Though I’ve spent the past year raving about the art-doc tsunami currently sweeping Denmark, I confess I’ve seen little of the nonfiction cinema coming out of nearby Finland. Enter DocPoint NYC to remedy the situation. The Helsinki-based festival has chosen to celebrate its 10th anniversary by partnering with MoMA, Scandinavia House, UnionDocs, Tribeca Film Institute, and the 92YTribeca to present close to 50 films from the Nordic land. While I was only able to catch a handful of the docs on the slate, two in particular (both screening at MoMA) made me wonder if there’s filmmaking fairy dust being sprinkled on the Arctic ice these days.
The first, Joonas Neuvonen’s Reindeerspotting: Escape from Santaland, smartly takes a subtle approach to a situation ripe for sensationalism. The director captures the false bravado and self-destruction of young junkies the world over by focusing his lens on his friend Jani, a 20-year-old addicted to Subutex, a heroin replacement imported from France. (Ironically, the drug is available free and legally in France as a means to control that nation’s heroin problem!) Subutex is the number one injected drug in Finland, and Neuvonen doesn’t shy away from filming close-ups of his model-pretty pal shooting up. What’s more shocking, though, is the intimate access the director gets, his camera a welcome and familiar guest at gangsta rap-fueled parties and during burglaries on scenic snow-laden streets. (At one point, Neuvonen even films a bizarre balcony fall during a reindeer race.) The always strung-out Jani—intelligent, articulate, and painfully self-aware like frustrated small-town boys (and girls) everywhere—truly opens up to the filmmaker, who isn’t a straight-laced outsider, but an unemployed daily drug user as well. Dreaming of a modest, simple life in a warmer country, Jani allows, “But I wouldn’t be me anymore. I’d be a different person.” The heartbreak lies in his knowing how difficult it is to shed one’s skin.
The second doc that caught my eye, Mia Halme’s lovely Forever Yours, is another patient feature, its portrait of children in Finland’s state care and their biological and foster parents, all drawn in nuanced glimpses. From snowflakes on a highway to a ball on the floor and a cat sniffing a chandelier, the environment that surrounds these children is every bit as revealing as any direct focus on the kids: young siblings Miko and Mette, who are returning to their lip-pierced mom, and teenage Inka with a deceased mother and imprisoned father. “We’re not at home anymore. Now we head for your new home,” Inka says, comforting her new puppy. “Something in me is coming to an end,” Miko and Mette’s foster mother confesses before she and her husband embrace at the kitchen table. Halme’s capturing of these daily moments proves much more enlightening than any question-and-answer engagement with her subjects ever could. Forever Yours has a Dardenneian feel similar to that of Latvian filmmaker Andris Gauja’s Family Instinct and offers a glimpse into what would have been both lost and gained if those children in jeopardy had been whisked away to a stranger’s loving home.
Of historical interest is Erja Dammert’s War Children, showing at Scandinavia House, which combines archival footage with present-day interviews with half a dozen elderly men and women, once part of the estimated 70,000 children evacuated from Finland to Sweden during WWII after the Soviets invaded in 1939. Though shot in straightforward fashion and with far less artistry than Halme’s doc, Dammert’s film likewise manages to shed light on the psychological consequences of being ripped from one’s biological family while being denied the opportunity for closure. Over six decades later, these war children can still vividly recall impoverished mothers who inexplicably disappeared after putting them on trains, only to send for them years later—after they’d spent much of their formative childhood in the care of often wealthy foster parents who addressed them in Swedish. “Back into a past that was no longer there” is how one lady describes the jarring return to a country whose language she barely spoke and to a family she scarcely recognized. Echoing Inka’s projection of her own situation onto her pup in Halme’s film, a man reminisces about visiting his dog every summer in Sweden (where between 6,000-to-15,000 children ended up staying for good). “Like me it was afraid I would leave it again,” he acknowledges. Circumstances change, but the emotional fallout is the same.
Interestingly, the only dud I saw was Shadow of the Holy Book, directed by DocPoint founder Arto Halonen. The film is a failed attempt to shame the vast array of international corporations that do business in Turkmenistan, one of the world’s worst three nations for human rights and free speech, and also one of its biggest gas and oil producers. The title refers to the Ruhnama, written by the country’s dictator Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov in the spirit of Mao’s Little Red Book. As odd as its Kim Jong Il-ish author, this sacred Turkmen text is a mix of made-up history, rules of behavior, and poetry that’s studied more often than the Koran in Turkmenistan. Its translation is also a prerequisite for doing business in the Muslim country, which allows for the President for Life to present an aura of legitimacy to his people—“Even Americans and Europeans read the Ruhnama!”—and makes the companies that have translated it into 40 languages thus far complicit in the charade.
Unfortunately, this globetrotting doc segues from predictable talking-head interviews with former government officials and political refugees to silly recreations, and then finally—and most frustratingly—to repetitive scenes of the filmmaker and his journalist colleague Kevin Frazier trying to get the heads of these corporations to talk to them, but ending up grilling clueless PR flacks instead. (And in one act of filmmaking desperation, an everyday Joe who designed Caterpillar’s website for the Ruhnama takes time out of fixing things around his house to chat, appearing sincere when he claims ignorance to the holy book’s heinousness—yet the director lingers ominously on a pair of pliers in the guy’s hand!) “I think that business is business. And human rights are human rights,” a Czech CEO and refreshing voice of reason finally explains to the annoying duo who didn’t seem to get the memo that corporations don’t have consciences. By the time we get to what’s touted on the screen as the “final 81st phone call” to Turkish company Çalik Holding (whose worn-down PR guy sighs, “It’s normal, Kevin. It’s normal,” in response to a question about his boss’s support of Turkmenistan), one actually wishes Michael Moore would intervene.
DocPoint NYC runs from June 8 – 13. For more information, click here.