very sociologically-oriented French film was Standing Tall (La Tête haute, which actually translates as Head High),the opening film at this year’s Cannes Festival, starring Catherine Deneuve as a juvenile court judge dealing with an extremely volatile delinquent abandoned by his mother to the court at an early age (Rod Paradot, a former woodwork student), over a ten-year period. Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot, it was described by Variety as ‘less group-huggy than Lean on me or Stand By Me’, and ‘unlikely to cause a stir outside France’, despite Deneuve’s ‘matronly appeal’, which is putting it both mildly and insultingly provincially. The film is infinitely superior to similar Hollywood mush in portraying the juvenile justice system in France and cuts a swathe through any suggestion of sentimentality when the boy appears, baby in arms, at the judge’s office for a farewell.

French films were in high profile, including the powerful Eastern Boys (the actual title), directed by Robin Campillo, which won best film at the Venice Film Festival and has already screened in Australia, about a gang of youths from Russia and Eastern Europe who hustle at the Gare du Nord in Paris. The focus shifts to one in particular, who has undergone trauma in Chechyna, and who is cultivated by a middle aged gay man. The man subsequently undergoes a home invasion by the mates of the boy. Campillo is a Maroccan-born director who wrote the excellent school drama The Class, as well as writing and directing the film which was the basis of the superior French zombie TV series Les revenants (The Returned).

Each year the festival focuses on a particular country, and this year it was Austria, and in particular Ulrich Seidl, whose documentary In the Basement was shown at this year’s Sydney Film festival, along with a doco about the director making the film. It shows what goes on underground in Austrian people’s houses, from secret fascist gatherings to S&M rituals, with perhaps the freakiest sequence showing a woman who keeps a life-like doll of a baby in a cardboard box in her cellar, whom she wakes up in the morning and talks to lovingly. Also shown was an Austrian vampire comedy which was actually funny, Therapy for a Vampire, by David Ruehn, in which Sigmund Freud has to counsel a Lord Dracula-like character, while a young artist is embroiled in a vampire drama with a femme fatale. Freud takes ‘dream pills’, which he discovers have a use-by date of 1900, and it’s all decidedly silly, but stylishly good fun for late-night viewing. It’s also got a high-calibre cast, with German actors Tobias Moretti and a grown-up David Bennent (he was the boy Oskar in The Tin Drum).

Wim Wenders’ first feature film in seven years, Everything Will Be Fine
a German-Swiss-Norwegian-Swedish- Canadian co-production filmed outside Montreal, Canada, in 3D, and written by Norwegian Bjørn Olaf Johannessen, was a bit of a curio. Starring James Franco as a writer who is the unwitting cause of a collision with a sled which kills a child in the snowy countryside, it also has Charlotte Gainsbourg in an excellent performance as the victim’s single mother. The film recounts a story which jumps over several years in a period covering 12 years as the writer become famous and is eventually pursued by the victim’s older brother. It’s a reasonably involving drama, but it’s a mystery why it was filmed in 3D. Dégradé (a layered haircut) is set in a women’s hairdressing salon on the Gaza Strip, where the unlikely-named Tarzan Nasser, who also directs with his brother, Arab Nasser, plays a character who steals a lion from the zoo and is hounded by Hamas. While having superficial similarities to the Lebanese film Caramel of a few years back, it’s rather more confused, as it jams a series of female characters into a hot, stuffy, confined space and creates a chaotic drama involving a pregnant woman about to give birth, a young woman about to be married, along with her female parents and in-laws, a religious woman in hijab, the Russian owner of the salon, a gossipy chatterer with a drug problem who at one stage suggests they form an all-female government and assigns roles to everyone, and a couple of divorcees. Although not as bad as Variety maliciously claims – ‘clunky, cliché-ridden … neither a glimpse of real lives in Gaza nor a cri de coeur against the Occupation, this exaggerated drama, shot in Jordan, will profit from a few fests eager to declare their pro-Palestinian sympathies’ – it is confused, and the lion plot rather ridiculous.

