Three from Finland: Selections from DocPoint NYC

From June 8-13 in New York, DocPoint, Finland’s only documentary film festival, and Northern Europe’s largest, will present a series of films produced in its native country in the ten years since it began. On the 12th, UnionDocs will run two programs of student shorts, but most of the action will occur at MoMA, Scandinavia House, and 92Y Tribeca — nearly 50 films, a sliver of which I have had an opportunity to preview.

Finland was among the first European countries to pick up the cinematograph, holding screenings as early as 1896, but few Finnish films made since have been distributed in the U.S.  Since the mid-80s, North American filmgoers’ understanding of Finnishness has been largely defined by Aki Kaurismaki, long the token ambassador of the Finnish cinema, whose work is marked by a grim, cockeyed humor, depressive fatalism, and flat pacing. The three DocPoint features I was able to see do little to change the sense of Finland his films impart. Closest to Kaurismaki is Jukka Kärkkäinen’s The Living Room of the Nation (2008), which begins with a shot of a schlubby, overweight twentysomething man lying face down in bed, who utters the first words of the film: “I wonder why life is so damn hard”.

Cutting between six fixed camera angles in as many living rooms across Finland, Kärkkäinen does not attempt to answer that question so much as vivify the experiences that provoke it. The film’s five other subjects, all single men or couples, are as glum and enervated as Tero, the young man from the opening sequence. What begins as informal ethnography becomes understated human drama as the particulars of contemporary Finnish life are bleached out by the universal facts of birth and death. Tero learns that his girlfriend is pregnant, and that she intends to keep the baby despite the disagreements and mutual indifference that plague their relationship. In Helsinki, a retired priest describes the baptisms that consumed much of his working life, while he himself slouches toward death, his physical capabilities diminishing before our eyes as the film progresses. A middle-aged couple fester in alcoholic co-dependency in the country’s center. A Lapland man reminisces about happier times away from Finland, and describes the humiliations his father suffered in a nursing home. A retired Southern couple sells their home, ready to begin their “senior lifestyle”. Finally, an elderly subway musician rehearses at home, giving one of his final performances at the film’s close, an end title announcing that he died shortly thereafter.

These stories develop slowly, and the film settles into inertia as life fulfills these peoples’ meager expectations. Though affecting, and intermittently funny, The Living Room of the Nation fails to transcend its gimmicky premise: it does not elucidate the harsh truths at its core, preferring instead to wallow in them. J-P Passi and Jani Kumpulainen’s cinematography does little to fill in the grid laid by the film’s formal schema. The upper third of the frame hangs barren above the action, and its colors are as dreary and lifeless as the worlds from which they are drawn. It is unclear to what extent Kärkkäinen has scripted the events of the film. It has been consistently presented as a documentary, but the stiff unreality of its social interactions, and the camera’s access to private calamity betray a (rather poor) staging. Whatever its truth value, the film observes the unpredictable rhythms and indeterminate occurrences of real life, and thus, like Ulrich Seidl’s even drearier doc-fiction amalgam Cheap Animal Love (1996), remains tentatively engaging even while submerging us in unrewarding darkness.

People in White (2011) shows us the opposite side of the same coin: documentary reality written in the grammar and syntax of fiction. Directed by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, the husband-and-wife team behind The Complaints Choir (2009), the film explores doctor-patient relationships in the Netherlands’ mental health institutions. A group of Dutch, mostly middle-aged, sit in an airy, naturally lit meeting room of an abandoned asylum, sharing their experiences with therapists and psychiatric hospitals. Other members of the group, composed of both real patients and professional actors, reenact these stories, filmed largely within the same old hospital. Most of these figures play multiple roles, so that a man who appears as an abusive psychiatrist one moment plays a patient in a locked ward the next.

