Our second critic in residency came from Lithuania to Sodankylä – to see some films at Midnight Sun Film Festival. Blog by Vladas Rožėnas.
There’s always something oddly comforting about conversations with people you know you’ll never meet again. In queues for tickets at festivals, for instance. Information exchanged might be trivial, mostly on stuff that’s worth catching, and yet there’s a certain peculiar quality in discussing recommendations with someone you don’t know. You’re in this very specific setting together only for a moment. No huge gains, no real possible losses.
The same could be said of places. Visiting Sodankylä I was acutely aware that my first time here would also, more than likely, be my last. The sense had nothing to do with the programme, in fact, it was strongest before I sat down for my first screening. It had much more to do with distances: a flight to Helsinki, a 12 hour train ride up North, a further 2 hours by bus. Even the hotel I happened to be staying at was 40 km away.
Coming from a country that takes about 5 hours to cross from one end to another by car, these vast distances were somewhat exhausting and confusing as to why and how a festival so remote from Helsinki (which I can only assume is not only the economic, but also the cultural center of Finland) continues to thrive.
There must be some explanation for why Midnight Sun Film Festival is counting its 26th edition. There must be a reason people are drawn here specifically. I only have one visit to experience this aura.
Unfortunately, I was unable to catch some parts of the programme as it didn’t have English subtitles and my Finnish is limited to the word “perkele”. So the Cannes-award-winner Compartment No. 6 (2021), the other Cannes-awarded Great Freedom (2021), and the Venice-winning Happening (2021) didn’t happen for me. Sadly, the three were quite high on my watchlist before checking the screening information.
It just so happened that the first screening I went to was also perhaps the biggest surprise of my stay. The Finnish The Blind Man Who Didn’t Want to See Titanic (2021) invoked in me a strong dislike before seeing it, for it reminded me of The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. It’s the sort of film that tries to catch its audience with a silly, odd title that instead just makes me wince. Expect a lot of in your face jokes about weirdos that the film clearly makes fun of, before changing its mind halfway and pretending it’s actually emphatic.
Well, the guess was way off. Teemu Nikki’s film is filled with jokes, but is by no means a comedy, least of all an exploitative one. It follows Jaakko (Petri Poikolainen), a blind man with quickly deteriorating health. The story is most interesting in framing. While obviously unable to completely replicate the protagonist’s sensory experience, the film uses almost exclusively close-up shots, leaving every other character out of focus or even completely out of sight. This highlights one aspect of the film medium that’s always present, but rarely reflected – that the very sense of spatial unity in our experience of a film is constructed, not presented.
Which is to say, the directorial choices in The Blind Man raise questions we, the audience, are accustomed to ignoring for the sake of constructing in our minds a coherent story. Questions like object permanence and gaps between each shot. When Jaakko starts his trip to see Sirpa (Marjaana Maijala), his girlfriend and closest confidant, there’s a noticeable lack of clarity – he will need assistance at five different points in the trip, but even more essential are the gaps he doesn’t reflect on, but that are present for the viewer. The world only exists in a close-up, making us solely reliant on someone with another kind of sight to direct and instruct us.
While at the screening, the sudden change in pace and tone, occurring when Jaakko is kidnapped from his trip, struck me as awkward. It had not been foreshadowed and seemed at odds with the protagonist’s drama. I would have been content to follow his perseverance over everyday issues. But reflecting back, the inclusion of a life threatening situation, especially one that emerges in broad daylight, adds a much deeper layer to the film.
First of all, obviously, in regards to safe conditions for people with disabilities (to that point, one element of the drama I much appreciated was not leaning heavily on the overused and oversimplified explanation of “society should adapt more to people with disabilities”, always failing to address who exactly this “society” is). But secondly, it points us, the viewers, as to how limited our own senses are when experiencing art. Our wish to grasp stories, to read their tone or morals, has more to do with our field of vision (our ability to connect story dots in a satisfying manner) than reality.
Surprisingly enough, the Finnish picture had a close companion in Laura Wandel’s Playground (2021). A character study of a sister-brother relationship in primary school also relies heavily on close-ups and frame blocking.
