May 31, 2004

When All Helsinki Breaks Loose: Finland's DocPoint Festival Proves a Cinematic Winter-Warmer

From Mika Ronkainen's 'Screaming Men.'

Heading to Finland voluntarily in the middle of winter might seem a crazy move, but if your destination is the DocPoint—Helsinki Documentary Film Festival, you've got a good case for sanity. Now in its third year, the festival is capitalizing on the country's devotion to the documentary genre, and the home-grown talent that has made much of Europe sit up and take notice.

I first became interested in Finnish documentaries several years ago after catching Susanna Helke and Virpi Suutari's The Idle Ones, a visually stunning feature documentary that succeeded in making the aimless lives of a group of bored teenagers in Northern Finland utterly engrossing. At the Tampere International Short Film Festival last year, I was able to watch a retrospective of the pair's workin between the fantastic saunas and late-night drinking sessions that are a mandatory part of Finnish hospitality. Tamper has built a steady core of followers over its 34-year existence, and now includes a smattering of full-length docs in its program.

But this January in Helsinki, it was all about docs. In its short life DocPoint has proven a big hit among the locals, who, not surprisingly, are happy to get in from the snow to be captivated by true-life drama. Numbers this year were up significantly, with over 14,000 tickets sold during the four-day event, compared to 8,500 last year, and the four world-premiere galas attracting several hundred people per screening. Many of the screenings were followed by Q&As with both director and subject, but being conducted in Finnish with no translations, these sessions were a source of frustration for the limited number of international guests in attendance.

"I have never been so satisfied with my work as now...this festival...what I have done," enthused festival founder Arto Halonen, who leaves his role as artistic director this year to return to filmmaking. In the opening night screening Halonen told the assembled guests that he started the festival "to find connections where we can give and get."

He seems to have succeeded; alongside the festival program were a series of activities that embraced many sectors of the public. In a "Screenings for Schools" strand, primary and secondary school pupils watched a selection of films with a visiting film director and content specialist. In six schools the workshop was taken a significant step further as students made their own short documentaries on specific themes such as friendship, love and "differences." The festival's screening of the six school films proved one of the week's highlights, all the more enhanced by doc champion broadcaster YLE promising to broadcast the best student film, which this year was made by the most disadvantaged school.

Older students were treated to a workshop by international guests Peter Mettler (God, Drugs & LSD) and Christian Frei (War Photographer), in which the pair analysed their very different bodies of work. Both directors participated as part of the festival's partnership with Switzerland's Visions du Rel, the International Film Festival of Nyon. DocPoint screened a number of Swiss films, including highlights from the Visions du Rel's 30-year history. A pitching workshop run concurrently with the festival allowed producers to pitch to a panel of broadcasters from both Finland and Switzerland.

Like many exclusively documentary festivals, the film program proved somewhat hit-and-miss. The highest profile dud was the opening night film, Jouko Aaltonen's Ambassadors, which played to a huge sell-out crowd, including a number of dignitaries, but I failed to find anyone with anything good to say about it. The film follows the Finnish ambassador to India over a period of some months, during which nothing particularly unusual happens. In its careful propriety and discretion, the film failed to convey what many see as the strengths of Finnish documentaries: their quirkiness and unpredictability.

But there were many gems in the program of nearly 100 docs. An extensive Werner Herzog retrospective served as an ongoing reminder of the cinematic potential of the genre. The festival's lifetime achievement award went to Finnish veteran doc maker Pirjo Honkasalo for her varied and memorable body of work in both documentary and fiction. In her Trilogy of the Sacred and the Evil, made up of the documentaries Mysterion, Tanjuska and the Seven Devils and Atman (all screened at the festival), Honkasalo explores religions and the spiritual depths of humans. These three films brought Honkasalo various awards at international film festivals in the 1990s, including IDFA's Joris Ivens Award in 1996.

Finnish doc standouts premiering at the festival included Visa Koiso Kanttila's Father to Son, in which the director uses the occasion of the birth of his second son to confront his own estranged father, seemingly in cheerful denial over the impact that his dysfunctional fathering has had upon his children. Another treat was Klaus Haro's The Extra, an engrossing and surprisingly poignant portrait of a loner who escapes the isolation of his world by becoming a devoted cineaste and film extra. Equally enjoyable was Rajaseudun Poikamiehe (Borderland Bachelors), which follows two reluctant bachelors living in a rural Eastern Finland community with a scarcity of women.

The hugely successful Screaming Men also screened at Helsinki, about a week before its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Ex-Screaming Men member Mika Ronkainen's film uses split screens, ocean liners and plenty of Finnish humor to tell the story of Petri Sirvi, chronically tired and cheerfully caustic leader of the high-decibel band, in its second decade of screaming at bemused audiences around the world.

Rounding out the festival were a number of internationally acclaimed documentaries, giving the local population a chance to catch up on the best of genre's offerings, including José Padilha's Bus 174 and Leon Gast's When We Were Kings, as well as Nicholas Philibert's To Be and To Have and Jeff Blitz's Spellbound, both of which screened as part of the children's series.

 

Carol Nahra is a journalist and documentary producer based in London. carolnahra@homechoice.co.uk

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