Though they slightly blur distinction between doctor and patient — a pro forma suggestion in any artistic treatment of psychiatry — the reenactments provide little in the way of commentary or feeling. Their ends are entirely aesthetic. As in Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010), and Gillian Wearing’s Self Made Buy (2011), two other recent reenactment-heavy docs with art world pedigrees, these stagings allow the Kalleinens to treat reality to the mid-budget production values of an indie fiction feature. Every one of the film’s frames is washed in a soft, warm light, accentuated by the camera’s shallow focus, and the performances’ theatrical blocking, captured from the most telling angles. The result is easier on the eyes than the usual products of DV verité online , but it could not be called beautiful. Premised on a generic idea of image quality, this style sucks the air from every space on screen and the vitality from every person who passes through them, producing the same timorous and somber emotional effect in every instance. The conflation of documentary and fiction in this kind of reenactment is neither timely nor radical, but simply a logical step in the continuing Errol Morrisification of documentary’s middle brow.

Less formally notable, but altogether more satisfying is the program’s centerpiece Reindeerspotting: Escape from Santaland (2010), which plays at MoMA once daily throughout DocPoint NYC. In 2003, Joonas Neuvonen began filming his drug buddies in Rovaniemi, the tiny capital city of Finnish Lapland. A user himself, Neuvonen started recording the people around him for vaguely articulated diaristic reasons, but he captured a transformative moment in Finnish drug culture, as methamphetamine was superseded as the country’s most widely-abused narcotic by Subutex, a popular brand of buprenorphine used for opiod replacement therapy that was flowing into the country from France, where it is issued to heroin addicts free-of-charge. Though the film begins as a depiction of this sub-rosa community in Rovaniemi — documenting junkies bumming around the city’s snow-packed streets and sparsely-furnished International Style apartment complexes, burglarizing cars and homes when necessary — a single addict and close friend of Neuvonen’s named Jani Rappana quickly emerges as its central subject.

Gaunt and agitated, clothed in the (apparently international) junkie uniform of a baggy hoodie and filthy jeans, Raappana appears as a familiar weak-willed, but well-intentioned anti-hero. His opiate dependency is all consuming, and he lacks the hardness or cunning to effectively feed it as a thief. We often see him trying to cadge a pill from friends, bargaining down to half a dose, promising he’ll pay them back this time. Midway through the film, a title informs us that dealers have sawed off two of his fingers in exchange for an unpaid debt. When he returns to the screen, he seems little changed by the horrors just nonchalantly described. More than anything, Raappana wants out of Rovaniemi. And incredibly, after serving a little jail time for a failed burglary, he pulls a robbery large enough to get him out. In the film’s third act, Neuvonen takes us on his breakneck run through Europe’s sunnier climes. This excursion brightens the image, but does little to remit the story’s consuming bleakness. Raappana’s elation — at having escaped his dingy, frozen little burg, and, increasingly, the ease and cheapness with which he can acquire Subutex — is freighted with the understanding that is a temporary escape from his troubles rather than any kind of long-term solution.


The trip is the film’s engine, transforming Order Reindeerspotting from anthropological curio into a full-fledged story, rounding out the structure and delivering a real narrative pleasure, but a naueous, voyueristic kind, poisoned by the knowledge that it is predicated on real life misery. It also looses the film from the geographic and cultural details that define its earlier sections, shaping Neuvonen’s footage into the kind of familiar tale of addiction and desperation suggested by the reference-dense title. Reindeerspotting is strongest as a portrait of Rovaniemi. Many European versions of the Santa Claus legend name Lapland as his home. Neuvonen acknowledges the myth with footage of a winter carnival complete with actual Reindeer races, but he is more concerned with the dismal social and economic prospects of its inhabitants. With opportunities limited to bureaucracy and tourism, and the landscape blanketed by darkness and snow, Rovaniemi is an ideal place to escape via drugs. Neuvonen’s footage brings this oppressive climate to life.

It is difficult to draw many conclusions about DocPoint NYC from this small fraction of its offerings. While I am ambivalent about all three of these films to one degree or another, it is apparent that Finland has developed a lively and sophisticated documentary culture. DocPoint NYC is a welcome, and overdue, opportunity to pick through its fruits.