It’s a great year to be a lover of Nordic cinema, especially in New York City. Many of the best films at the Tribeca Film Festival were from Scandinavia and its environs, some of which will be getting released later this year (including my favorite of the festival, “Trollhunter” – see Christopher’s review here). And like “Trollhunter” many of the films are fascinating explorations of the line between reality and fiction. Yet while the Icelandic “Gnarr” and the Danish “The Good Life” both touch on the conflict between performance and the actual world, they’ve got nothing on the Finns.
The Nordic region’s biggest documentary festival, DocPoint, will be coming to NYC June 8th-13th to celebrate its 10th anniversary. The selection of 47 recent Finnish documentaries is full of inspired works that will change the way you think about the form and make every typical issue-oriented American doc seem desperately boring in comparison. Some are fascinating illustrations of human life, completely unconcerned with the filmmaker/narrator driven style of a Michael Moore or a Davis Guggenheim. Others are almost miraculous in their very existence, built from footage that attests to the extraordinary devotion of documentarians. It’s an exciting line-up that attests to the brilliant artistic potential of documentary filmmaking. I’ve listed five films you should make sure not to miss, after the jump:
“Steam of Life”
Few films in recent memory capture genuine human storytelling as effectively as this documentary focused on Finland’s sauna culture. It isn’t so much about the sauna as it is a presentation of the essence of this central arena of Finnish male life on screen. Without narration or even what can be classified as traditional interview, “Steam of Life” is 80 minutes of men sharing their personal stories in a deeply intimate setting. They tell of divorce, fatherhood, companionship and violence, universal themes that take on added potency in this uniquely Finnish ritual. It’s a fascinating examination of an understated, stoic and sensitively raw masculinity. This is a masterwork of simply articulated humanity.
“Reindeerspotting: Escape from Santaland”
There are moments in this documentary that will send your jaw to the floor simply by virtue of their existence. The filmmaker, Joonas Neuvonen follows his friend Jani through an addiction to Subutex and other hard drugs in the small northern city of Rovaniemi. Neuvonen’s dedication to honest and extensive footage of his friend’s trouble with drugs, debts and the law would be impressive enough on its own, but when Jani steals 5,000 euros from a local grocery store and flees the country, things take an extraordinary turn. The intrepid first-time filmmaker goes with him, and the second half of “Reindeerspotting” is a miraculous accomplishment of first-rate documentary art.
“Shadow of the Holy Book”
This film leaves you flabbergasted. Filmmaker and festival founder Arto Halonen teams up with Helsinki-based journalist Kevin Frazier to uncover the extraordinary relationship between the dictatorship of Turkmenistan and Western corporations taking advantage of its totalitarian government and rich oil and natural gas reserves. It hinges on the Ruhnama, a book written by the now-deceased President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov that is used to dominate society like something out of a dystopian novel. From the monumental architecture of the capital city to the ridiculous lengths companies from Daimler-Chrysler to John Deere go to manipulate the Turkmeni government and gain a profit, “Shadow of the Holy Book” climbs a mountain of extraordinary and surreal geopolitical reality. And perhaps more importantly it achieves its potency not only through its subject matter but also through the dedication and artistic commitment of its filmmakers, who do not simply articulate the story from a distance but bring the audience along for the journalistic ride.
“The Living Room of the Nation”
Stylistically uncomplicated in the manner of “Steam of Life,” this humbly articulated documentary brings a soft focus onto of a group of Finns from across the country. Yet while the sauna film primarily deals with personal stories and confessions, “Living Room of the Nation” is more interested in the interaction between people or larger connections between different individuals across Finland. At one moment a subject might address the audience and tell a story, while another scene might play out as if there were no filming going on at all. We watch a priest age and reflect on his life, an expectant father move from terror and anxiety to pride and joy, and a wide range of Finns young and old whose lives are put into poetic dialog.
Anyone even mildly familiar with the cinema of Finland knows the work of brothers Aki and Mika Kaurismäki, and if you’ve seen their films then you probably also know the actor Matti Pellonpää. Pellonpää, or Peltsi as he was known to his friends, starred in many of the most important Finnish films in the ’80s and ’90s until his death in 1995. Directed by longtime friend Janne Kuusi, “Bohemian Eyes” is a loving tribute to the talented actor and his best work. Interviews include the brothers Kaursimäki and other filmmakers, ex-fiancées, and his wife of later years, illustrating a fascinating life in cinema cut too short.
DocPoint NYC runs June 8th-13th. Screenings will be held at the Museum of Modern Art, Scandinavia House, UnionDocs and 92YTribeca, A full schedule is available at the DocPoint NYC website.