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Helsinki Watch: DocPoint Celebrates Ten Years of Nordic Nonfiction

By Gabriel Paletz

Perhaps it was from celebrating the festival's 10th anniversary through the rousing rituals of a sauna, ice swim and night of Finno-Balkan beats, but the DocPoint Festival, which ran from January 25 through 30, in both Helsinki, Finland, and Tallinn, Estonia, made a wry virtue of Finnishness. Witness the welcome letter from Executive Director Leena Närekangas and Artistic Director Erkko Lyytinen to festival guests:

"The Finno-Urgic bloodline obliges us to behave in a peculiar way. Our way of expression is stiff and brief...[In the Q&As] don't get depressed if there is not exactly a rain of questions right from the beginning. That is because of our national norms...we just need a little bit of time to get the conversation going!"

This self-awareness was also evident off of the page. Following a screening in Tallinn of Bohemian Eyes, a new documentary on Finnish actor Matti Pellonpää, who shone in the country's films of the 1980s and 1990s, director Janne Kuusi waited for the audience to ask questions. With no takers, he encouraged the Estonian crowd by saying, "Don't be so Finnish."

Droll self-awareness and concerted promotion have made documentaries of two-sided appeals. Last year the two most popular festival films, Reindeerspotting (Dir.: Joonas Neuvonen) and Steam of Life (Dirs.: Joonas Berghäll, Mika Hotakainen), illustrated the potential of Finnish documentaries to be externally accessible while opening new angles on native life, whether drug abuse in the north of the country or the intimate histories of the land's less prominent, male gender.

Following last year's success, this year's Finnish documentaries were presented with a frank judgment of local accomplishments, as described in the festival's "Report from the New Finnish Documentary Films": "The best submissions were excellent but there were not many in the top class...[and for student films] It was even harder to identify unique, solid works of art...Some unique short films, such as Elina Talvensaari's How to Pick Berries, stood out positively."

Talvensaari's short, which has screened at Venice and other festivals, portrays the tensions between Lapland locals and the Thai workers who come to pick berries in the woods. The professors and students of the documentary department of Aalto University's School of Art and Design explained at our screening that while the film can be placed among debates about guest workers, Finnish audiences see the irony in the townspeople's complaints about foreign laborers, given the ratio of forests to the population.


From Elina Talvensaari's How to Pick Berries.



Among popular selections such as Exit Through the Gift Shop and Inside Job, a master class with Stefan Jarl, a session on the Congo, and a career tribute to Pekka Lehto, as well as the first accompaniment of Jean Painlevé's underwater studies by a Finnish rapper and music group, the section of Finnish classics revealed continuities with contemporary docs that led to fresh contemplations on Finns and documentary's role in national life.

As Närekangas and Lyytinen noted in their welcoming letter, the famous Finnish reticence is loosening among the younger generation. Yet Finnish documentaries are distinguished by the ways they have overcome varieties of silence and absences. For example:

When filmmaker Antti Peippo was dying of cancer, he used tilting movements on archival and family photos, drawings and paintings, with concise remembrances to resurrect his childhood in Sijainen (Proxy; 1989), in which he recalls his mother "smothering some words on the way home from school: ‘I hope you'll die soon.'"

Where there were no family records, filmmaker Johanna Vanhala used Super-8 footage from other families to illustrate her childhood memories before her separation from her mother, as the end title tells us for her short Voitko Rakastaa (Could You Love?; 2010).


From Johanna Vanhala's Voitko Rakastaa (Could You Love?).


And following a long separation from her father, filmmaker Anu Kuivalainen edited shots of her trip to visit him, with non-synchronous recordings of her discussions, anxieties and attempts to make contact, concluding with his brief message on her machine, and a glimpse of him in long shot at the doors of a station in Orpojen joulu (Christmas in the Distance; 1994).

