Friday, November 21, 2008

International 1001 Documentary Film Festival, Istanbul 12.-14.11.2008

International 1001 Documentary Film Festival website


I step out of the airport bus into the Taksim central square. The scent of roasted chestnuts lingers in the air. Everything feels and smells familiar. It’s almost like I’d been here just a moment ago. It is, however, nearly two years since we shot in Istanbul for our film Shadow of the Holy Book. Alongside Tehran in Iran, this is one of those places I never thought I’d end up with the finished film, so sensitive it is from both of the countries perspective.

The long and deep neighbourly relations tie the histories of Turkey and Turkmenistan together. Turkmenistan’s late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov wrote the Ruhnama book (The Book of the Soul), through which he ruled and oppressed his people. In their greed Western companies translated the book into their own languages in order to get hold of the wondrous business opportunities. The megalomaniac Niyazov was flattered by the requests to translate the book. The new translations caressed his “artistic soul” and also gave new ammunition to oppress the opposition: all the letters praising the Ruhnama sent by companies were published in the media and read out, for example, in the news. Therefore an image was created for the people of Turkmenistan that the whole world stands behind Niyazov’s dictatorship.

The Turkish businessman Ahmet Chalik was the conductor of the propaganda orchestra and became Niyazov’s closest business partner, and even a minister in Niyazov’s government. Ahmet didn’t have to try to replace the Caliph, as while working as Niyazov’s and the Ruhnama’s shadow he became even more influential than Niyazov himself. Ahmet fed into Niyazov’s vanity and megalomania, and managed to secure a lasting place in the dictator’s heart. He pioneered, for example, the translation of Ruhnama into different languages, gave a statue of the Ruhnama book to Niyazov as a birthday present, and proposed the name-change of calendar months according to Niyazov’s relatives and the Ruhnama. Ahmet’s power and business activites grew in Turkmenistan at the same rate as Niyazov’s madness. From the textile and cotton industry Ahmet expanded out into the construction industry and finally into the gas and oil industry.

Saparmurat Niyazov and Ahmet Chalik studying construction plans

Now that the power structure has changed in Turkmenistan, the new leader Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov hasn’t managed to get rid of Chalik, even though he has skilfully cleared out Niyazov’s close circle from around him. Ahmet’s power is so significant, that the new president has to tolerate him. Chalik, for example, features in the new China-Turkmenistan gas pipeline deal as a third party. Right alongside the states.

When we started researching Chalik’s activities around 3 years ago, he was not very well known by the Turkish people. He was one of Turkey’s richest people, but still managed to avoid publicity skilfully. All of Turkey’s political quarters wanted Ahmet’s backup and support, and finally he was won over by Turkey’s current Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s AKP party. Just like in the Chalik-Niyazov scenario, Chalik has become a close friend of Erdogan as well as the Turkish President Abdullah Gül. At the end of 2007 Chalik and Erdogan made a big move. With the Prime Minister’s support Chalik bought Turkey’s second largest media complex, ATV-Sabah, which includes a TV-channel (ATV), radio channel (Radio City), 5 newspapers, headed by one of Turkey’s biggest (Sabah) and 10 magazines. The sale price for the media complex was suspiciously low and rumours circulated about the Prime Minister having manoeuvred the low price as well as the bank guarantees for the sale. In other words, the ruling political party grabbed a large chunk of Turkey’s media power and Chalik was made into a media mogul. In September 2008 the Prime Minister caused a scandal by advising people to boycott the opposition media. Now Ahmet is certainly known is Istanbul.

Chalik-owned newspapers and magazines

However, people are still not aware of Ahmet’s activities in Turkmenistan. That’s where he made his riches by questionable means, is now buying power with it in his own country and the whole of Central Asia. Ahmet’s story is part of our film Shadow of the Holy Book. He is the films so-called “bad boy”, or at least a counterforce to the democratisation fighters. International 1001 Documentary Film Festival has made a courageous move by selecting the film, and especially as the festival’s Opening Film. I wait for the audience reactions with great interest. Ahmet Chalik and the Prime Minister Erdogan have also been invited to the screening.

Opening ceremony audience at the 1001 festival

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is also holding a meeting with Erdogan. The meeting’s most important agenda is collaboration in the energy sphere. The planned gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Turkey and through to Europe is undoubtedly on the list of issues. Ahmet, of course, has a significant role in the project. In private discussions experiences on media ownership and the ruling and manipulating of people are bound to be shared. This is something that the media mogul Berlusconi has long-term experience in, and without his media power he would have never become a Prime Minister. I wonder whether Ahmet will take part in the discussions – or if he’s perhaps travelling in Turkmenistan or China.

