The Helsinki International Film Festival (HIFF) or Love and Anarchy, as it is better known, after the Lina Wertmuller film of 1973 starring Giancarlo Gannini and Mariangela Melato, set in Fascist Italy and dealing with an abortive attempt at Mussolini’s life, has turned 30 this year. There’s been a bit of celebration, with a season of films, including the eponymous Wertmuller film, at the local Orion Film Club, plus a couple of books in Finnish. (Love and Anarchy also screened on the main film channel here, Teema & Fem).) I’ve yet to discover why Love and Anarchy has become the festival’s title, but I’m working on it. The festival seeks to screen films that would not otherwise be seen in Finnish theatres, and apparently started out as a very DIY and alternative event, although that has passed, and it mainly now gets films from Cannes, Venice, Toronto and the other festivals leading up to it. In fact this year’s had quite a few films that were in in the Sydney Film Festival, such as the Canadian film Maudie which I reviewed earlier this year, and the US film Patti Cakes, with its Australian white trash rap star, which has just opened in London and Sydney, so some films are already quite familar. Now that the other main film festival here, the Espoo Film Festival, has changed its dates from July-August to May, and it’s not part of the summer schedule any more, we have to do with this, which only allows media representatives to see three films a day.
I missed the opening day, which was devoted to a gala screening of Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By My Name, a gay love story set in 1980s Italy, based on a novel by Andre Aciman, but given Guadagnino’s abysmal earlier film A Bigger Splash, with a speechless Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes singing the Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue (‘I am not fucking my daughter!!), I was quite happy to miss it. I began my rations with a documentary about John Coltrane, ‘Chasing Trane: The Coltrane Documentary’, which was written and directed by John Scheinfeld, who previously made ‘The U.S. vs. John Lennon’ which I didn’t bother to see, and ‘Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)’ which I avoided like the plague. I was soon scratching my head when some rather dodgy characters started turning up in this film, like Bill Clinton, who was decidedly lightweight as a jazz critic, and John Desmore, the drummer of the Doors, who looked like he’d strayed in from a bad acid trip. By the time that professor Cornel West had finished clowning around, there was little hope left for the film, with even Wynton Marsalis being entrusted with serious critical comments, and only Sonny Rollins, dressed in a bright red outfit complete with nightcap, which almost destroyed any credibility, left to make a plausible impression. Although the film dealt with Coltrane’s time in Miles Davis’ band, and kicking his drug addiction, and the lead up to ‘A Love Supreme’, as well as ‘My Favourite Things’, it never showed him actually performing these tracks, using them more as incidental music. Although the film was better on Coltrane’s family life, and especially the women in his life, we never really got the message of Coltrane’s genius because he was never allowed to play for long enough without some idiot interrupting him. The words of John Coltrane are spoken in the film by Denzel Washington, and authorisation was obtained from the Coltrane family estate, along with unlimited access to his recording output, but it’s a wasted opportunity, as we just don’t get to see enough of Coltrane playing.
This festival seems to specialise in Italian films, because apart from Guadagnino, the most recent Italian genius was also on display, namely Jonas Carpingnano, who grew up in Rome and New York, and who specialises in loose, documentary-styled films about Romani gypsies and African migrants in the south of Italy. His first feature, Mediterranea, surfaced at Cannes in 2015, and I haven’t seen it yet, but it focused on African migrants in Italy, while his second film A Ciambra is about an extended family of Romani gypsies in Calabria, the Fortunati. He has also acquired Martin Scorsese as a producer, so he must be doing something right. Pio Amato, who played a minor role in Mediterranea, now takes on the main role, as a 14 year old hustler learning his trade as a thief and making money for his family, which he gives to his mother, the family matriarch, a formidable woman, when his brother and father are put into custody for stealing electricity. His friend from Burkina Faso, Aviya, also surfaces from the previous film, having now settled in a migrant camp in Gioa Taura, Calabria, and they work together, although Aviya wants to steer clear of anything that will get him deported, and ends up teaching Pio a few lessons along the way. Pio is completely lacking the racism which infects his family when they deal with the Africans, and the friendship between the two is quite genuine. The film deals with some big issues, such as the death of Pio’s grandfather, who reminisces at one stage about the days when they were all against the world and had no bosses, and Pio’s sexual awakening, organised in a very matter-ot-fact way by his elder brother, but Pio’s biggest stuff-up is when he breaks into the house of a wealthy family who know the Amatos, is caught with a computer and has to make a public apology. He manages to live this down eventually, and moves on to other scams such as stealing luggage from trains. The film has a non-Italian cinematographer, Tim Curtin, who shoots a lot at night, and uses a lot of hand-held camera, and the music by Dan Romer is very emphatic on dance beats, and despite its rough edges, the film is another example of Italian neo-neo realism in which ‘Italians’ appear as characters among gypsy and African characters. A Ciambra, which developed out of a short film into a full length feature, the director explains, ‘is a sort of favela on the outskirts of Gioia Tauro in southern Italy, the town where I live. For the past 20 years, it has been solely occupied by the Romani community’. The final credits of the film show the Amato family in all their multiplicity, spreading like tentacles all over the screen.
