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“Reindeerspotting” Documents Fear and Loathing in Finland and Raises Some Ethical Questions

"Reindeerspotting" Documents Fear and Loathing in Finland and Raises Some Ethical Questions

In case you didn’t see Dan’s preview piece, this week we welcome DocPoint, Helsinki’s documentary festival, which is taking over NYC for a special multi-venue event starting tomorrow and continuing through Monday. I’ve seen a few great films selected for the fest, but one title has really stuck with me and so deserves to be discussed more fully: “Reindeerspotting: Escape From Santaland.” It’s the kind of doc that I can’t entirely get behind ethically, at least as far as the questions I still have about the making of the film. But I can’t help but recommend it very highly, in large part because of those questions it leaves you with. Honestly, I’ve been thinking about it for weeks now. For me, it’s this year’s “The Red Chapel” as far as I want to both love and hate it at the same time.

Actually, hate is way too strong a word, but “Reindeerspotting” is the sort of movie that makes you enjoy watching some very bad things happen. I guess it makes me hate myself? That I applauded shocking moments like when a guy falls off a balcony to the street below, a near fatal car accident involving a pedestrian and the unfilmed instance of someone’s fingers getting chopped off (I classified each of these as “funny/crazy” in my notes). It’s the bold insanity of the film that got me the way a narrative film depicting the same sorts of things would — say, the title-inspiring “Trainspotting” or “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” I guess the latter is kind of based on a true story? Either way, director Joonas Neuvonen has crafted a film I would definitely label, because of its kinship with the work of Hunter S. Thompson, “Gonzo documentary.”

Where Neuvonen and Thompson might differ, though, is in the filmmaker’s lack of real first-person presence, under an alias or not. He doesn’t really even appear on screen save for maybe a mirror shot here and there, as the film primarily documents his friend, Jani, while keeping himself relatively hidden and innocent. Yes, that’s how many first-person documentarians do it. But in this case it’s akin to reading or watching “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and only getting the parts showing and incriminating Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Zeta Acosta) with little to no attention put on Raoul Duke/Thompson.

At the beginning of the film, Neuvonen mentions through expository titles that he and Jani, like many in Northern Finland (they live in the Lapland capital, Rovaniemi), are on disability and regularly, recreationally take the drug Subutex, which is primarily meant for heroin withdrawal. Jani is described as more of an addict, one who steals for the money to pay for his fix, but it’s hard not to assume Neuvonen has similar habits and just doesn’t admit them in his film. In fact, after the initial titles, we get nothing of a reflective first-person address from Neuvonen until one title late in the film stating “we did more and more Subutex.” From an interview with the director that was emailed to me, I got the following clarification: “Jani and I had a life in common, but I wasn’t hooked. I didn’t need to steal.”

What isn’t in the interview, though, is any further illumination regarding Neuvonen’s virtue. Midway through the doc, the two friends embark on their truly Thompson-ish adventure — consider it “Fear and Loathing Through Europe” — after Jani robs a supermarket of 5,000 Euros and they travel around the continent, including Paris, where Subutex is more readily available (the film tells us that most of the drug’s Finnish import originates in France). What one might assume, without meaning to outright accuse the filmmaker, is that part of Neuvonen’s expenses on the trip might have been paid for by that stolen money. One might also assume the doc had a budget that allowed him not to take advantage of those funds, though, so it’s more a matter of curiosity and an intriguing point for discussion than actual critical finger pointing.

I don’t even necessarily want to know more background details than I have so far. A publicist has said she would reach out to the publicists for more info, but I’d rather let the film’s cloudiness remain in my mind. For the same reason I don’t exactly want to know every little clarification regarding “Catfish” or “Exit Through the Gift Shop” or “The Red Chapel.” Besides, let’s just say for hypothetical purposes that Neuvonen did indulge in some of Jani’s spoils, it isn’t likely that he would want to incriminate himself simply to put a critic’s mind at ease.

And with too much footnoting going on, there actually isn’t a whole lot else to recommend the doc on. Yes, there are a lot of crazy shenanigans and accidents to guiltily enjoy, but the majority of the film consists of over-used expository titles explaining things that probably should have been documented (though the finger incident should still be left out), a lot of depressing drug use depicted with cheap, grainy video and a few arguments that might have been kind of interesting in the earlier days of confrontational reality television. Still, the minor introduction to the Reindeer City Race in Rovaniemi is pretty amazing, and going along with its holiday themed marketing angle, I have to admit “Reindeerspotting” could compete against “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” this December as the “feel bad movie of Christmas.”

“Reindeerspotting: Escape From Santaland” will screen at NYC’s DocPoint festival this week (at MoMA).

Recommended If You Like: “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”; “Methadonia”; “Trainspotting”

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