Shadow of the Holy Book on the pages of Hürriyet with Erdogan and Berlusconi

The right-wing opposition newspaper Hürriyet wrote ambitiously about our film in advance. The journalist behind the article, Ersin Kalkan, has been brave in his writings and the state has charged him on nearly 30 accounts for “insulting Turkishness” according to the 301. article in the criminal law. Ersin has tackled the criminal cases victoriously, but has also received a lot of intimidation and blackmail. The Sabah newspaper, owned by Ahmet Chalik, also tried to buy him out and join their editorial team. The paycheck would have been much heftier than the current one. Ersin, however, was not to be bought and silenced. He does not want to sell himself to the new media mogul.

Journalist Ersin Kalkan and director Arto Halonen at the 1001 festival's opening ceremony

The festival is overshadowed by sad news. A remarkable documentary director and active member of the Documentary Filmmakers Association has suddenly passed away two days prior. The colleagues carry the director’s photograph around their necks, thereby honouring him and his meritorious work. The opening ceremony therefore features sorrow as well as joy. The Association of Documentary Filmmakers in Turkey, responsible for the festival’s organisation, awards Shadow of the Holy Book with the Honorary Recognition. To my surprise the final applause is also vibrant. Ahmet and Erdogan cannot be seen in the audience, and their support troops remain silent. The feedback is supportive and the film is praised for its encouraging effect. There is a will to make the Turkish people aware of Ahmet Chalik’s activities. A director working for Chalik’s ATV-channel feels embarrassed. He asks for a copy of the film for the opposition MP’s to watch, and promises to try to get it to the opposition-owned TV-channel’s distribution. He is, however, afraid that even the opposition won’t have the courage to show the film on their channel, as in addition to Ahmet they would also get the Prime Minister and President on their backs. Turkey has a long history of ruling through fear and intimidation, and influential people’s deterrents still function effectively. This sounds familiar also in our country, tarnished by Finlandization. Small Finland seeks its Finlandization subject humbly and fearfully. After the Soviet Union and China, Nokia has risen as the big brother, at the feet of which the whole nation lies, fearfully and silently, with the Prime Minister in the front line.

1001 festival's Honorary Recognition for Shadow of the Holy Book

The Islamic liberal newspaper Zaman does an interview in relation to our film. Like Sabah and Hürriyet, Zaman is also one of Turkey’s leading newspapers. The journalist comes to the film’s opening screening and is excited about what he sees, praising the film. The article, however, never materialises. Ahmet is not the owner of Zaman, but is its important supporter and financier. The journalist is clearly not aware of this. The article gets stuck in the editorial office. The media control and power exerted by Ahmet and Erdogan functions disconcertingly well.

Sheffield Doc/Fest 07.-10.11.2008

Sheffield Doc/Fest website


For a day it’s reasonably warm, an almost gentle kind of weather here. Then the rain comes down sideways and the wind blows tearing umbrellas and their owners. Sheffield, striving from the steel industry, shows the disfigured face of the autumn. The locals here are more interested in football than films, despite Sheffield Wednesday F.C. dropping out of the Premier League to the First Division some years ago. It was a hard knock for the city. Almost like the steel industry falling overnight. Culture isn’t something to lift the city’s confidence, but luckily documentary films are meaningful here too, at England’s leading documentary film festival, and to some they mean a great deal – even though the masses are sitting in the warmth of the pubs, eyes glued to the football match on TV.

Saturday night football match brings the police to the front of the pub

The festival delegations are plentiful here from around the world – so there is a reasonable amount of people in all the screenings. However, it would be wise to invest more into the local population. Of course it’s not easy. The festival is, in fact, represented excellently on the streets and the local campus area, but the cultural breach clearly takes some time.

Women Make Movies distribution company's Debra Zimmermann immersed in the Ruhnama

In many respects the festival has been organised exquisitely. The event is centered effectively around one cinema complex, with its festival clubs and offices. Communication functions well, and there are plenty of discussions, seminars and parties. The programme is also well selected. Another positive surprise is the good quality of British documentaries. Other than reportage made to the BBC mould can be also be found in this kingdom.

The festival centre in Sheffield

The festival’s programme director Hussain Currimbhoy does his job with piety, and stands as an exceptionally courageous example. He is personally present at the beginning of each screening, to make sure that everything is in order when it comes to technicalities. For once I don’t have to run between the screening room and the projectionist: Hussain and his assistants have walkie-talkies and a direct line to the projectionist’s room at all times. Therefore our film’s focus and “image speed” problems are taken care of in a trice this time.