Another ethnic minority featured in the festival is the South Sami, who number only 500 people, in Swedish Sami director Amanda Kernell’s debut feature Saamelaisveri (Sami Blood), another film which also appeared at the Sydney Film Festival, where I missed it. Unfortunately I had to see it here with Finnish subtitles, which meant I missed most of the storyline and all of the dialogue, but the delightfully tiny South Sami star of the film, Lene Cecilia Sparrok, who has now travelled most of the way around the world promoting the film, was on hand to answer questions in English. She explained that, as a person taking over the responsibility of reindeer herding in her tribe at the beginning of the film, she was actually too small to kill a reindeer, and her story is actually focused on denying her Sami identity, which happens to a lot of Sami women. The story is set in the 1930s, when the protagonist, Elle Marja, decides to pursue an education and go to Uppsala, rejecting her incredibly strict and disciplined Sami school, and turning her back on her Sami heritage. Her sister, on the other hand, stays with her Sami inclinations. Elle Marja changes her name to Cristina, and has to endure being forced to joik – traditional Sami singing – by her Swedish classmates. She also has to endure, as other Sami did, being measured physiologically, and stripped naked in the process. It’s a powerful, spunky performance, one worth the price of admission, and I only wish I could have understood more. With South Sami and Inari Sami rappers coming into the spotlight recently, focus on Sami people has never been more potent.
The Finnish gala presentation was Tokasitajuttu (Punk Voyage), written and directed by Jukka Kärkkäinen and Jani-Petteri Passi, a documentary film charting the the last years of the disabled Finnish punk rock band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät (or Pertti’s Name Day, or PKN), who retired in 2016, after competing in the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest. In the seven years PKN played, they performed around three hundred concerts in sixteen countries and became Finnish and international celebrities. The film is a follow-up to the 2012 documentary The Punk Syndrome, by the same writer-director team, which won the audience prize at the 2012 Sundance Festival and made something of a splash internationally, leading to the band’s celebrity. This second film was a celebration of the band’s retirement, as Pertti, the eponymous leader, had turned 60 and didn’t want to continue. I found myself sitting right behind the band and most of their entourage, and it was interesting to see their responses – mostly solemn and serious, and followed by speeches in Finnish and tears. The publicity for the film features a meeting between the band and Austrian trangender star and Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst in Vienna, although it was very fleeting, and the band did not make the final, which caused more tears, and their mongoloid drummer to proclaim ‘Fuck Europe, anyway’. A rather messy, schatological documentary, with lots of focus on farting, swearing and excreting, it was something of an ordeal, and although I wish the band well in their retirement, two films about them is rather excessive.
The other celebrity Finnish film featured was Tom of Finland, directed by Dome Karukoski, a current front-runner in Finnish cinema, although the film had already had its Finnish, European and UK releases, but it had a bit of a fanfare here with the actor playing Tom’s partner, dancer Veli, Lauri Tilkanen, doing a Q&A after the screening. It was good to see the film was so firmly grounded in Finland, with Finnish spoken predominantly throughout, given the popularity that Touko Laaksonen had in the USA amongst the hypermasculine leather boys of California of the 1970s and 1980s. Pekka Streng gives a sensitive performance as the protagonist, who specialises in homo-erotic cartoons which were also influenced by his encounters with Nazi culture. Some of his drawings eventually emerged as Finnish postgae stamps, and some are hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which suggests they may have survived their primary existence as gay pornography. The AIDS crisis disturbed him deeply prior to his death in 1991, and he gave up drawing for a while before deciding that celebrating gayness was the best way to combat AIDS. Laaksonen of course grew up during and after WW2, in a period when homosexuality was still criminalised, and his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), who was his closest confidante, disapproved of his ‘dick pictures’ and apparently still does, keeping the Laaksonen family very much under wraps. He enjoyed his celebrity in the USA, but lived in comparative secrecy in Finland, and the film is very much a biopic, presenting him as a modest fantasist.
