Critic John Anderson’s choices from Finnish documentary films: Home. Somewhere, Fast of the Forest and Golden Age

This year’s DocPoint included the Critic’s Choice, where American film critic John Anderson chose three of  his favourites from the New Finnish Documentary Films series. His choices are:

The Fast of the Forest

Director: Antti Jääskeläinen
Operating during its more delirious moments at about 6, 000 rpm, the cycle-racing documentary The Fast of the Forest is neither a pure adrenalin rush, nor some tawdry collection of cheap thrills collected through helmets cams and crash footage. It may not even be fairly described as a cycle-racing doc: It’s a movie about obsession, told by filmmakers with a clear affection for the obsessive.
And it is in the film’s more tranquil moments that director Antti Jääskeläinen pops a wheelie. His observations of his subject, the racer Juha Kallio – including Kallio’s efforts to get himself into the arduous TT (Tourist Trophy) bike race on the Isle of Man, his mutely intense psychological preparations, his stoic acceptance of mechanical setbacks and financial potholes – shows a disciplined, calibrated gift for moderation, a willingness to wait and to temper the latent kinetic energy of his film as it builds and foreshadows the race itself, through bits of Kallio’s helmeted POV, and the complicated track he’s going to travel. Just as Kallio rehearses for the big event, and anticipates what he’ll have to do, so does the film: Jääskeläinen never lets on just how furious the speeds will be, or how The Fast of the Forest will surpass any viewer’s expectations for just how quickly Kallio is going to move, or how things might simply fly apart. And when he returns the viewer to the ordinary momentum of ordinary life, the effect is slightly post-orgasmic.Among the things a high-performance documentary needs is complete access to a subject, which Jääskeläinen has; a good subject, which Jääskeläinen has; a willingness to follow that story despite every indication that the whole vehicle might run into a muddy ditch, which Jääskeläinen has, and the flexibility to follow where the story leads, whether or not it conforms to the plan you might have had for your movie. It doesn’t hurt to have some astounding visuals, which Jääskeläinen has, or a subject with a heart, which Kallio most certainly has, along with a tenacious inability to let go of his dreams, and a rather charming gift for self-effacement. Some films lend themselves to planning, storyboards and time schedules. Some are like a bike race, out to strip your gears.The Fast of the Forest manages to be more viscerally exhilarating than, say, Interstellar, and more suspenseful than Taken 3, which may not be saying much, except that the reality of Kallio’s mission stirs the blood in a way a fictional adaptation – which wouldn’t be a terrible idea — would never do. Jääskeläinen is aided and abetted by great sound, which immerses the viewer in the racing experience, and by the technology he has at his disposal. Senna, to cite a prime example, was a great racing doc, and a great doc, but the sense of speed in “FOTF” is beyond anything in that film. And for all his reticence, Kallio is a more accessible hero.

HOME. Somewhere.

Director: Lotta  Petronella
Formally precise, emotionally profound, Home. Somewhere. gives a poetic voice to people who have never traditionally had one, men who maintain a combative relationship with both God and the Earth – and, somehow predictably, live and work at the edge of the sea. They have a tenuous grasp on the meaning of life, but only because they’ve had the time and inclination to regard it, from a vantage point at the end of the world.

“Anything can be dramatic,” says one, with a dismissive shrug at his own significance. “But one human life is not.” Director Lotta Petronella would beg to differ.

If there’s a storyline at the heart of Home, it is directly rooted in the cosmological; the filmmaker has made a true and honest work about madly elusive matters, including self-worth, self-reliance and the existential self. The great gray expanses she shows, and the oceanic void that seems to exist just off camera, suggest melancholy, a quality mentioned several times in the course of the film. (One of the subjects defines it as the feeling one has in the process of losing something – as opposed to sadness, which is the feeling of loss). But what’s being felt by these men also seems like nostalgia – a yearning for something one might never have known at all, in this case a place in the world that is solid and settled and, as the title implies, home.