The Grandad (Afinn) is an Icelandic film based on a stage play by its director, Bjarni Haukur Thórsson, about an elderly gent facing retirement (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) who enrols in a philosophy course at the University of Iceland, and is a mildly amusing comedy without rising to the heights of recent Icelandic films such as Of Horses and Men or Metalhead. Stand is a Russian film by French-born director Jonathan Taib about Moscow’s gay subculture which has already been screened at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival
Beginning with a gay couple who avoid getting involved in a gay bashing they witness from their car, it ends with Anton, who has become so obsessed with tracking down the perpetrators of the crime that he becomes the object of a gay-bashing himself. A highly topical film, shot so clandestinely we are often not shown key points in the plot development, it is a highly courageous venture. Another Russian film that really impressed on the opening day, and has already been screened at the Sydney Film Festival, was Corn Island, George Ovashvili’s second film
a co-production between Georgia and the Czech Republic. Set in Abkhazia, a partially recognised disputed territory controlled by a separatist government on the eastern coast of the Black Sea and the south-western flank of the Caucasus, Georgia considers it as its territory. The tiny island which an elderly peasant and his adolescent grand daughter, who speaks only Abkhazian, begin to cultivate, thus becomes something of a symbolic place, with war going on a round them and a motor boat containing four armed Georgian soldiers passing every so often. The island lies in the Inguri River, which forms a natural border between Georgia and the republic of Abkhazia, where secessionists broke away and reclaimed this segment of the country for themselves, brutally driving out the Georgians in the process. The characters are never named, and it is 20 minutes before a line of dialogue is spoken, but it is a quietly poetic film following the rhythm of their work. The grand daughter arrives with a rag doll, obviously a remnant of her childhood, which she eventually abandons and attaches to the wall of the small cottage they build from scratch. Soldiers across the water try to flirt with her, and when an injured soldier is found amongst the corn plants the grandfather takes him in without question, even though the Georgians are looking for him. The fugitive engages in playful contact with the grand daughter, although they cannot communicate, and after the corn harvest, the odd couple are driven off the island by a heavy storm, which destroys everything and floods the area. The film ends with another farmer arriving on the island by motor boat the following year and finding the rag doll. As Variety put it in its crude, cryptic telegraphese: ‘far too slow for mainstream viewers … rewards patient auds with an unparalleled bigscreen experience’. It won the main prize at the Karlovy Vary festival in the Czech Republic, and is the Georgian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards.

Another very curious film was Zurich, by Dutch woman director Sacha Polak
which tells its story in reverse, starting with part two. It begins with an arresting image of the protagonist, Nina (Wende Snijders), who has crashed her car into a river, confronted by a live cheetah, which is never explained. Nina has lost her truck driver partner to a crash into a motorway barrier – apparently suicide – and wanders the highways of Europe getting into sexual liaisons with other truckies, and eventually becoming involved with a German truckie with two kids. Visually outstanding, the film is a trifle confusing, but nonetheless impressive. Another film with a troubled female protagonist is A Blast
by Greek director Syllas Tzoumerkas, set during the recent financial crash and featuring a manic, voracious performance by the star of Dogtooth, Aggeliki Papoulia. Maria, who is married to a frequently absent sea captain, and has three children, abandons her studies to manage the grocery store run by her wheelchair-bound mother, only to discover that she is heavily in debt. The film moves at a frantic, disconnected, and often confusing pace, as Maria negotiates the financial bureaucracy with other economic victims, but Papoulia’s performance lends some consistency of focus to a sometimes dizzying film. The Spiderwebhouse (Im Spinnwebhaus)
already shown at the Melbourne Film Festival, is a German feature in black and white which has similarities to Ian McEwan’s early novel The Cement Garden, filmed in 1993 with Charlotte Gainsbourg, although in this case the parents do not die. Directed by Mara Eibl-Eibesfeldt, in the film, which is based on a true story, 12 year-old Jonas is abandoned to look after his two younger siblings by his mother, who says she is going to a ‘sunny valley to fight her demons’. Estranged from his father, who lives separately, Jonas and his younger brother and sister turn the house into a cave-like dwelling where they play with beetles and cultivate spiders, while Jonas forages for food with the help of a young derro who claims he is a count, and shows Jonas how to survive on the streets. The kids manage to conceal their situation from neighbours and an inquisitive Kindergarten teacher, until Jonas discovers his mother is actually in a mental asylum, and things start to unravel. The MIFF included a study guide for young people over 12, presumably a survival kit for kids with absent parents.