Another film dealing with AIDS was Robin Campillo’s 1980s French docu-drama about the Paris branch of ACT UP, 120 Battements par minute (120 Beats per Minute), (the average heart rate), which is a confrontational film about transforming the French gay community into a group of social activists, and their conflict with the complacent drug company Pharma and Mitterand’s equally complacent government. Campillo co-wrote Laurent Cantet’s outstanding French film Entre les murs (Between the Walls, released in the English speaking world as The Class), based on and starring autobiographical novelist François Bégaudeau, which deservedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2008 and was one of the best French films of recent years. He also directed the 2013 gay drama Eastern Boys, and this film, co-written with fellow ACT UP alumnus Philippe Mangeot, is equally as vibrant and in-your-face as The Class, focusing on the slow death of the most charismatic activist, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, an Argentinian actor and one-time member of the New York Wooster Group), an immigrant from Chile, attended by his recent lover, Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is HIV negative, and his mother (Saadia Bentaieb), while tracing the meetings and disruptive activities of the group, which involve finger-clicking rather than applause, and throwing fake blood at their complacent targets – turning the River Seine red in one outstanding sequence. Effectively shot by cinematographer, Jeanne Lapoirie, who brings a real vitality to the group scenes, and edited by the director, it might be a trifle long at just under two-and-a-half hours, but there is a sense of urgency to it that propels it ever forward, with dance floor scenes showing these AIDS sufferers living it up to the hilt. Arnaud Rebotini’s electronic music is effective, and there’s also poignant use of the Bronski Beat classic Smalltown Boy. The film pre-dates the discovery of life-saving protease inhibitor treatments of the mid-’90s – deliberately so, as Campillo reveals in an interview that he was himself an ACT UP militant in the early 90s, and had prepared a boyfriend for his death, like the scene in the film.
Meanwhile, Laurent Cantet was back after having made several films outside France with a follow-up to The Class, L’atelier (The Workshop), also co-written with Robin Campillo, starring Marina Foi (Polisse) as Olivia, an established Parisian writer who is running a summer holiday writing workshop in a small working class Mediterranean town, La Ciotat, with a group of mixed race and gender students, all played by non-professionals. Although not as powerful as The Class, it is still an outstanding film, and on familiar ground, in which the student Antoine (Mattieu Lucci) draws attention to himself, making abrasive comments attacking Arabs and Africans, and antagonising his classmates. He then reads aloud from a piece he has written about a mass shooting on a yacht, which further antagonises his classmates, but draws Olivia’s interest, as she begins to investigate him. The class begins to focus on a joint project, a crime thriller set in the town, which focuses on its now defunct shipbuilding industry, which has become a place for reconditioning luxury cruisers. After Antoine criticises one of Olivia’s novels, which he reads a passage from, she expels him from the group, but then visits his home to invite him back. She then does some online research on him, discovering that he is a member of an extreme right wing group along with some friends. Her attraction to him is partly erotic, as she watches him taking his daily swim, and she rather foolishly invites him to be a guinea pig for her writing, an offer he eventually rejects. We have also seen him and his friends playing with a loaded gun, and he takes Olivia down to the shore line at gunpoint, a hostage situation which is eventually defused. I had problems sympathising with Olivia’s fascination, and couldn’t really see any connection to the current climate of fear in France, so was left rather disappointed with a film that initially showed promising similarities to The Class.
Another French film dealing with right wing views, Chez Nous (This Is Our Land) has a blonde character called Agnes Dorgelle (Catherine Jacob), who is clearly meant to resemble Marine Pen. Directed by a Belgian, Lucas Belvaux, who co-wrote the film with novelist Jerome Leroy, whose 2011 book Le Bloc explored some of the ideas and characters developed in the film, it was quickly denounced without being seen by members of the National Front. The US magazine the Atlantic Monthly called it ‘France’s most controversial film of the moment’ when it was released in February, just two months before the French elections, although the director stated the film was just about ‘populist discourse’ and was not a ‘militant film’. The website AlloCine was flooded by half-star reviews, all posted by new users, while the French press were not exactly excited by the film.
The protagonist is a single mother of two and a nurse, Pauline (Emilie Dequenne), who also cares for her aging father, a former Communist worker. She is enticed into standing for mayor in a fictional village by a respected doctor friend, Berthier (André Dussollier), a former fascist who helped her mother when she was dying of cancer, for a party called the National Popular Rally (a name apparently borrowed from a French pro-Nazi party of 1941). The party’s program is basically ‘France for the French’ and anti-immigration, although its supporters are trained to avoid referring to ‘Arabs’ and use the term ‘riff raff’ instead.
While Pauline, initially declaring herself apolitical, begins to be attracted to the role of mayor, even agreeing to have her hair dyed blonde for the party’s image, she also finds herself in a relationship with an old flame, Stephane (Guillaume Gouix), who has a history of racist violence, and is nicknamed Stanko, after his surname Stankowiak. Berthier warns Stanko away from Pauline, as he wants to maintain a sense of propriety in the party, and keep her image squeaky clean, as befits the image of the reconstituted National Popular Rally party, which is trying to attract the working class. (The Atlantic article is full of parallels with Trump.) Pauline’s father angrily disowns her when he discovers she has agreed to join the party, and her gradual discovery of her new boyfriend’s racism – on a mobile phone where he has taken pictures of her children – causes her to reject him, and the party, violently, where she is quickly replaced by another blonde mayoral candidate. Speculations about the film’s similarities to Le Pen – Dorgelle physically resembles her, and even takes over the party leadership from her father, as Le Pen did in 2015, are intriguing. Fortunately, the film didn’t unduly influence the election, although Le Pen still made a remarkable showing, and one of her Vice Presidents, Florian Philippot, actually saw the film, and announced that the director’s ‘class contempt’ was so complete that it could help win votes for the National Front!