Even with onscreen drama, as in the trials of vacuum-cleaner salesmen in Pölynimurikauppiaat (Suckers; Dir.: John Webster; 1993), restraint in behavior leads to effective and "hilarious moments of Finnishness" (in the words of the festival catalogue), as when a salesman asks a widower to play his accordion before pressing his wares. The national manner can also inspire filmmakers by necessity. In Marja-Sisko (Dir.: Reetta Aalto; 2010), neither the Church where the protagonist works nor a transgender association would speak on camera about her gender-correction surgery. So the director turned the reflections of her character, which was meant only as preliminary research, into the film's non-synchronous commentary.

While the absence of talking heads may be characteristic of regional, rather than only Finnish documentaries, the lack of the convention illustrates a range of relationships between image and soundtrack. How to Pick Berries blends the townspeople's voices without showing them onscreen, so their criticisms of the foreign workers acquire the force of community prejudice. While the women of Auf Wiedersehen, Finland (Dir.: Virpi Suutari; 2010) recall their flight from their homeland with the Germans who were their country's allies, the film shows them in old age braiding their hair, lying on their beds or lifting weights. Although the film includes the story of one man, the son of a Finnish woman and German soldier, his story blends with the women's into one tale of reversal, rejection and a difficult return.


From Virpi Suutari's Auf Wiedersehen, Finland.
From Virpi Suutari's Auf Wiedersehen, Finland.



In the most memorable Finnish documentaries, stylistic ingenuity in overcoming the absences of people or the past matches a strong responsibility to the material, or as director Suutari asked, "What is the truth you are trying to find and how do you get at it?" She and her crew shot super-8 footage to convey the women's passage out of Finland to Germany, to mirror the material shot by American soldiers from the end of the war. Rather than manufacturing a false continuity, this decision becomes evident when the son of the German soldier is filmed with his mother in Super-8, as if their stories have become part of history through their testimonies on camera. Such strategies recall essential questions of documentary: how re-creations and the catalyst of the camera can evoke experience, with respect towards the subjects who share it.

In ten years, DocPoint has provided Finnish documentaries with a base for successful distribution in theaters. Since 2003, the number of festival attendees has more than doubled, to over 30,000 this year in Helsinki and Tallinn combined. Since last year, it has become the only documentary--and perhaps only film--festival to attract full houses simultaneously in two capital cities. It has brought connoisseurs of documentary to Finland and the Baltics--in January--and continues to preserve the region's nonfiction film heritage. For example, DocPoint paid for the print of Suckers to be transferred to DigiBeta and subtitled for its festival screening.

Across the documentary field, there has been a growing convergence with the aesthetics and distribution practices of fiction films. Liisa Lehmusto, who worked at DocPoint from 2003 to 2010, notes in her article for the leaflet "New Finnish Documentary Films 2011" that "the word ‘documentary' was not even mentioned" in the marketing materials for Reindeerspotting, Steam of Life and Vesku from Finland, the country's top three nonfiction box-office successes of last year. This fusion of forms may be accelerated by the recent collapse of public broadcasting in Europe, including the Finnish YLE, which, according to producer Liisa Juntunen, has not financed a work for over a year. While the backing of both the Finnish Film Foundation (SES) and Centre for Audio-Visual Culture (AVEK) gives Finnish documentaries more support than in other European countries, filmmakers still seek new outlets of distribution, such as Juntunen's work on the board of the distribution organization Film Contact (at present only in Finnish).

One hopes documentary ethics will not fade in the remaking of its art. In Finland there is less likelihood of losing this dimension of empathy, as it remains part of a self-conscious modesty, and of filmmakers' sense of how they bring people's experiences to light. Documentary's foundations will then be refreshed in Finland, by a competent, punctual, at times conversationally-challenged, but altogether decent people, freed at this year's festival by sunlight, saunas and Balkan beats.

For further information about the Finnish documentary community, here's an article from the February 2006 issue of Documentary magazine.

Having covered most of the major European nonfiction festivals, Gabriel M. Paletz teaches documentary and screenwriting at the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic. Among recent work, he has co-programmed the original series “Documentary and the City” for this summer’s edition of DokuFest in Prizren, Kosovo.