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DISPATCH FROM FINLAND | Moviegoing at the Midnight Sun Film Fest

DISPATCH FROM FINLAND | Moviegoing at the Midnight Sun Film Fest

A one-hour flight north of Helsinki and 120 kilometers by road through softly rolling pine-covered countryside dotted with bracing lakes fed by rivers from which countless Reindeer drink, in the Lapland region of Finland well within the Arctic Circle, lies the small town of Sodankyla. In this place twenty-two years ago, celebrated Finnish filmmakers Aki Kaurismaki and Mika Kaurismaki decided to throw a film festival, one essentially dedicated to the worlds most influential auteurs and a celebration, Finnish-style, of their great contributions to world cinema.

Over the years, an impressive array of them have made the trek to this relatively remote region to present their work at the Midnight Sun Film Festival: Samuel Fuller, Bertrand Tavernier, Paul Morrissey, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Denys Arcand, Emir Kusterica have all been guests since 1986, and stories abound about Francis Ford Coppola and his genteel willingness to dance with everyone who asked, at an informal festival shindig in the woods; or Terry Gilliam who genially tolerated five days of socked-in rain, or Paul Schrader who found it very difficult to sleep in the one hotel which occupies the town’s main street.

Schrader had discovered, like so many visitors to Lapland before and after him, that when they say “Midnight Sun” they aren’t kidding around. For during the summer months in this region darkness never falls; broad daylight is the norm twenty-four hours a day. Following almost eight months of near darkness completely locked in snow and ice, the Finns look at this phenomenon as a great gift, an opportunity to live life to its fullest and make the most of every warm, precious minute. Sleep is widely viewed as a nuisance and an inconvenience. Throw in a typical festival-goer’s penchant for between-screening pleasure seeking and a screening schedule that stretches for a full twenty four hours, and a kind of painful ecstasy emerges.

The Midnight Sun Film Festival is compact, efficient, charming and rustic. Three screens are within easy walking distance of the bare bones host hotel where morning talks with visiting filmmakers occur daily, and the Festival Club sets up nightly rounds of beer, Korskenkorva (the local vodka, made from oats) and karaoke. From the Hotel Sodankyla, an army of kind and enthusiastic staff and volunteers keep the festival humming along, with several volunteers solely dedicated to hand drawing, then widely distributing, handbills and posters for the featured films of the day. In addition to the central single-screen “real” theatre, the festival makes use of the local high-school gymnasium filled with plenty of stacking chairs and in what has become somewhat of a festival tradition, an enormous big-top circus tent is erected in the parking lot, lined inside with acres of black cloth to block out the omnipresent sun. In all of these venues, 35mm is the dominant and preferred format with some video occasionally sneaking in here and there.

Midnight Sun Film Festival movie posters lovingly hand drawn by film festival volunteers. Photo by Christian Gaines

The program, thoughtfully curated by the multi-lingual and deeply passionate Artistic Director Peter von Bagh, is largely comprised of several retrospective sections that are the backbone of the programming, with featured filmmakers in attendance. Beyond these sections, an enormously popular nightly program of silent films with musical accompaniment (more on those in a moment), a perhaps predictable selection of new and classic Finnish cinema (although surprisingly well-attended), and some random but very good quality picks from the last few years in a section entitled “Gems of New Cinema.”

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami attracted the greatest attention. Von Bagh chose eight of his films, including “And Life Goes On“, “Through the Olive Trees“, “Close Up” and the more experimental but mesmerizing “Ten“. The great director, sunglasses always on his nose, was lively and engaging and really seemed to appreciate the attention.

Two European auteurs were also featured: France’s Claude Goretta and Italy’s Vittorio De Seta. Both elder statesmen of European cinema, Goretta’s understated 1977 masterpiece “The Lacemaker” was the Opening Night film, featuring a teenage Isabelle Huppert in her breakthrough role as a shy and mysterious Parisian girl, Apple, whose inner life is overshadowed by the dramatic and verbose lives of those around her – her friend and co-worker at the hair salon, then her first lover who she meets on holiday. Goretta’s challenge in this film was to convey the richness of Apple’s life through her subtle reactions and carefully chosen words and deeds, and he easily succeeded in winning over this packed house some thirty years since the film’s debut, judging by the thunderous applause and outpouring of love for the director, who was visibly moved.

Both documentarian and dramatist in a career spanning fifty years, De Seta brought with him his latest film “Letters from the Sahara” (2006), about a boy from Senegal who moves to Italy after his father dies. But it was with a series of 16mm short documentaries from the 50’s and 60’s that De Seta seemed most proud. De Seta’s depictions of the trials and tribulations of Sicilian fishermen in their quest for swordfish, volcanic eruptions in Northern Sicily and shepherds and peasants eking out a living in the mountains of Sardinia lovingly recall societies, regions and traditions that, as De Seta himself declared, have completely disappeared.

Distributing tickets the old fashioned way at the Midnight Sun Film Festival. Photo by Christian Gaines

Over three consecutive nights in the big top, capacity audiences were treated to pristine prints of classic silent films. While King Vidor‘s “The Big Parade” might have been the most anticipated, the film/music chemistry reached its thrilling full potential in the awe-inspiring “Eleventh Year“, Dziga Vertov‘s 1928 Soviet socialist propaganda epic, which profiled the unstoppable might of the Soviet Union’s mines, power plants, soldiers and comrades putting hammer to anvil for the cause. A Devo-meets-The-Mermen tightly composed blend of menacing guitar and metallic percussion from Finnish band The Cleaning Women playing in real time right below the screen gave the presentation a kind of fresh, frightening immediacy.

In the same vein but evoking an entirely different atmosphere the following night was the Harold Lloyd classic “Safety Last” directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. At least 500 people sitting and standing roared and gasped in all the right places to this testament to the ingenuity of early American filmmaking. Accompanying the film with impressive precision were the Prima Vista Social Club, five internationally renowned musicians led by Neil Brand, who enjoyed a standing ovation after their performance while modestly pointing at the screen to say “well, THIS is where our inspiration comes from – we couldn’t do it without the images on the screen!” They couldn’t have, of course, and for this American – the only one at the Midnight Sun Film Festival as far as I could tell – far from home and low-key (which is an advisable way to travel these days), I felt a real rush of pride for our film heritage.

Other highlights from the festival included films from and appearances by Fatih Akin, Amos Gitai and Elia Suleiman; a chance to catch some films missed at previous festivals, like Ray Lawrence‘s brilliant “Jindabyne“, a heart stopping observation on the devastating complexities of grief, love and relationships, Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” and Tsai Ming Liang’s “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone“, part of the New Crowned Hope series of films. A nifty little section of music documentaries currently storming the festival circuit, including “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” (fresh from SILVERDOCS) and “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten“, which both wowed audiences at their packed 3:45am screenings. But a personal highlight was seeing both parts of Bernardo Bertolucci‘s lovingly restored 1976 epic “1900“. Clocking nearly six hours sitting on a stacking chair in a gymnasium should have been unpleasant, but the film, starring Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu as two friends facing the rise of Fascism in pre-war Italy, absolutely entranced and transported the audience and proved one of the highlights of the festival for many.

In perhaps the most genuine sense of the word, the Midnight Sun Film Festival is a celebration. Days of endless darkness replaced by endless days of sunshine provoke an energy and excitement in the local people that is amply reflected in the passion and enthusiasm that is poured into this festival that while off the beaten path is still a true celebration of the world’s greatest cinema.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Christian Gaines is Director of Festivals at the American Film Institute. He lives in Los Angeles with his gorgeous wife and kids.

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