Arto Halonen and Hussain Currimbhoy

There’s a party every night, and after last night’s one there is an additional farewell one for the staff. Partying is something that comes naturally here. For once I stay until the end of the festival. The festival workers are celebrating a job well done. They’re proud, and it’s worth it.

The doorman of the Scottish-themed party welcomes the guests

Taiwanin International Documentary Festival 01. – 06.11.2008

Taiwan International Documentary Festival website


After Lithuania I made a stopover in Helsinki for five hours. I manage to do some laundry, and even pause for a moment in my thoughts, about my travelling. When you travel, you always leave from one situation and when you return, in a way you return into the moment you left. The progress in the point of departure (=homeland), however, cannot be paused with a remote control, so things keep moving on while you’re gone. Time cannot be controlled, and it’s not physically possible to divide oneself into different locations at once. A trip is always a choice. It’s not only an “addition” – a new nuance amongst the old or a dessert after dinner. It’s an either-or – here or there – situation.

Excessive travelling affects personal relationships. Restless lifestyle alienates and frightens – and of course fascinates, at least in case of the traveller. How is one able, and dares to build anything around a restless lifestyle… or on the other hand, why not. Maybe being on the move creates a feeling of security and keeps away the fear of standing still, at least ostensibly. Perhaps it’s also a way for me to play overtime, so to speak. Especially when I know the importance of stopping and also feel drawn to it.

Taiwan brings up a lot of memories. I go through them a lot during the trip. Maybe I’ve previously experienced so much and so quickly here that I haven’t had the time to deal with it. I am at the Taiwan festival for the second time. The festival is organised every other year, and the first time being in 1998 when I was in Taipei with my film Karmapa – Two Ways of Divinity, set in Tibet. Now the festival has moved to the country’s (or county’s, according to the Chinese) second largest city, Taichung. This isn’t a small place either with its population of 2,3 million.

Festival advert outside the hotel

The festival started out 10 years ago ambitiously. The programme was great, and the prizes remarkable. From Finland Pirjo Honkasalo and Marita Hällfors also attended with their film Atman. The festival therefore offered a chance to get to know Pirjo a bit better, whose work I’ve appreciated a good deal over the years. Although festivals, in a way, have a restless nature, many deepening, calming and structuring moments take place, also with colleagues.

The facade of the Taichung art museum

It frustrates me that Taiwan doesn’t organise the festival every year. The gap years drop the event off the map and the persistent development of the festival and its organisation becomes more difficult and clumsy. The location and the audience seem like an excellent subject for doing something significant through persistent work. The centre of the festival is Taichung’s art museum, which has presented the festival in a magnificent way. Screenings take place on four screens simultaneously, and there is a surprisingly large audience even in the daytime screenings. The Taiwanese are also eager to have discussions. Shadow of the Holy Book generates long discussions after its screening, one of which lasts over an hour. My film about Tibet and being blacklisted by China also interests the Taiwanese, who clearly read Shadow of the Holy Book through their own situation and their relationship with China: worried, in a way, on how deep they can sink with China and how far will China go with its oppression.

The front of the Taichung art museum

Post-screening discussion

I have brought my Olympic shirt to the festival. I was invited to the Beijing Olympics by the Finnish Lottery and the Finnish Olympic Committee as part of their delegation, but in the end China refused my visa. All the delegation members received the “dress for the games” for the Olympics, including a shirt where Finland has been stylishly embroidered in the back in Chinese. I wear the shirt to the screenings and discussions as I am, after all, the Finnish representative here and the only one as well. Furthermore, I will never be allowed any closer than this to China – not during the current totalitarian rule anyway. I’ll let this be my Olympic representation. Shadow of the Holy Book had also been selected to be screened at a festival in Beijing, but after the Olympics it was also deemed for the blacklist and the festival removed it from its programme.

Arto wearing the Finnish representative shirt

The Taiwanese are very warm and cordial in their organisation – its of course part of the culture, but strongly appears to be genuine. Every guest receives a so-called assistant, who helps with the scheduling, practical matters and also acts as a local guide. The festival club is missing from the event, which is a small minus point. However, it’s clearly tied into the culture – instead of partying, people prefer to walk and take the guests to the night market, which is Taichung’s most active centre and meeting place.

The US elections conclude at the latter half of the festival. In the minds of many a miracle takes place through Obama’s victory. In Taiwan, too, many locals and festival guests are touched by it and feel pride – listen to Obama’s victory speech deeply moved, yours truly included. In Obama people’s anguish becomes concrete, as well as the hope for something better. An inconceivable possibility of change culminates in him, in which people want to believe. The world is at great emergency. It will make Obama’s mission impossible. Hopefully as much as possible will live on from this “symbol of purity” and hope – past the years and terms in office.