It would be inaccurate to say we see the story from Nora’s (Maya Vanderbeque) perspective. Rather, we always see her reaction to it. She (and us) often only get a glance at bullying, and any scene including more than one or two characters happens almost completely out of shot. For instance, when a group of kids, teachers, and parents meet to discuss a vile occurrence in the playground, we never even glimpse at the grown-ups and stay with Nora, who doesn’t say a word.
Yet Nora’s face tells even more of a story than the off-screen conversation. Even a small kid realizes what every smarter person seems to miss – discussing things openly will obviously make them much worse. You have set up a fighting mechanism that looks, sounds, and feels good, but doesn’t solve the crisis.
At heart, Playground is a simple story of wanting to belong. Wandel clearly believes in kindness and tenderness as a cure so strongly that she goes out of her way to show just how much can be overcome. Suffocating and trying to bury a child’s head in sand is a little too chilling of a plot device, and while it serves to emphasize that anything that can be negated by kindness, it perhaps raises the stakes too high to be believable (given that this is a primary school). Which is a little at odds with the realistic, constantly moving, hand-held stylistic approach of the film.
I found the film’s trim style and storyline outweighed concerns over its depiction of violence, though. Festival cinema tends to be obese these days – running for 2+ hours when the story could absolutely be told in 90 minutes is a further example of the issues that the industry experiences: wishing to be seen, but not taking into account that attention spans are shortening and free time is valued now more than ever. It’s refreshing to see a film that is able to breathe – and in scenes when it needs to, Playground takes its time – yet is so to the point that I can’t think of a single scene I would want to cut.
While also focusing on the juxtaposition of the seen and the unseen, Wandel’s film differs from Nikki’s effort. This time, watching is a choice, best exemplified by Nora literally choosing to put a blind over her eyes. Sight is again limited, but for Wandel, limits of our vision, though unavoidable, are defined by our choices. In the playground of the world/narrative stories, we pick to focus our attention on violence or gaming. The power structures aren’t so much imposed by a malevolent external power as they form naturally based on what we direct our attention to.
As hard as Nora tries to avoid violence, she ends up perpetrating it. It is, after all, the way to solve issues against which words are clearly powerless. It’s quite mesmerizing to see how a child who so deeply detests bullying turns to it herself.
It all reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King (2011), in which, among many other great insights, the characters argue about our personal agency in times of global and often unimaginably complex capitalism. Say, one of the characters suggests, we finally found some conclusive proof of something we long ago suspected – that violent video games and movies do indeed cause us to be more violent.
Would we, not as a wide, hypothetical society, but as specific people, stop playing and watching? Or would we instead hope for some censorship from either the companies or the governments? The second option seems considerably more likely. The author goes further – not only would we expect someone to solve the violence issue for us, we would be angry and interpret the new rules as threatening our freedoms. We’d get around the restrictions any way we could. And though we would rationally understand the necessity, it seems unimaginable that violent games and films would stop getting made.
Though in a completely different context, Playground is a film about the same issue. We can’t turn away, whether we want to or not. We hope for external help, while internalizing the issue. A hope to somehow stop bullying prevails, though we individually aren’t facing the violence, prejudice, and social inequality causing it. There’s no one to blame, really, no one to point to. And that’s precisely why even the most innocent can turn cruel. Every man for himself.
Speaking of films that reflect sight and its relation to social issues, two of the bigger titles in this year’s programme were Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Parts I & II (2019, 2021). Prior to the duology, Hogg was one of the most underrated filmmakers around, with three fantastic films having gone largely unnoticed on the major festival circuit. This seems to have changed for the better.
Though I’ve had more than two years to ponder the first The Souvenir and more than a year to reflect on the sequel, I still feel that I have little to say. The strength of these features lay not in a premise or one cinematic trick. There are a million ways either of them could have failed and ended up being pedestrian. Yet both are resounding, emphatic successes. They feel genuine and heartfelt. They never venture into poetic language or even imagery, but there is something incredibly poetic about Hogg’s work. Something almost beyond words.
In a similar vein to Playground was Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Lingui, the Sacred Bonds (2021), a family drama from Chad. There too, violence is like a disease, infecting even the most innocent. Amina (Achouackh Abakar) finds out that her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) is pregnant. The chasm between the two women appears to be growing as they try to deal with a situation that will further isolate both from the local community.
