Friday, October 17, 2008


Etnia-festival's website


To Turku, again. It's becoming a scary habit.
Etnia-festival focuses on screening films on so-called native cultures, and nowadays markets itself as "the festival of three continents". The festival has been held since 2000, and the Etnia organisation responsible for it also publishes a magazine called Ensimmäiset kansat. The festival is small, but activates people nicely and brings forth important themes. I am a guest here for the third time. My previous visits were associated with my films A Dreamer and the Dreamtribe and Conquistadors of Cuba.

Etnia-festival's poster wall

The screenings take place in a legendary, old cinema called Domino, which has since been named ML Media Liv Ltd auditorium. The cinema is used only seldom these days, and the equipment is already dated. Therefore a Dolby Digital sound system is lacking. The film's sound crackles and pops, and the volume is of course too low. I have struggled with the same problems at other festivals, and from at least ten screenings of Shadow of the Holy Book I've had to run to the projection room to stop the screening, or at least to give instructions on the sound level or the focusing of the image.

Here, the machine room maestro is Reino Vahteri, who started work as a projectionist 61 years ago! The sympathetic Vahteri announces straight off that he's half-deaf and half-blind nowadays, so we focus the image together during the film's screening. Everything works out, however, and Vahteri still has the magic touch of a film professional - due to which the reels and rolls move through his hands in an experienced manner. In the post-screening discussion I start thinking I sound like a travelling preacher, always repeating the same mantras in a monotonous fashion. The feeling creeps up that my explanations and sermons are the same mixed-up bunch from one night to another. It's a pity. The excitement and refreshing quality should always be discovered in a fresh, spontaneous way. It's not always easy, however.

Projectionist Reino Vahteri

The crowd-puller at the Etnia-festival is the Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi and his films Turtles can fly and Half Moon. It's a good move from the organisers, as his films always fill the room and even activate the immigrant population. I manage to exchange a few words with Ghobadi, and we arrange to meet up in Iran. Tehran's new documentary film festival Cinema Verite is approaching and I'm leaving for it next Tuesday. But now I hop on a train and arrive safely back in Helsinki. Tomorrow to Tampere, but this time to talk about a different film altogether.

TURKU BOOK FAIR 04.10.-05.10.2008

Turku Book Fair's website


I guess this is a festival too. At least, the writers are partying here in the evenings just like the cinema people at their own festivals. Shadow of the Holy Book is about to be published as a book as well, and I've arrived here to market it with the Like Publishing Ltd. people. Luckily the flight from Iceland is early, so I manage to make it to the bus heading from the airport to Turku, the Mexico souvenirs still in my suitcases.

Like Publishing Ltd.'s department at the book fair

In the evening I take part in a short book discussion at the evening club, and the next day in a 20-minute discussion on the book in front of the book fair audience. There are around 20 people in the audience, and they're mostly pensioners. Few know anything about the film, or Turkmenistan. Fortunately, everyone is familiar with Nokia. I even get to write an autograph for a charming elderly lady.

On Saturday night, while walking from the club night to my hotel, my mind is filled with suspicion. The Turku dialect of the people rolling past sounds more like Spanish or Icelandic than Finnish. I focus. No... I am in Finland indeed, at home. In my home country? I guess so.


Reykjavik International Film Festival's website


I arrive in Iceland on Wednesday, where one Euro buys 122 Icelandic kronor. When I leave in three days time, one Euro already buys 155 kronor. A 20 per cent drop in currency value in three days. The pace continues after my departure. The bank system, built in a bubble on greed alone, crashes and the state takes hold of the banks one by one. Risk investments and profiteering on borrowed money becomes a reality. Putin and Russia offer financial aid to Iceland, obviously trying to buy into a significant strategic base. A NATO country up for sale. Quite a script, but unfortunately non-fictional. Many Icelanders - representatives of cinema and culture, at least - take the situation admirably calmly, although the crisis has an effect on everyone and shakes the foundations of ordinary households as well as the state's. The chairman of our jury, the great local director and actor Baltasar Kormákur encapsulates the situation well: of course it is tragic, but it's also important that things like values and foundations get shaken up. Otherwise nothing is learned, and one cannot move forward.