How the subjects express themselves, while roaming the forests, killing a seal, plucking a bird or cleaning a fish, is made eloquent by Petronella’s style, which involves regularly shooting her subjects from behind, the figure within the frame always moving forward, face and destination unseen and sometimes unknown. She places her men in an always suggestive proximity to their environment: Intended or not, one snow-suited subject, wrestling himself out of a hole in the ice, gives a credible impersonation of childbirth – a newborn sprung from a world in which temperatures are rising, ice is disappearing, terra cognita is being deformed/destroyed and everything familiar is melting away.

Home. Somewhere. may be more a movie about the environment of the mind than the world, but its regard of the ecology cannot be overlooked.

The sea and sky are Petronella’s indispensable confederates, but so are Lau Nau and Micke Nyström. Nau’s music suggest the mournful cry of the drifting human soul; Nyström’s sound design is an intoxicant. Together they elevate the entire experience of Home. Somewhere. and provide invaluable assistance to Petronella in achieving her goal: Elevating the anonymous and unsung, and ennobling their search for meaning. Documentaries seldom attempt anything so simple, or hope to achieve so much.

Golden Age

Director:  Maija  Blåfield

“Experiencing a mystery,” says the voiceover in Golden Age, “helps us to perceive the world beyond the obvious.” The “obvious,” in the case of cinema, has always started with the frame: We accept what is inside it without much question, which is what we’re “supposed” to do: What the filmmaker wants us to see — and hear, and live through, and absorb — is tightly contained within the same kind of optical limits that have defined, and confined, works of visual art since ancient French people kept their horse drawings limited to the walls of their caves.

With her amoeba-shaped mini frames and mash-up of sources – footage shot between 1998 and 2013, left over from who-knows-what, and shot who-knows-where – the director Maija Blåfield takes a crack at expanding the frontiers of visual interpretation, while putting perception itself under a microscope. If every still photograph is a narrative, what are the tantalizingly context-free snippets of visual stimuli that Blåfield gives us? They’re disarming, for one thing, and – being, as they are, combinations of incongruous images and explanations – implicitly untrustworthy. But do any photographic images deserve our trust? Thinkers such as Susan Sontag, and filmmakers such as Errol Morris have concluded that the answer is “not entirely.” Blåfield makes the question cinematic.

The images of Golden Age are also an invitation – one that cannot be turned down, or even resisted — to speculate about what is outside the perimeter of Blåfield’s contorted pictures — and alongside them, behind them, and in the minds of the people we meet for mere moments. In turn, we examine why it is that we see what we see in the way that we do.

It’s a human inclination to read things the way they make sense to us, to bring presumptions and expectations and biases to pictures and to make conclusions, despite whatever evidence there might be to the contrary.  Are the donkey tenders whom Blåfield shows in one clip – a clip suffocatingly limited in what it reveals– speaking French? Is it even their voices? Is the whole thing a mock-up? Is the woman on the bed, talking in lofty philosophic terms about how we see what we see (“everyone knows everything … but hopes, desires and fear hinder us from seeing this knowledge…”) being dubbed accurately (or, more provocatively, subtitled accurately?)  Are the tourists who stop and take pictures of a broken-down group of farm workers (who may not be farm workers any more than the photographers are tourists) created a narrative that comfortably fits with a guilty First World view? Have the mini-stories created by the very possibly disconnected visuals, narration and implications created a whole new universe of meaning?

Golden Age makes everyone an artist, willingly or not, because it forces on its audience a new way of seeing, and interpreting. It’s a documentary, but one whose beauty – and story – is in the eye of the beholder.

 

According to Anderson, the films in the New Finnish Documentary Films series strenghtened his view of  Finnish documentary film. He says: “Many great Finnish docs that deal with sociopolitical  issues are made outside Finland – you see it from the films of Pirjo Honkasalo through last year’s DocPoint hit, Pixadores. At the same time, when Finnish docmakers work inside their own country, they tend to look inside the Finnish soul, making intensely personal films about identity and national character. The purpose of  Critic’s Choice is to assist in the international distribution of Finnish documentary films by gaining prominence for them already during their domestic premiere. More expansive reviews of the films chosen will appear in international film publications over the coming spring. This was the first time that DocPoint included the Critic’s Choice section.