Steam of Documentary

DocPoint Helsinki Documentary Film Festival celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and it was high time to visit this fine festival for the first time, after much recommendation by a number of filmmakers and programmers.

"Whatever you do, make sure you are there on Thursday evening," I was told. So on Thursday we were invited to “Uunisaari” – a sauna/dinner adventure....

If you've seen the acclaimed Finnish film Steam of Life (aka the "naked men in sauna" film) which clocked up no less than 50,000 Finnish cinema admissions in 2010 - you might already be in the picture: the Finns love saunas, and they come in all shapes and sizes. If not, imagine if you will, around 20 naked women (or men) perched in a hot sauna, and taking turns running to a dark cold hole in the sea at night. I was challenged by a couple of Commissioning Editors to get into the ice hole, and it turns out the "dunking" wasn't as bad as waddling with soaked socks and merely a towel past the restaurant windows, when your toes have already become icicles, and the cheers you get from the inside only work as a momentary distraction.

But you return one more time, for more sauna heat, and birch tree bashing and the cold soothing sea... And a beer, for good measure. Afterwards you feel strangely euphoric, clean inside and out - and the peaceful skyline of Helsinki  across the distance.

What a way to bring guests and local filmmakers together. Indeed DocPoint was hospitable throughout with generous buffet dinners and drinks and concert offerings. One of the annual highlights, the silent film concert this year honoured Jean Painlevé, by screening a number of short natural history films he made between 1929 to 1978 under the title Science is Fiction, with electronic music interpreted by Uusi Fantasia and Paleface. Seeing the life of sea urchins, marine crustaceans, and sea horses giving birth on the big screen was wonderful, though not everyone thought the fairly monotonous techno music was entirely successful.

The festival showed ten Finnish documentary classics, as well as new Finnish documentaries, a number of smaller side bars (a life in the arts, fusion docs, winners & bestsellers and others).  It screened a retrospective on the industrious filmmaker Pekka Letho, who received the annual Aho & Soldan Lifetime Achievement Award; key guest of honour was the Swedish director Stefan Jarl, who gave a masterclass, showed his latest film Submission and his longitudinal Mods trilogy, amongst others.

While the word was that this year there were perhaps no big Finnish discoveries in the vein of Steam of Life, I saw very accomplished films, different in both style and content - People in White, by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, in which (former) psychiatric patients re-enact their life-stories in rather surprising ways; Saving Souls by Saku Pollari, about Markku Koivisto, the founder of the controversial Nokia mission; Rules of Single Life by Tonislav Hristov (impeccably shot by Peter Flinckenberg), a light-hearted film about three Bulgarians and one Macedonian trying to find love in Finland; and Bohemian Eyes by Janne Kuusi, a tribute to the legendary Finnish actor and muse of the Kaurismakis, Matti Pellonpää, who died in 1995. Forever Yours by Mia Halme had a good buzz about it – a moving film about children being taking into custody.

A revelation was Danish director’s Birgitte Stærmose’s haunting Out of Love (2009, 29’) which lets the children of Kosovo speak directly to us. A lasting image is that of a young boy catching, gutting and dividing a fish. It's clear that this is probably all he shall eat or own, and still have to share...  There is both a sense of defiance and lament of the way the aftermath of the Balkan war has been played out, and the exacerbated division between poor and rich is omnipresent.

The festival only has a small industry sidebar: It hosts the pitching session of the 12 For the Future programme, run by EDN, and a one day Encounters Programme hosted at YLE, where Geoffrey Smith gave a session talking about his new film, and Finnish producers got to pitch new projects in private. The decision to keep focused as an audience festival with a few international guests is deliberate says Executive Director Leena Närekangas, and seems to have paid off – with over 30,000 admissions this year and plenty of sold out screenings ; there were long queues for tickets and returns, and good Q&As with selected directors. including Alexander Nanau, The World according to Ion B. (Romania), Doug Block, The Kids Grow Up (USA), Helena Třeštíková, Katka (Czech Republic).

I found Helsinki the right mix of business and pleasure – the scheduled events, the location of venues and cinemas were suited to really getting to know Finnish filmmakers, funders and producers, as well as the international guests and festival programmers in attendance.

I return with lots of follow-ups. In 2004 we hosted a Finnish-Scottish seminar and I reconnected with Kanerva Cederstrom (director and outgoing film professor at Aalto University School of Art and Design) and Ulla Simonen (formerly AVEK, now producer at Made), and met the new Professor at Aalto University, director Susanna Halke, and top new talent Iris Olsson (whose EFA nominated short Between Dreams was recently touring festivals along with our very own Peter Radioland by Johanna Wagner).

As we continue to put Scotland into contact with the Scandinavians, I can't help but be inspired by the excellent energy, talent and output of Finland, and kudos to DocPoint’s outgoing artistic director Erkko Lyytinen and his delightful team for bringing it all together over five days.

I couldn't resist a visit to the public spa before I departed. What a way to start the new festival year.