Snowstorm took over Reykjavik

As if to underline the catastrophe, the first snowstorm of the autumn arrives in Reykjavik bringing along its monsoon winds. I shiver in my Mexico gear and my thin Guinness jacket - at least I manage to buy new socks and a hat from the shops. The floor in my fancy design-hotel, in which I continue my DVD-watching shift, is ice cold. From the window I can see the city's music hall being built up, which is threatening to remain unfinished as the building's financier Landsbankinn comes crashing down and, like the other banks, drifts into the lap of the state.

A huge music house is still being constructed, at least for now

Good, impressive works begin to emerge from the 14 films in the New Vision competition series. The hotel room work starts to fill me up inside, too. With some films I feel moved and experience a sense of catharsis and pride in the importance of cinema - its possibilities to move and awaken our deeper levels. Such moments are arresting as a viewer, and also encourage belief in my own cinematic author self.

Working in the jury is interesting in many ways: one has the chance to get to know and exchange thoughts with unique, gifted people - which on this occasion aptly describes all the members of our jury. In addition to Baltasar, it includes the Icelandic actress Margrét Vilhjálmsdóttir (who is featured in a leading role in Baltasar's latest film From Reykjavik to Rotterdam), the Armenian-born actress Arsinée Khanjian and Faroese director Katrin Ottarsdottir. We give the main prize to Sergei Dvortsevoy's (who was with me in another jury in St. Petersburg in June) magnificent film Tulpan, and an honorary mention to the skillfully constructed and moving Blind Loves (Juraj Lehotsky). The competition series is for so-called first- or second-time fiction directors, and the festival's programme director Dimitri Eipides has compiled it of films premiered at Cannes, Toronto, Venice or other large-scale festivals. It is pleasing to see that many of the featured directors have a background in documentary film, and are therefore able to use their documentary expression as an enrichment of the fiction world.

Actress Arsinée Khanjian and programme director Dimitri Eipides

Dimitri Eipides, together with the active and helpful festival staff, has compiled an excellent programme . It includes a strong documentary series, in which Shadow of the Holy Book features, and fictional films from various perspectives and continents. In conjunction with the festival, a previously independent event focusing on "gay and lesbian subjects", has joined up, enriching the programme nicely. The festival's honorary guest the previous year was the great Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, whose visit has left behind a plethora of epic stories about this fairytale island. This time the festival honours the master of political cinema, Costa-Gavras, in the form of a retrospective and a lifetime achievement award. He still seems like an energetic and enlightened observer of our society.

Political directors Arto Halonen and Costa-Gavras

Dimitri Eipides has his fingers in many pies. He has a deep love of film, both on the fictional and documentary side. Dimitri is the director of the successful Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, and the programme director of the large-scale Toronto International Film Festival. In addition, he is the founder of a new documentary film festival in Cyprus, and also runs a festival in Montreal. Dimitri is a great believer in the power of cinema. Films are his life, and he their exceptional, big-souled representative.

Shadow of the Holy Book gets a good audience, and the discussion, as the nation fights an economic catastrophe, is an interesting and memorable one. I also give a lecture at the Talent Campus, aimed at film students, on making documentary films and the possibilities of political cinema.

My pick-up for the airport is at 5.30 in the morning. I hang around in bars until then with the other festival guests. Finally we end up at a packed drinking hole (previously owned by Baltasarin Kormákur) in the city centre, which is full to the brim even at 5 o'clock in the morning. Icelanders know how to party without frills, and move forward in the crowd using their elbows. Gender equality is strong here, as women push, shove and hover around just like the men. The atmosphere is equal to stock markets at the worst times of a currency boom. Maybe the markets will crash some day in the nightlife world, too.

Perhaps jostling in the crowd will somehow get politer then.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

28.09.-01.10.2008. NORDISK PANORAMA

Nordisk Panorama website


The flight from Mexico City to Copenhagen is a long one, but I'm so tired that I sleep successfully for most of the trip. From Copenhagen Airport one can get easily and effortlessly to Malmö by train.

Nordisk Panorama, the festival spanning five Nordic countries, tours around every year in a different northern location. Last year the event took place in Oulu, and now it's the turn of Sweden and Malmö. The empty streets of a Sunday afternoon, the cleanliness and order, stick out in the Malmö streets after lively Mexico.

Filmkontakt Nord is the event's umbrella organisation. Every year, the festival selects and screens the short films and documentaries it deems the best of the Nordic countries' output. The organisation is homespun but at the same time somehow arrogant: just like a family unit, into which, in principle, all the Nordic filmmakers belong to (most of which through forced adoption). In addition to film screenings, the Nordic finance forum, panel discussions and Master Class events form an important part of the festival. The leader of the Master Class, from outside the Nordic countries, is Kim Longinotto.

