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Steam of Documentary

DocPoint  Helsinki Documentary Film Festival (25-30 January) celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and it was high time to visit this fine festival for the first time, after much recommendation by a number of filmmakers and programmers.

“Whatever you do, make sure you are there on Thursday evening,” I was told. So on Thursday we were invited to “Uunisaari” – A sauna/dinner adventure….

If you’ve seen the acclaimed Finnish film “Steam of Life” (aka the “naked men in sauna” film) which clocked up no less than 50,000 Finnish cinema admissions in 2010 – you might already be in the picture: the Finnish love saunas, and they come in all shapes and sizes.  If not, imagine if you will, around 20 naked women (or men) perched in a hot sauna, and taking turns running to a dark cold hole in the sea at night. I was challenged by a couple of Commissioning Editors to get into the ice hole, and it turns out the “dunking” wasn’t as bad as waddling with soaked socks and merely a towel past the restaurant windows, when your toes have already become icicles, and the cheers you get from the inside only work as a momentary distraction.

But you return one more time, for more sauna heat, and birch tree bashing and the cold soothing sea… And a beer, for good measure. Afterwards you feel strangely euphoric, clean inside and out – and the peaceful skyline of Helsinki  across the distance.

What a way to bring guests and local filmmakers together. Indeed DocPoint was hospitable throughout with generous buffet dinners and drinks and concert offerings. One of the annual highlights, the silent film concert this year honoured Jean Painlevé, by screening a number of short natural history films he made between 1929 to 1978 under the title “Science is Fiction,” with electronic music interpreted by Uusi Fantasia and Paleface. Seeing the life of sea urchins, marine crustaceans, and sea horses giving birth on the big screen was wonderful, though not everyone thought the fairly monotonous techno music was entirely successful.

The festival showed ten Finnish Documentary Classics, as well as new Finnish documentaries, a number of smaller side bars (a life in the arts, fusion docs, winners & bestsellers and others).  It screened a retrospective on the industrious filmmaker Pekka Letho, who received the annual Aho & Soldan Lifetime Achievement Award; key guest of honour was the Swedish director Stefan Jarl, who gave a masterclass, showed his latest film Submission and his longitudinal Mods trilogy, amongst others.

Science is Fiction

While the word was that this year there were perhaps no big Finnish discoveries in the vein of Steam of Life, I saw very accomplished films, different in both style and content – People in White, by Tellervo Kalleinen & Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, in which (former) psychiatric patients  re-enact their life-stories in rather surprising ways; Saving Souls by Saku Pollari, about Markku Koivisto, the founder of the controversial Nokia mission; Rules of Single Life by Tonislav Hristov (impeccably shot by Peter Flinckenberg), a light-hearted film about three Bulgarians and one Macedonian trying to find love in Finland; and Bohemian Eyes by Janne Kuusi, a tribute to the legendary Finnish Actor and muse of the Kaurismakis, Matti Pellonpää, who died in 1995. Forever Yours, by Mia Halme had a good buzz about it – a moving film about children being taking into custody.

A revelation was Danish director’s Birgitte Stærmose’s haunting Out of Love (2009, 29’) which lets the children of Kosova speak directly to us. A lasting image is that of a young boy catching, gutting and dividing a fish. It’s clear that this is probably all he shall eat or own, and still have to share…  There is both a sense of defiance and lament of the way the aftermath of the Balkan war has been played out, and the exacerbated division between poor and rich is omnipresent.

The festival only has a small industry sidebar – it hosts the pitching session of the 12 For the Future programme, run by EDN, and a one day Encounters Programme hosted at YLE, where Geoffrey Smith gave a session talking about his new film, and Finnish producers got to pitch new projects in private. The decision to keep focused as an audience festival with a few international guests is deliberate says Executive Director Leena Närekangas, and seems to have paid off – with over 30,000 admissions this year and plenty of sold out screenings ; there were long queues for tickets and returns, and good Q&As with selected directors. including Alexander Nanau, The World according to Ion B. (Romania), Doug Block, The Kids Grow Up (USA), Helena Třeštíková, Katka (Czech Republic).

I found Helsinki the right mix of business and pleasure – the scheduled events, the location of venues and cinemas was suited to really getting to know Finnish filmmakers, funders and producers, as well as the international guests and festival programmers in attendance.

I return with lots of follow ups;  in 2004 we hosted a Finnish – Scottish seminar and I reconnected with Kanerva Cederstrom (director and outgoing film professor at Aalto University School of Art and Design), and Ulla Simonen – formerly AVEK, now producer at Made, and met the new Professor at Aalto University, director Susanna Halke, and top new talent Iris Olsson (whose EFA nominated short Between Dreams was recently touring festivals along with our very own Peter Radioland by Johanna Wagner).

As we continue to put Scotland into contact with the Scandinavians, I can’t help but be inspired by the excellent energy, talent and output of Finland, and kudos to DocPoint’s outgoing artistic director Erkko Lyytinen and his delightful team for bringing it all together over five days.

