Les États généraux du film documentaire 2007 Doc Route: Finland

Doc Route: Finland

If Finnish documentary filmmakers are often present in international film festivals, they owe it, in addition to their talent, to the rather favourable situation for documentary in the country which is sufficiently rare to warrant a little explanation. Finland boasts a quality public television service that produces a number of films in good conditions. The Finnish Film Foundation, the equivalent of our French CNC, also finances documentaries and promotes them abroad. The cinema school, the Helsinki University of Art and Design has had a documentary department since 2003 directed by Kanerva Cederström. Finally, the DocPoint festival founded by a group of filmmakers and producers in 2002 attracts a wide audience. All the conditions seem to be united to create a current of quality documentary cinema. The possible paradox is that the concentration of production conditions creates influences which risk inducing a certain formatting.
It is a special experience to go off in discovery of a country’s cinema especially when, beyond the films themselves, one discovers connections which reveal a part of the country’s history and cinema. A partial history of course, a subjective snapshot which does not allow us to explore everything. We must not forget the importance of filmmakers not represented in this selection: the Markku Lehmuskallio couple and Anastasia Lapsui as well as Lasse Lokarrinen.

In 2004, we had a first look at Finnish documentary cinema through the work of Antti Peippo, one of the founding figures and whose influence remains strong, transmitted from cineast to cineast. His films showed a lasting interest for the tormented history of his country, short narratives where archive materials (films, photos, drawings) were prominent. Usually commented via voice over, the images were submitted to explicitly verbalised observations, analysis and associations.
In his final film, shown again as part of the opening of this programme, Antti Peippo, fatally ill, exhumed the personal suffering which had never ceased haunting him and expressed a cathartic analysis of a family history which he had, up to that point, kept distant from his cinema. Proxy, a film testament, had a profound impact on its viewers. This film resonates like a heritage in the double meaning of a burden and a promise, of a family connection and a rupture, a double movement, a recurring double point of view in contemporary documentary cinema and which refers back also to the history of Finland, marked as it is by division and separation.

Death, disappearance, the autobiographical story are at the heart of Lilli and of Durochka, portraits of dead women directed by two woman students from the cinema school; each film, in its own way, tries to fill a lack, repair a sense of guilt in the face of these tragic destinies. Another portrait of a hurt woman is Saana where, in her first film, Mervi Junkkonen comes to terms with her powerlessness facing the rare disease which is gnawing away at Saana, the only one able to find remedies to calm her pain, and makes a film at her side, as she will also do with Aarne. Another way to give a place to a character. So Near Yet So Far introduces the series of films where the filial relationship is tested, recalling the past revisited by Peippo; or how a whole generation seems to have inherited the traumatic event of the Second World War, the forced exile of thousands of children to Sweden to shelter them from the bombings. In a classical television form alternating interviews and archive images, War Children allows us to take the measure of this traumatic episode.
The history of Finland appears schizophrenic. A territory disputed for centuries between the Russian and Swedish empires, it was handed from one to the other following one war or another to finally obtain a late independence during the Russian Revolution in 1917, followed by a short and a violent civil war. During the Second World War, the country opposed first the Soviet Union, then Germany. This period was marked by a succession of conflicts and reversals whose torments seem still present. It is as if the new generation could only find its emancipation by confronting the preceding, in a settling of accounts where each side has difficulty understanding the suffering of the other. The points of view are necessarily separate but their confrontation is equally necessary. Manipulated cinema, the staging tool appropriate to family disputes, becomes the outlet for things left unspoken between the generations. Child in Time evokes the confrontation between father and son in an artificially closed space. Father to Son also uses direction techniques which recall the interrogation mode of the previous film. The father seems to respond with an apparent emotional indifference which pushes the filmmaker to near rage, but the former constantly reminds his son of his own incapacity to articulate, and the filmmaker of his own incapacity to allow a place for the other who stands accused. It started well is just as expiatory. The filmmaker’s mother is also accused of abandoning her child but her body, speaking and resisting, provides the conscience of the film and appears to be struggling with her own history, and – after all – it is her history. What these films reveal is the resistance of the character to the imagined filmmaking strategies. Like a lesson to meditate on the documentary dead end that consists in wanting to have total mastery over everything and the desire to “fictionalise” everything.
This is perhaps where the influence of a montage cinema emerges, allowing authors to order the telling of their story where a strong affection for the tale, mystery and poetry is affirmed. The films of Kanerva Cederström initiate these fictionalised stories mixing archive images, fiction and reality as if the desire were to create a dreamed life. Two Uncles takes up the fictionalised autobiography with the theme of the departed and Haru recounts the insular adventures of a couple of Finnish artists whose texts and Super 8 films make up the raw materials of the film. The words and writings of the character provide the narration, like in the very beautiful portrait No Man is an Island that Sonja Lindén paints of her father, another insular exile, another gesture of transmission but with no regrets, no confessions, with a great deal of love expressed in her way of looking, with no distrust finally. The gesture is shared. A question of balance in this documentary cinema which often calls on fictional techniques: highly prepared shooting script, carefully perfected light and image, suggestive music, inscription within the story. A very present voice over often communicates a part of the story, to the point of dispossessing the characters’ bodies of their own voices which are rarely in sync. The impression is one of a mistrust of the Real, a refusal or a prudish reticence when it comes to directing and communicating a relationship.
This highly perfectionist filmmaking in the service of the story characterises very well the cinema of the two co-directors Susanna Helke and Virpi Suutari who describe attentively and with restraint Finnish society. Even when the story is the rather unsavoury daily existence of a gang of kids in a small provincial town, without much future outside of walking up and down the asphalt strips that melt into the greying landscape of a winter forest: always with distance, like a restrained pain, a repressed violence. In the same vein we can place Erkko Lyytinen with The North Star which follows a group of employees in their extremely restrained but nonetheless obstinate struggle against the closing of their factory, and John Webster with What Comes Around which accompanies the first steps of a young policewoman in a police station. The Purge not only completes a social portrait of Finland but on the contrary seems to cause the machinery to break down. The risk of looking too long in the mirror is finally to become self absorbed and Erkko Lyytinen, who relates the looting and expulsion of a Rom family, timidly constructs a complicity with the young daughter of the family to finally take a firmer stand, that of the risk of a relationship, a reduced distance, a handing over of power over the word.
Risk to the point of excess, this is where some films find a fantasy which can flirt with cliché but where eccentricity can collide with liberty to challenge the conventional ways of filming and where the filmed characters take on their full density in the film. We can find visions where fiction and reality merge (like the marvellous Love is a Treasure by the artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila). The three tales Trekker, Lost and Found and Meet you in Finland Angel, where vitality mocks reality, allow us to imagine how to recover a smile during the endless night of a depressing white landscape.

Guests : Invités : Virpi Suutari (directrice artistique de DocPoint – Helsinki Documentary Film Festival, réalisatrice et journaliste), Susanna Salonen (réalisatrice).
Remerciements à Jari Matala (DocPoint), Kanerva Cederström (University Of Art And Design Helsinki), Marja Pallassalo (The Finnish Film Foundation), Satu Laaksonen (The Finnish Film Archive).