Even though the festival offers the so-called best of Nordic short and documentary films, it feels as though the films and their makers are the event's cross to bear. The Panorama's sideline activities and especially the running of the finance forum have developed into the central core of the event. Succesfully executed project presentations, i.e. pitches, at the forum are hyped up, which raises the spirit of the project and its crew. The most vital part of the pitches made for the financiers is a vivid and sexy presentation, which manipulates the situation and the general energy into a positive one for the project. The financiers, high on the positive energy, will then finance the project more easily and hope that the "hype" will maintain itself until the end of the process. A Nordic producer colleague of mine brushes off the "content/lack of content issue" in a way typical of our time: "if the project's well-made presentation manages to bring out laughs and to wake up the financiers, the project is bound to have levels of depth. Even if only on a hidden level." Exactly.

The finance forums have spread all over, and their behavioural rules and modes of action have met with amused approval. The filmmakers, financiers and organisers are aware that playing with manipulation skills is what it's all about. Real discussions about content are often secondary, and the show and the atmosphere it creates are more important. From the financiers' side it's of course important to get a good overall image of the project, as rich in content as possible. And there aren't many options on offer.

A Swedish producer colleague invites me to a meeting at the location of the Forum, but because I haven't bought a so-called spectator pass for the event, I am harshly shut out of the venue. After a long wait, the colleague and I find each other, and are not allowed to have a discussion in the venue. In the end, we have our meeting a few metres away from it.

Elsewhere, some American financier colleagues visiting the Panorama, representatives of ITVS, ask me along to a financier's dinner, but again the event organisers are watchful and send me back from the door of the restaurant. Here, the filmmaker has its place.

That place is found safely at the cinema, at the screening of my own film. Shadow of the Holy Book has two screenings, in fact. The first has 25 people present, and the second only 9. The second smallest audience in our festival history. I watch the crowd, and can't find a single so-called native who has dared to turn up. The audience appears to consist purely of film industry people accredited at the festival.

One problem with activating the local audience is that when a festival changes its location every year, it's difficult to creat a culture and a relationship between the audience and the event. Another reason might be that most of the organisers' energy is focused on the Forum and other sideline events, not so much on the screenings and their marketing. This so-called audience problem can be seen at Nordisk Panorama every year. And when it's about a so-called quality product, after all, "the best Nordic films", then why doesn't the organisation ask for consulting help from the organisers of, for example, Docpoint and/or the CPH-Dox in Copenhagen, who have succesfully managed to get big audiences for documentary films. But maybe this is not so important here. Maybe the internal communication within the family unit is more significant here than flirting with outsiders.

Well, in any case, the organisers and those responsible for the Malmö event this year are nice and active people, albeit trapped inside a recurring event, hands tied and modes of action programmed into their minds beforehand. In my opinion, the event needs some shaking up and revitalisation - no more formulaic bureaucracy. The festival's closing party, however, is very nice - the filmmakers can, after all, meet each other and exchange methods. That's always productive. It's also productive to have short fiction and animation as well as documentary filmmakers around, giving the communication a wider scope.

A bunch of DVDs have been delivered to my hotel from Iceland for me to watch. I am going to the Reykjavik International Film Festival, and have promised to join the Jury there to judge feature-length fiction films. As I will only be spending a few days in Iceland, I have received the "pre-assignment" in Malmö. On the table of my hotel room lie 14 films, each nearly 2 hours long. I won't have a lack of things to do then, even if the doors are closed to the Panorama events.

So I'm sitting in my hotel room for hours - sometimes "freshening up" in near-empty cinemas. When coming out of one film screening, tens of riot police are waiting outside with their horses and shields. What?! I am astonished. Has Nordisk Panorama or one of the films ignited some movement in people, a real mass movement? Of course not. Football fans from Malmö have started a rampage in a nearby bar. A football match is coming up, after all. Here, it is football that raises emotions. Not Nordic films.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

MEXICO CITY 23.9.-27.9.2008 - DocsDF Mexico City International Documentary Film Festival and Cine Nordico

DocsDF Mexico City International Film Festival's website


Usually, when embarking on a trip, I work during the night before: organising things, doing endless chores, delegating work to others and at the same time gathering up the most important work to take with me on the trip. The stress builds up at night and the oxygen sometimes nearly runs out, so to speak. I always end up putting myself down: why am I unable to schedule things better? Well at least I try to take this situation, one that has become almost unavoidable, in as relaxed a manner as possible… drangilo amigo.