I couldn’t resist a visit to the public spa before I departed. What a way to start the new festival year.


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CPH:DOX 2010


The perfect (documentary) antidote to Sheffield Docfest is definitely CPH:DOX held in Copenhagen from the 4th to the 14th of November. The festival moves at a far more laidback pace and whilst having an industry focus with a forum, market and masterclass’ a plenty, feels so much more about celebrating creative storytelling rather than rushing around trying to catch the latest commissioner to pitch your idea to. I have a feeling that I could pitch to someone there at ‘leisure’ during one of the many food and drink parties that take place throughout the city. Being a filmmaker, of course both festival formats have to exist in order to survive and get your work out there but sometimes we get lost in trying to fund our films and forget to watch!

We were in Copenhagen not just to sample the fine beer and documentary but we had been asked to programme a few films from Scotland and nearby for the DOX:Market that were not likely to have exposure in Denmark. I took our latest Bridging the Gap films, Edinburgh College of Art films and 3 longer films The Edge of Dreaming by Amy Hardie, Colony by Carter Gunn & Ross McDonell and 1000 Pictures by Jennifer Stoddart which seemed to go down very well. We also had one of our latest Bridging the Gap films Lost Everyday by Michelle Coomber in the Short:Dox competition.

Watching is exactly what I wanted to do for a good chunk of my stay in Copenhagen, not before experiencing some incredibly strong pitches at the DOX:Forum, it’s always reassuring to see other pitching forums that are on the same scale to our Edinburgh Pitch held during the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June – seems we aren’t doing too badly in our aim to be a small, friendly, relaxed warm environment in order for people to pitch their ideas to commissioning editors without the hustle and bustle of a large market place going on around you. We think this is and excellent place for pitchers and funders to be at ease in and around the forum.  Highlights included Margreth Olin’s latest offering Nowhere Home and Hassel 12 by Mans Mansson, definitely ones to watch out for in the coming couple of years.

My colleagues have bashed on about coming to Denmark to experience the passion for documentary filmmaking there. I sampled some of Denmark’s finest in the shape of: and The Good Life by Eva Mulvad and produced by Scottish Doc Institute ‘regular’ Sigrid Dyekjær of Danish Documentary. A modern day Grey Gardens by Maysles brothers is totally spot on. The unflinching, claustrophobic pricklyness of watching once rich mother and daughter and their daily heated exchanges in their tiny flat in Portugal had you on your toes from start to finish – fantastic! I also watched Jorgen Leth’s Erotic Man, I love his work and don’t think this is an exception – like his regular collaborator Lars Von Trier he is playing with the audience in this provocative piece which made me love him, hate him and feel sorry for him many times throughout the 90 minutes!

I finally caught much talked about film The Arbor by Clio Barnard (UK/Japan) I had a lot of mixed feelings about it due to it’s typically socially realist themes which Stig Andersen from the Norwegian Film Institute pointed out “you Brits know how to celebrate poverty extremely well!” It isn’t entirely bleak though with many moments of hope and positivity peppered throughout, this is truly pushing the boundaries of the  between documentary and fiction, what a brave and interesting piece. A film that works on so many different levels.


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The Perfect Producer…

I had a wonderful dream yesterday that I met the perfect documentary producer. Oh yes… all of you directors are going to say!

The good news is: it was not a dream. She comes under the name of Sigrid Dyekjaer, and is the most funny, bright, energetic, sexy woman going round. Do I sound envious? Oh yes, but it is nice envy, because it makes me all the more attentive to what she has to say. And yesterday at a special SDI masterclass she talked for nearly 3 hours to an audience who could hardly allow themselves to breathe with fear that she may disappear in a puff of smoke. But no, she was solid, real and fed her crowd tenderly with lovely morsels of wisdom.

DFI Film Magazine No 70, Nov 2010

She used her latest productions (The Monastery, Mechanical Love, and The Good Life) as case studies for various aspects of production and documentary storytelling for cinema. But the main interest for me was her approach to the process of production. The blurring between development, research, production, and even post-production as a strategy is very inspiring. In her company Danish Documentary which she runs with four talented directors (Phie Ambo, Eva Mulvad, Pernille Rose Gronkjaer, Mikala Krogh) the fact that trailers are working tools not just for marketing, but for the director to work out what the story really is, and for this exercise to be done many times during the long period of filming and editing, is a given. “Masterpieces take time and cannot be rushed” is the philosophy of the house, and the ambition to make films for cinema with a universal appeal.

She is a mistress of budgets, deals, marketing, no detail too small for her; but above all her strength as a producer comes from her ability to fully engage with the creative demands and decisions to be taken in order to have a successful international film. That creative ambition on behalf the director and the project is what makes her an exceptional producer. But all this can only be achieved if the director is also driven by the film and not egos. And there again she comes up trumps with a great team of four terrific female directors who outdo each other with each new film.

Despite being terribly busy Sigrid keeps accepting our invitations to come over to Edinburgh and to collaborate with us.  I had a dream that this friendship across borders will go on forever.

The Good Life premieres in IDFA on 20th November.


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