Lingui is a detective story without a clear mystery. The characters are looking for the father, a doctor, and a sum of money, sending them on awkward and unstructured paths. This gives the film a meandering, stumbling sense. Revelations, once they are presented to the audience, have less to do with distances traveled by the characters and more to do with timing – as the film must reach a climax, the hard truths come spilling out almost on their own.
Doubtlessly, a story demonstrating the need for legal and safe abortion, is as timely as ever. The issue is much deeper too, as the film sets its protagonists up in deliberately confusing situations – at once seen as pious and expendable. The cornerstones of a family and, thus, of larger society. But also liable to be cut-off from families and society if they’ve disgraced this image projected onto them.
Both as a visual experience and as an emotional journey, Lingui left me cold. It wasn’t long ago that European festivals were stocked with social-realistic dramas about unwanted pregnancies in poor economic conditions. In my experience, occasional cinemagoers are shaken by such films, while film buffs tend to yawn. They’re usually more valuable in message than in message formulation. In a way, it’s substance over style, though at some point, once you’ve seen three or five films exactly like it, you can’t help but shrug – yes, I agree, this is not how things ought to be, but seeing it once is enough.
On quite another side of the spectrum than Lingui or Playground was Michelangelo Frammartino’s The Hole (2021), a piece with almost no dialogue, no overt political or social messages, not even a very clear delineation of truth and fiction. A work of fiction that could pass for a documentary. A trip deep into the earth. Not metaphorically, mind you, but literally.
For a story that has all the makings of an alienating experience (no named characters, only a vague group, no obvious narrative structure, no clear, visible goal), The Hole is surprisingly engaging. I believe that films are a way to experience a different life. Stand in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. But it can also be – and in this cinema is unique – an experience of an imaginary eye. Not to see as another human sees, but to see as our eyes do not allow. Removed from subjectivity (not in angle or scope, as mentioned while discussing The Blind Man, but in attachment).
The Hole is no-one’s trip, and that allows it to be a trip in a very literal sense. So often with film, sight is merely a way to illustrate words. Here, Frammartino’s decision to do a lot less, gives every shot a lot more weight. We see. Not decode images as part of a narrative. But see.
During my first few days at the festival, I still found it hard to pinpoint what was unique about it. Having seen plenty (some of the films prior to coming) I had trouble finding a common thread.
In a meeting with a friend of a friend for a beer, I tried asking him about his experiences coming to the fest. To my surprise, he confirmed that while much of the program appears random, he, like many others, has grown to trust the programmers over time. You come to Sodankylä not for the biggest or latest titles, you come for the taste of professionals curating the edition.
It presumes a lot of trust from the audience. I know from personal experience that dragging anyone to a screening anywhere outside the center of the capital is a challenge, and bringing audiences to a town hundreds of kilometers away from Helsinki at this point in our VOD-infused viewing culture seems near impossible.
And yet here we all were. The screening of The Deceivers (1988) started with a critic announcing we’re about to see one of his favorites and, thus, are in attendance at his personal party. The introduction, with the director Nicholas Meyer also present to say a few words, felt somewhat more homely and casual than in most festivals. Prior to the screening, I was curious as to what the logic of showing a seemingly random 80’s film was. And the answer seems to be quite simple – the organizers liked it and wanted the film on the big screen. That’s it.
The film itself, however, fell flat for me. The critic presenting it (he did not introduce himself, so I can’t name him here) mentioned that The Deceivers doesn’t exactly have glowing reviews. To his eyes, that’s unfortunate and unjust. To me, it seems quite reasonable.
None of the film’s flaws are quite as glaring as its utterly ridiculous premise that Pierce Brosnan can pass as an Indian man. Face-paint on, the man infiltrates a murderous cult, and it stretches way past any believability that no one should recognize that he’s clearly Caucasian.
There’s even a scene where the cult finds out there’s an intruder in the midst. As the camera pans through them, we see the close-up faces of Indian men. And then Pierce Brosnan in brown-face. The way the camera doesn’t shy away from close-ups makes it seem like no one considered quite how ridiculous the assumption is. Oh, and by the way, the XIX century local Indians left alone speak English. For some reason.