This time, the flight to Mexico City to the DocsDF and Cine Nordico festivals is at 6 o’clock in the morning. I work at the office until nearly 3:30 AM. I am kept company by Kevin Frazier, who is working on summarising and elaborating on our book, Shadow of the Holy Book, in the room next door. Then into the cab and to pack at home and into the cab again and to the airport. On a plane to Mexico City via Amsterdam. The time difference is 8 hours (behind).

Although I always gather work to take with me on trips and even plan to do it, the festival schedules and daily rhythm are, almost without exception, so tight that doing extra work remains a fantasy. This time the situation is slightly different. I have some important work with me, the deadline of which is extremely pressing. The festival schedule therefore has to be accommodated around these responsibilities. I proofread our upcoming book, Shadow of the Holy Book, and go through travelling schedules and e-mails while working on a film script. I do practically a full day’s work on the trip every day with these so-called office duties. Then come the demands of the festival: screenings, press conferences and evening parties. Compared to Germany, however, the parties are rather lame – luckily. In the morning I always manage to get straight back to work. I don’t have time to see a single film (apart from our own one), which is a bit embarrassing, being at a festival.

This is DocsDF's third year. The festival is ambitious, and its organisers Pau Montagud, Inti Cordera & crew are energetic and creative. They do important work, after all. It is important to get successful documentary events into Latin America, which increase and deepen people’s awareness of the significance of documentary films and the possibilities they offer. After just two years, DocsDF is one of the continent's pioneers in this process. Creative documentary film, constrained in the midst of reality TV and dull soap operas, is not a genre to immediately attract big audiences, particularly in South America.

Opening ceremony atmosphere at the DocsDF festival. The festival's artistic director Pau Montagud and Arto Halonen

I visited the festival in its first year with our film Conquistadors of Cuba. Already back then, one could sense the energy which has driven things forward to this point, and clearly something has been learned from the difficulties encountered along the way. The festival has also been developed and expanded in many directions: they have founded (of course, according to the tradition) a financial forum, workshops, a Master Class and in addition to the normal cinema screenings, some refreshing tent screenings in the centre of Mexico City.

A screening of Shadow of the Holy Book is about to begin in a tent in the centre of Mexico City

Festival visits and getting to know different cities can be very different, so that when visiting the same place, one can somehow form a completely opposite image from the previous occasions. On this trip, I sit mostly in the hotel restaurant (due to the internet connection not functioning in my own room), typing on the computer and going from one event to another by car. Surprisingly it rains here, too, and its even quite chilly. The view is almost constantly grey. I stay in the Condesa area, which is modern and interesting, but aside from all the hurrying there is only time for observing the nearby park area.

Luckily my Mexico experience from two years back was completely different and in many ways an exceptional festival experience. Usually at festivals the city and its sights don't become very familiar, but previously Docpoint's then-artistic director Kristina Schulgin (who was choosing Mexican films for Docpoint) encouraged me to experience city culture: we visited the pyramids, anthropological museum, absurd bullfighting and show-wrestling events and the scruffy bars and corners of the city. I was fighting with back cramps at the time, but in the end tenaciously even went to see a couple of films. It was warm then, and the sun was shining.

Shadow of the Holy Book is the festival's opening film this year, which is a great honour. The opening ceremony is at an old historical church building, in which a cultural center operates nowadays. The programme includes as many as 150 films, some of which are great, prize-winning works. Unfortunately important films often get lost in the mass, which the audience can't find, the media doesn't manage to notice etc. It is the unfortunate side of even the best festivals. Thanks to the opening film status, we are lucky this time. All the main newspapers are writing stories about the film, and the word gets around, so that even Mexican MP's are in the end asking for DVD copies to watch in The Finnish Embassy.

DocsDF opening ceremony audience in an old church

The Finnish Embassy in Mexico takes an active part in organising the Cine Nordico event, held at the same time. It is also a sympathetic event, and is held at the Cineteca, the heart of Mexico City's cinema centre. I shuffle between the screenings of two festivals. The discussions with the audience are interesting. Anu Apo leads the helpful embassy crew, organising translation and transport help.

