Festivals: Midnight Sun
The Midnight Sun Festival in Finland defies the see-it-first mandate that guides so much programming and critical response, but without being a mere exercise in cinephilic nostalgia. Founded in 1986 by Aki Kaurismäki, Mika Kaurismäki, and critic/filmmaker Peter von Bagh, the festival (which ran June 11 to 15) features a mix of up-and-coming filmmakers, retrospectives of underappreciated and established directors, obscure genre surveys, and contemporary Finnish cinema. Nestled among ancient forests, the five-block-wide town of Sodankylä boasts intimate, easily accessible venues that allow you to drift from one fantastic film to the next without any pesky downtime. With 24 hours of Arctic sunlight and screenings running nearly round the clock, you really don’t have an excuse to sleep.
On my final afternoon at the festival, I watched Alice Rohrwacher’s sweet, luminous second feature, The Wonders, in a peculiarly appropriate circus tent, then trotted some 500 feet to Sodankylä’s singular film theater to catch Gleb Panfilov’s mannered but impressive 1983 television adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Vassa. I followed that cinematic feast with a pancake-wrapped soja makkara, a beer, and a program of mind-blowing Yugoslavian Black Wave shorts from Oberhausen’s archive, co-programmed by FC’s European editor Olaf Möller and Oberhausen programmer Lars Henrik Glass. (The standout: Jovan Jovanović and Mika Milošević’s Kolt 15 GAP, a 1971 documentary whatsit powered by Stanoje Cebic’s Lenny-Bruce-meets-socialist-pioneer-leader-meets-schizophrenic-street-preacher performance.) Having just experienced the extended tedium of SXSW—which privileged parties, promotional gimmicks, Lady Gaga, and app launches over film—I found Midnight Sun not just refreshing but edifying, as members of the press, filmmakers, locals, and groups of visiting students camping out in tents could all rub shoulders and rejoice in the pleasures of the medium.
The Outlaw and His Wife
In this cinephilic spirit, if something was shot on film, it was screened on film. Introducing a restoration of Victor Sjöström’s Swedish silent The Outlaw and His Wife (18), von Bagh said that digital restorations were “destroying film culture.” These sentiments are echoed in the festival program’s brief cover note, which concisely (and passionately) argues against conflating digital with eternal. Judging from the audience’s reaction to von Bagh’s declaration, it was clear that the film projections weren’t some quirky bonus, but the way things should be. The Outlaw and His Wife, which was accompanied live by the impressive Matti Bye Ensemble, is not just uniquely beautiful (as noted by both the Cahiers critics and Louis Delluc) but an engaging story that goes far beyond its titular premise.
In Sjöström’s story set in 18th-century Iceland, a thief seeks employment at a wealthy widow’s farm, and soon enough, they fall in love. When the widow’s brother-in-law, an unsavory lawman, comes to arrest the thief, she rejects her life of comfort and flees into the mountains with her lover. Blending elements of tragedy and humor, as well as featuring mountaintop stunts performed by—as director Pawel Pawlikowsi put it—“some fat actor,” the lost eight-reeler achieved a sophistication most contemporary films could only hope to attain. The very next evening, the restored 149-minute version of G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (25) also played to a packed house, again with the accompaniment of the Matti Bye Ensemble. Savaged by censors during its original release (according to Pabst’s editor, the theater owner insisted on cuts after opening night), it had been unavailable in anything close to a complete form in the years since.
Bye Bye Africa
Almost as habitually under-viewed by mass-audiences are the films of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, the Chadian-born director who has lived in France since 1982 and who received a complete retrospective this year. Not unlike Mati Diop’s Mille soleils, Haroun’s Bye Bye Africa (99) explores expatriation, longing, and film history, but takes place during the ascendance of Nollywood in the late Nineties when traditional film theaters were being closed across the entire continent. Dry Season (06) and A Screaming Man (10) also center upon periods of transition, both personal (between a father/father figure and a son) and historical (the aftermath of Chad’s civil war), and were screened in gorgeous 35mm prints that showcased their sparse, meditative visuals.
The problems of filmmakers in small nations are often shared regardless of region: low visibility at home or abroad, and the pressure to adopt aesthetics and borrow elements from either Hollywood, feel-good American indies, or a kind of inoffensive mishmash of Ousmane Sembène and Walter Salles (usually funded by the French government). Thankfully, Apeiron from Finnish visual artist Maria Ruotsala avoids all of these habits in making its gutsy philosophical and aesthetic statement. Eschewing any semblance of naturalism—it was shot in the synthetic hypermodern environs of Dubai but features only Scandinavian actors speaking in Swedish—Ruotsala’s film centers on two married researchers. The couple works at an institute that studies the criminally insane on one floor (hell) and their catatonic victims on another (purgatory, at best). Dissecting emotional states rather than dramatizing them, Apeiron is a challenge to watch, but a welcome one, anchored by fantastic performances from Sampo Sarkola and Irina Björklund.
New Babylon in Socalism
Genre films were not absent from the festival, but working within conventions doesn’t have to mean breaking out the cookie-cutter. Three of note, all from Finnish filmmakers, were Above Dark Waters, a deeply personal narrative feature by former True Blood hot body Peter Franzén about growing up with his abusive stepfather; Virpi Suutari’s documentary Garden Lovers, which examines couples whose landscaping provides ample metaphors for life and their relationships; and Von Bagh’s own Socialism, which combines footage from both popular and arcane cinema to fashion a history of life under Communism in Europe. Olaf Möller’s master-class program of Seventies French political thrillers—including The Night Caller (75), Judge Fayard Called the Sheriff (77), The Secret (74), Last Known Address (70), and Série noire (79)—provided ample doses of paranoia about government, gunplay, and socialist subtext. Jean-Paul Belmondo, then 42 years of age, does all of his own stunts in the giallo-influenced Night Caller, leaping across moving Paris Métro carriages at rush hour and hanging from a helicopter by wire.
With its adventuresome, buzz-blind selection, Midnight Sun takes its own risks (at the sprightly age of 28) and to extraordinary effect. Though I haven’t been to many film festivals, let alone the “important” ones, I have no trouble declaring Midnight Sun my favorite by far. May the sun never set.