It’s also a film that picks a peculiar tone to discuss English rule in India. Setting up right at the beginning that their goal is to collect taxes and change absolutely nothing for anything, the film then makes quite a leap when a military commander demands (of his son-in-law, no less) that the arrested dozen or so Indians be charged immediately or let go, because the rule of law is universal. This is 1825. And there’s every reason to believe the people locked up have murdered at least one British officer. And they’re supposedly being let go? Because another officer can’t fathom keeping them behind bars for more than a day without proper legal proceedings? Is that the history of colonialism – just law and altruism prevailing?
The scene reminded me of Hollywood court dramas, where any and all wrongdoing is always reserved to individuals. Racism or cruelty don’t exist and have never existed in our dear country or ideology. A few rotten apples, that’s all. The principles have always been sound – of capitalism, of law, of anything Western. An attitude that’s naive at best, directly contradicting any form of social change at worst.
If the end goal is a fun programme, the inclusion of Sean Baker’s Red Rocket (2021) was absolutely in line. The American director proves to be the most entertaining storyteller on modern poverty, using the social conditions as a constant weight, changing the way we look at things like home, family, and sex, rather than as a device to cause pity (as it is often portrayed).
A film especially heavy on sex, Red Rocket admirably doesn’t reach for the easy fruit. It doesn’t so much concern itself with superficial objectification or addiction to porn/sex. As a reflection of a capitalist, everyone-for-themseleves culture, the screenplay presents selfishness not as a conscious act, but as a natural survival mechanism. We breathe, we eat, we fuck, and we use each other. Seeing the other as a commodity is engrained in every action Mikey (Simon Rex) takes. He doesn’t decide it, he doesn’t even see it. But he’s incurable.
It’s notable how, while keeping a lot of the same issues at heart, Sean Baker departs so much from his previous, the wonderful The Florida Project (2017). This time around, showing he has a fantastic feel for a more straight-forward comedy, the author constructs an essentially tragic failure as an unintentionally hilarious frontman.
The Red Rocket storytelling strategy, though effective in drawing the viewers’ attention, inevitably sets up a less emphatic feel. Mikey is, after all, the butt of the joke more often than not. He doesn’t seem to have many redeeming qualities, and if one roots for him (doubtful), it’s only because he’s the most interesting character around, not because we identify with him and/or agree with his values. There’s little reason to care whether he fails or succeeds. Especially given that he looks set on failing, however the story turns.
Baker’s comedic chops make Red Rocket arguably an even better film than The Florida Project was. The question is not one of quality. It’s of compassion – the director’s latest at times feels a little reductionist, a little malevolent, and for someone exploring division and selfishness pushing America’s egoism to the extreme, isn’t this strategy a little counterproductive?
Lastly, my most enjoyable evening in Sodankylä came from Alli Haapasalo’s Girl Picture (2022). What sounded like (and in a way is) a very traditional coming-of-age dramedy, turned out to be so well made, so realistically acted, and so elegantly written, that for two hours I actually forgot I’d seen a dozen films like this one.
Naturally, every sex-positive comedy from a female perspective just has to have a joke about a guy so clueless at oral sex that he thinks he’s made his partner orgasm after literally five seconds. Or, of course, the film needs to have a character being so stressed and awkward about chatting to a guy that she unintentionally says the most wildly inappropriate thing you’ve ever heard. These tropes are just a must, right?
The point is, however, that despite the cliches, Girl Picture did feel real and raw. An absolutely killer cast of Aamu Milonoff, Eleonoora Kauhanen, Linnea Leino sells every emotion in the book. The angsty teenager’s need to have it all here and now, to feel bliss and overcome trauma instantly, does not feel like an adage or a moral from an older writer/director. Stupid as some actions may be, they’re not treated as lessons in some know-it-all instruction of how to properly grow up. While there were scenes that felt staged for narrative turns, the turns in characters, in their emotions, seemed as natural as could be.
So those were my experiences in Sodankylä. Leaving the place, I was already quite sure I would not cover this distance again – both the kilometers and the prices involved are quite Finnish.
In a way, the festival felt a little too good to be true. As an organizer of a film festival myself, I know the impulse to assume people will come just because a film is good. And I know just as well the disappointment when they don’t. That hundreds or thousands of people take their time to visit Midnight Sun because they trust the organizers is a bit of an anomaly. Long may it thrive.