The energetic representatives of The Finnish Embassy in Mexico City. On the left translator Arja Perälä and on the right Anu Apo

My Finnish-Spanish colleague, Alvaro Pardo, is filming a fun-looking short documentary in the midst of the festival. The American documentary director Barbara Trent is in the festival's Jury, and she has brought with her the Oscar statue she won from her film Panama Deception. When receiving the prize she felt strongly that it belongs to all the people she has filmed and represented in her films. Therefore when Barbara travels the Oscar always comes along. Now Alvaro is following their movements, which include comical and peculiar moments when people meet the Oscar and Barbara.

Alvaro Pardo and the Oscar

In the end I manage to stick to my schedule - also in terms of the "office duties". I even manage to get myself a juicy hangover for the last morning. To balance it out I have the time to pay a Mexican gym a visit too.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Oldenburg International Film Festival's website

Next to Bremen lies the wealthy German city of Oldenburg. Not so small, but quite modest for a festival city all the same. The population is around 160 000. A film festival is organised there, now in its 15
th year. From the beginning, the festival director has been the sympathetic and personable Torsten Neumann. As a matter of fact, I got to know him 10 years ago in New York, where we met at a mutual film director friend’s house. That time Torsten cooked us German traditional food for hours, which, despite all the persistent and dilligent work that was put into it, was just as everyday and boring as the German bratwurst. I was now invited to Oldenburg for the first time, and had higher expectations of the festival than of Torsten’s cooking.

Festival director Torsten Neumann, deep in contemplation

Oldenburg International Film Festival uses the film magazine Variety’s slogan when advertising themselves: “The European Sundance festival”. The festival is very sympathetic indeed, and a family-spirited event where many festival guests return again and again – like into a yearly family meeting. The festival focuses mainly on independent fiction films. This time the programme includes five documentary films, one of which is Shadow of the Holy Book. The festival is also our German premiere, which makes the situation interesting. Especially when German companies are heavily featured in the film.

Oldenburg has invested in shepherding and entertaining the festival guests in an exemplary fashion. There are festivals where the guest is like a lone wolf, wandering in the Bermuda triangle between the cinema, hotel and the local bar, trying to find potential fellows. But Oldenburg functions in differently. The guests are taken from one place to another in Audi (one of the event’s main sponsors) cars, there are parties and festivities every night, as well as meetings over lunch and dinner. It is clearly important for Torsten that the festival guests and audience enjoy themselves, so the wine keeps flowing and parties go on until morning, which makes it hard to adapt to the rhythm the following day… whew.

The marketing and locations of the documentary film screenings aren’t exactly top notch compared to the fiction films, but more careful and cautionary. Despite the small audiences, both screenings of our film generate interesting discussions with the audience afterwards. No-one comes forward or turns out to be a representative of Siemens, DaimlerChrysler or Zeppelin, but these things usually come to light later, so we’ll see whether the film’s visit to Germany will rejuvenate the activities of the German companies’ propaganda departments.

The festival honoured two filmmakers, James Toback and Michael Wadleigh, in the form of tribute and lifetime achievement awards. Michael Wadleigh, director of the legendary Woodstock, was a refreshing choice, and I was taken by how Oldenburg summed up his career and, through that, his significant “political-spiritual” influences, spanning generations.

Michael Wadleigh with the Oscar-nominated actor Seymour Cassel. Halonen in between the two

Michael, in his filmmaking years, got fed up with Hollywood's “calculative” nature. Several of his plans for political films fell through at the last minute and then the years went by. After Woodstock’s success he got to direct only one feature-length Hollywood fiction, Wolfen, starring Albert Finney, in 1981. Finally Michael packed his bags and retired to the Welsh countryside with his family, where they run a farm. Simultaneously he has developed and actioned some large-scale training and multimedia projects. The plans for these projects are grand, and the aims lofty: “if you want change, you need to have the courage to think big”. Thinking big, at least of themselves, are some of the American debutante-actors visiting the festival. Contacts are made, glasses are raised and dreams of Hollywood’s red carpets are in the air while pacing the red carpets in Oldenburg. Big ideas, however, often require depth and content – if you’re aiming for staying power and effectiveness. Michael has both of these. For this reason, the meeting left a very positive impression. Oldenburg also thinks big, at least in some modest sense, in its small and sympathetic form.