On my last full day in Helsinki, I toodled around the city center one more time and then spent the rest of the afternoon in the cinemas. It was bloody cold that day so a good one to be inside. By this time, I was actually getting a bit maudlin about the idea of leaving so to cheer myself up, before my first screening at the Maxim, I dipped into the Fazer café (and cake factory) to have a cappuccino, with complimentary caramel, and took in the Saturday crowds gorging themselves on sweets. I watched in envy as a newborn dove face first, mouth wide open, into a giant creme puff the size of his head.
The Maxim cinema complex is on a lovely, quiet pedestrian street. (Photo of the theater in the Maxim courtesy of miemo's photostream on flickr.) I went to see Petteri Saario and Juha Taskinen's, Sergei Verenseisauttaja (Sergei the Healer). They were showing the 103-minute cut of the film, the second in a trilogy, for the festival but they had made a 120-minute version of this story of a Viena Karelian folklore village. These tiny villages were silenced during the Soviet era in Finland's history until some of the exiled villagers returned in the early 1990s. These villages are now home to one of Europe's only surviving indigenous cultures and their survival is, indeed, quite fragile since a lot of the young men will enlist in the Russian army. Some of the boys from a neighboring village had been sent directly to Chechnya or other war-torn places at 18, Sergei's age at the end of the film.
Saario and Taskinen's film, five years in the making, depicts one of these villages, focusing on the Lesonen family, and their self-sufficient, independent life in Venehjärvi. One steps back in time to join three generations linked together by a fragile legacy. Sulo (pictured right) is the oldest inhabitant in the village and is a locally renowned boat carver. This charismatic elder passes on the folklore, heritage and craft to the younger generations. Together, he and Sergei build the last boat he will make, a parting gift for the boy. Sulo's very last masterpiece will be his own coffin as he readies himself to die with humor and intense satisfaction of a life lived on his own terms. The swooning love affair he has with his second wife, Valentina (he lost his first wife and two of his sons) sent me into paroxysms of joy, especially when he sang love songs to her while they worked side by side cleaning fish, weaving baskets, shearing sheep, making wool. A fairy tale come to life.
The Sergei of the title is a beautiful, quiet boy; at the film's beginning, he is fourteen, growing up in the middle of the lush, primeval forests of Northern Europe. He learns the skills needed for survival from his father, Santeri, as well as from the old man, barely uttering a word, yet emanating a tranquility and self-possession that is uncanny, a boy at peace with his world, well-loved by his family. His father tells us a story of Sergei as a little boy cutting his hand while carving a piece of wood. He put his other hand over the wound and started quietly uttering an incantation, speaking ancient words he could only know intuitively, a subliminal connection to his ancestral past. The bleeding stopped and the wound was healed. The boy picked up his knife and continued to carve.
I was utterly transported by this film, shot in the most lush and intimate way. While the subjects themselves tell us about their lives and share their world with us, the filmmakers tell us their story visually and joyfully, gorgeously shot, season by season, year by year. It's utterly mesmerizing in its pace, soothing and deeply moving. It is not an easy world to leave--there was a painful, almost bereft sense of longing for a life that I, myself, have never experienced, nor probably ever will. And yet I was envious of these people, their commitment, their independence, their simple joy at being able to carry on their traditions and way of life. When the film ends, Sergei is of age and we watch him leave this world to go to a dark and depressing city to work as a welder. It's never explained why he leaves (if he's employed, is he exempt from army service?), but one wonders whether he will ever return. His mother and father are the only ones left in the village, guarding the icon and the sanctuary they've dedicated back to the place of their birth. I long to watch this again, to be transported back to young Sergei's world.
I did, however, leave this world quite abruptly when I entered the ugly world of René, the next film I went to see back at the Bio Rex. This is an absolutely extraordinary film and will probably be programmed into most domestic festivals I'll attend this year, I'll wager. The reasons why are many and varied. It's always a riveting movie-going experience when you fall in love with a film with a protagonist that you loathe. (My experience of watching Necrobusiness, the film I saw after René, was of a movie I loathed that also had hateful protagonists, including the "journalist" /filmmaker, so I won't bother to write about it here. Current Affair, anyone? Let's call it fictional nonfiction. Great title, though.)
The European Film Academy bestowed its Prix ARTE to the Czech Republic's Helena Trestíková (Marcela) in Berlin last October and presented the award during the 21st European Film Awards Ceremony in Copenhagen, Denmark early last month. I think what impressed me the most, considering how long Trestíková had been filming this man (20 years from age 17 to 37) is that she's crafted an incredibly economical 90-minute film. This is a director who comes from a mini-series tradition and to craft a long-form documentary into such a pristine piece of cinema is really a stellar accomplishment. René is captivating, as well, for its intelligence, both on the part of the filmmaker, but more so on the part of her subject, who realizes and speaks candidly about the mutual relationship he and Trestíková have formed over the years. Matti Ripatti, the freelance journalist who wrote the DocPoint catalog essay for the strand "Tell Me the Truth," puts it best when he says that, "The line between dramaturgical reshuffling of the truth and distortion is anything but clear." He goes on to say that, "The particular beauty of this method [shooting one story or subject over a long continuum of time] is that the maker does not need to claim anything verbally, yet still, the reality develops into a metaphor as if by itself; like fiction, it comes to mean something more than apparent at first sight."
When the subject is a storyteller, too, then things become really interesting, for he is just as responsible, complicit in telling his own autobiography, if you will, blithely and candidly exploiting his most stable link to the outside world, a world that in those two decades goes through seismic changes as our world is wont to do. And yet René Plasil is almost frozen in amber, even as we watch him age. There were six different DPs shooting this over the years, but the film's strong directorial stamp has a flawlessness and consistency to it that is truly remarkable.