As well as being the second-last day of the film festival, Saturday August 29 was also Siivouspäivä, or, Cleaning Day, a recycling carnival held twice a year, turning neighborhoods and cities into flea markets. Anyone can set up a stall in public or in their back yard, as long as they register online and abide by the rules. A number of people had stalls around Espoo, and there were even a couple of people inside the Cultural Centre selling second-hand DVDs.

The Ingrid Bergman documentary, despite being in Swedish with Finnish subtitles, had enough English and Italian to be comprehensible, with Bergman’s daughters and son with her three husbands all being interviewed. Despite her occasional neglect of her many children, moving from Sweden to Hollywood to Italy and then to France, London and elsewhere in Europe in pursuit of her career, they all have positive things to say about her, and were clearly as charmed by her charisma and beauty as we are by this luminous person. Their main complaint was that they could ever get enough of her. The film uses rare unpublished letters Bergman wrote, mainly in Swedish, and includes a scene in which Isabella Rossellini, Liv Ullmann and Sigourney Weaver, who worked with Bergman as a young actress in London in a Somerset Maugham play directed by John Geilgud, talk about her inspiration. Ullmann’s film of August Strindberg’s 1888 classic three-hander Miss Julie, which she re-locates to Ireland, is something of a mixed blessing, with outdoor embellishments simply extending the action unnecessarily. With a strong performance by Colin Farrell, and Jessica Chastain in the title role, it is dragged out to over two hours, in what amounts to a very lengthy Midsummer Night’s Eve, and never becomes anything other than a filmed play in which every t is crossed and every i dotted, even to the point of showing Miss Julie’s outdoor off-stage suicide. Perhaps it’s just the difference between theatre and film, but audiences are used to ellipses, hints and suggestions which drive narrative economy, and here everything is spelt out, with actors having to deliver long monologues.

The final film and main event of the festival was Peter Greenaway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato, a Dutch-Mexican-Belgian-Finnish co-production, introduced by Greenaway and a long trail of Finnish co-workers, who included the lead actor, who comes from Finnish theatre, Elmer Bäck, and co-producer Liisa Penttilä. The film also received funding from the Finnish Film Foundation, and parts of it were shot in Finland, but co-production was turned down by Russia, allegedly on the grounds that the central revelation of the film is a homosexual episode between Eisenstein and his Mexican host Palomino Cañedo (Luis Alberti). However, they have agreed to support the sequel. This gay encounter appears to be backed up historically, at least by the fact that Eisenstein produced a number of gay erotic drawings, reproduced in the film. Bäck gives an over-the-top performance, with Eraserhead-style hair, speaking accented English throughout, and has to reveal all, physically and emotionally, as well as vomiting and shitting, in a rather tiringly hyperactive role. The film is crowded with cameos from famous people from Mexico, Hollywood and the USSR – every time someone is mentioned a photo flashes up – including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who disappear so quickly at the film’s beginning it’s easy to miss them – and endless streams of dialogue in which Eisenstein recounts his unsuccessful time in Hollywood, and his attempts to create a project there with the help of Charlie Chaplin and others. We never see him directing a film, although he shot more than 50 hours of the unfinished ‘Que Viva Mexico’, which he was not allowed to complete, as his financer Upton Sinclair confiscated the footage, and Greenway combines all kinds of split level and Abel Gance-styled three screen effects which become dizzyingly difficult to keep track of. It’s a hyperactive film in every sense, which uses all kinds of Mexican death imagery, as the Russian director explores sex and death in Mexico. Clips from his classic films are used, and even Greenaway’s own voice-over documentary-styled commentary laces the beginning and end. Never a dull moment, although some scenes are surprisingly static when dialogue takes over. In his live intro, Greenaway, now in his 70s, who seems to be turning into a letter-day Ken Russell, said ‘it’s great to see a packed cinema! I’ve said in the past that cinema is dead’, as well as criticising Putin and Russia – St. Petersburg is only 90 minutes away from Helsinki – and revealing that his Eisenstein project was becoming a trilogy, with two prequels to be added. Obviously he’s on a roll, and the film is opening in Helsinki next week, but it is a rollercoaster ride I was happy to get off, and climb on to the over-crowded 007 free bus back to Helsinki on a rainy night with a declamatory comic driver who kept making loud pronouncements which I could not understand.



About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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