Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Perkele! - Finnish Documentary Films at Year 10.

Today the 10th Helsinki Documentary Film Festival DocPoint starts. I've been anxiously waiting for the festival, because this will be the first time I will be able to attend it. I'm looking forward to seeing films like I'm Still Here, Hoop Dreams and Lemmy - more on which later on. But one of the most important films the festival accomplishes each year is to take a look on the back catalogue of finnish documentaries. Our country produces brilliant documentary films each year - more than can be said of our fictional film industry, although that may be getting better as well. This year, DocPoint brings retrospectives to documentary directors such as Pekka Lehto. Inspired by this, I will do a small look on recent, 2010 Finnish documentaries myself.

The Steam of Life (Miesten vuoro)
Directors: Joonas Berghåll, Mika Hotakainen

The Steam of Life has been an audience favorite at Finland. It has a reputation of being a film which makes even grown men cry, and not without merit. The film takes place solely in a sauna environment, where men of different ages and backgrounds discuss their lives. It seems that the finnish male, who has a reputation of being quiet and withdrawn, really opens up in the steams of a sauna. The men in the film are not bashful of talking about even the most painful things in their lives, and showing their emotions too. But if one thinks of this as a mere tearjerker, one is mistaken. Like any good film, The Steam of Life succeeds in having also scenes of hilarious life stories, tongue-in-cheek joking, pure joy and angry resentment of the wrongfulness of life.

The film resembles a little the recent documentary Kansakunnan olohuone, which took place in the living rooms of finnish people. Similarily, regular people opened up their shells and talked and lived their life right in front of the camera. In The Steam of Life there is more camerawork and editing, which makes me suspect that the talking has been rehearsed and having been done in multiple takes. Nevertheless, it does have an aura of genuinity and like any good films, manages to stir emotions. I do admit of having a lump in my throat by the end.

Freetime Machos
Director:  Mika Ronkainen

Freetime Machos is a good companion piece for The Steam of Life. It concerns a group of rugby players in a Northern Finland team located in the town of Oulu. Now, many sport films would chronicle a bad team's rise to the top. Not so in here. The Freetime Machos begin and end as a shitty amateur rugby team. But in fact this film is another study of mascuilinty and a portrait for the finnish male. The sport team is an excuse, a thread which ties men of different ages and backgrounds together. The players are young and their talk is down and dirty in the film. Yet as the documentary goes on, the men start to grow from boys to men. They get into serious relationships, have children and get their stable jobs and houses. The team is a channel for thier mascuilinty because they are quite domesticated at home. But there are a lot of disappointments ahead too, break-ups and lay-offs go hand in hand with their defeat on the sport field. This is a film about the finnish Sisu, or guts. The men have true cojones to keep on trying even when it all seems hopeless. In the end of this film people get results from it.

Interesting is the film's emphasis on sex. The men do a lot of jokes about gay people and there is a clear homoerotic subtext in the film. By the end the confused young ones find heterosexuality and also openmindness to accept other sexual leanings. The characterization of the people in the film is good and one can reflect familiar types inside the film. Yet Freetime Machos can also be repetitive and even mundane, because other films do its job even better. Nevertheless, the film is well wrth a look.

Ito - Diary of An Urban Priest (Ito - Seitti - Kilvoittelijan päiväkirja)
Director: Pirjo Honkasalo

Honkasalo is the most internationally accalaimed documentary maker and she does do her films clearly to be international. So her films lack a finnish viewpoint to start with, which is not a bad thing considering the subjects she tends to choose. Ito is a story about a japanese ex-boxer turned buddhist preacher Yoshinobu Fujioka. He is also a barkeep and the mixture is not so crazy as it may seem. After all, one of the duties of a barkeep is to listen to the problems the customers may have. Kind of like a priest may have.

So like the other finnish documentaries, Ito features people openly speaking about their personal lives and problems in front of the camera, occasionally breaking to tears. There is clearly a trend in the finnish documentaries to have open conversation about lives and concentrating on the people speaking and not trying to illustrate the stories with some stock footage. The emotions on faces will do just fine and tell a lot more. But Ito doesn't concentrate on the millions of stories Tokyo has, but on just one, the story of Fujioka. He gets a lenghty scene where he is discussing with his boxing sensei about his life's recent developments, and he also breaks into tears on gratefullness on the guiding of his boxing life, and the acceptance of his new choices. Honkasalo is a stylish director, keeping herself to the background and having wonderful cinematography and inventive connections within the stories. She seems to also understand the japanese mentality and the importance of traditions in the culture and brings this up neatly too.

Reindeerspotting - Escape From SantalandDirector: Joonas Neuvonen

I think they switched this one for the DVD cover because it was too scary and graphic for children
Reindeerspotting was one of the most talked-about films in Finland in 2010, and it broke multiple attendance records for documentary films. A large part of the discussion was about the rating, which the Finnish Film Board in their infinite wisdom put to No Children Under 18 Allowed, even after multiple complaints. The film in question chronicles the life of drug users in the Northern Finland city of Rovaniemi. It does feature scenes of graphic drug use, but the interest is in the depiction of the drug-addicts life going in circles and not having a way out. It isn't like most anti-drug films in that it doesn't over-emphasize the downsides and the hungover feeling of taking drugs. So it could've been a good anti-drug info for highschoolers and wouldn't have been patronizing and ignorant like most of the study material they will get about the same subject.

The director Neuvonen used to shoot subutex with the main characters and the film started with him just shooting stuff with a loaned camera. The idea of developing the material into a full film has only sprung up later. For such an amateur principal photographer/director, the film is nothing short of a miracle. Most of the credit must go o the editing room, for the film's editing works like a charm. Yet Neuvonen also catches great shots of weird situations such as a reindeer race in the middle of Rovaniemi, during which e of the addicts falls from a balcony. There are occasionally futile attempts for artistic shots like shooting through a mirror, but mostly Neuvonen maintains an utilitarian, interesting viewpoint that captures what his eyes see in his daily routine.

From the daily rat race of shooting up and doing petty crimes to finance the drug habit, the main character Jani dreams of a better life. He hates his home town and wishes for a better life somewhere else. In the film's Rovaniemi, the police can't help any drug addicts, only slow them down. In the circles of the drug addicts, a best friend can turn into a homicidal worst enemy with the bat of an eye. Even if you think you can settle all debts and grudges, new ones will arise for confusing reasons. Towards the end Jani gets his wish of leaving Rovaniemi because he succeeds in stealing a large sum of money. At his trip through Europe there is genuine happiness on his face and some promise that things may be getting to be better after all. But Jani doesn't get rid of the drugs even though he promises, and thus his past life will come back to haunt him for it. It has been sad to learn that the main character has since died in mysterious circumstances in Far Asia. But there is some comfort in knowing that Jani died abroad, where he was truly ahppy, and not in the small Northern Finland town he so much hated.

RIP Jani

Reindeerspotting is the only one of the films presented here that gets a screening during DocPoint. If you are present and haven't seen the film yet, do yourself a favour and check it out.

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