The same emergency and fear also lingers on around here, and it should somehow be unravelled from people’s minds. Obama will not be of any help, when China looms as a shadow around the corner like a developmentally distorted big brother.

"Ad Hoc: Inconvenient Films" Human Rights Films Festival, Vilna, Lithuania 29.-31.10.2008

"Ad Hoc: Inconvenient Films" website


From the airport straight to the screening via the hotel. I take a quick shower, and grab the Ruhnama and other props to take with me. The organisers have a surprise: they have managed to get the Lithuanian translation of the Ruhnama, which we then present to the audience alongside the English one. The Irish oil company Emerol translated the Ruhnama into both Lithuanian and Latvian. As the book couldn’t be translated into English twice and as there was a Lithuanian on the company’s managerial board, the book was translated into two new languages. By means of this, Emerol crowned its success in Turkmenistan.

The screening is full, and people have a lot of questions. The film’s cinematographer Hannu-Pekka Vitikainen has also come along for the trip, and we answer the audience’s questions together. In a couple of weeks Vitikainen will represent the film alone in Bosnia and Hercegovina, so the Q&A session is a good warm-up for him.

Cinematographer HP Vitikainen, festival director
Gediminas Andriukaitis and the Lithuanian and English Ruhnamas

The festival’s human rights theme does not appear to put people off - more like the other way round. The audience is also plentiful in other screenings. This festival is in its second year. The organisers are young, but so is the audience. - 95% of the audience are under 30, which is something of an exception. Usually the festival audiences are varied, with a younger crowd often forming the majority, but older viewers are also found. I wonder what Lithuanian over-30s do with their spare time?

Festival audience in Vilnius

The cleaner wakes me up in the morning. Enters the hotel room by accident, gets confused and leaves. I am also feeling confused: where am I?

Batumi International Art-House Film Festival 25.-29.10.2008

Batumi film festival’s website


The Ruhnama and Anti-Ruhnama at the Helsinki Book Fair

We received our Shadow of the Holy Book –book from the printing press, and a couple of days were spent marketing the book at the Helsinki Book Fair, as well as at the book’s own launch party. I crawl home from the party around 4 AM and my plane to Georgia (or to Riga, Istanbul and on to Batumi in Georgia) was due to leave just after 6 o’clock in the morning. Feeling slightly queasy I managed to pack the last few things, the Ruhnama book and a bunch of old unread Helsingin Sanomat newspapers. Then I’m on the road again.

Like Publishing Ltd’s Nora Varjama, Kevin and Arto at the book launch

The flights are tiring for someone with a hangover, but luckily I start to feel better “flight by flight”. The Poles and the Iranians seem to follow me to every festival. Like Tehran, the Batumi festival also features a wide Poland-retrospective, built around Kieslowski, and a smaller selection of Iranian films. There’s a big Polish group present, and a few people from Iran. Some of the Polish guests I already met in Tehran. Sometimes the filmmaker’s world is indeed a small one. The first evening continues through many turns with the Polish actives in the local disco, “Hollywood”. The atmosphere is comparable to a conquered war zone. The smoke machine puffs out smoke in the air momentarily, while the Poles bravely attempt to lift up the bland atmosphere.

Polish films were strongly represented at the festival

Batumi is Georgia’s largest harbour town on the shore of the Black Sea. There are hardly any signs of war. Around here the Russians bombed some military targets, but civilian victims were avoided. The war is of course talked about and it delayed the festival by over a month. It is great, though, that it was finally organised. Another one of Georgia’s film festivals in Tbilisi also hovers in the state of uncertainty. The festival was meant to take place in December, but a decision was made to move it to the beginning of next year, and could possibly get cancelled altogether.

Statue and city culture in Batumi

Alongside the retrospectives and special screenings the festival also has a competition series for both fiction and documentary films. The programme director of Chicago Film Festival, Christopher Kamyszev, is responsible for selecting the documentary programme. We are part of this quality series alongside 9 documentary films, such as the long-touring Up the Yangtse (Yung Chang, Canada), The Champagne Spy (Nadav Schirman, Israel), Revue (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia) and Echoes of Home (Stefan Schwietert, Germany-Switzerland). The Georgian but currently France-residing and successful Nino Kirtadze’s film Durakovo: Village of Fools is also featured in the series.

There are not many filmmaker guests present, in addition to the Polish and Iranian ones. Why did they want me here and pay for my travel expenses, I wonder… Of course I take it as a compliment and an honour. The organisers indeed take good care of the guests: the transport functions well and there’s plenty of food. However, every day the lunch and dinner is eaten according to the same menu pattern: cheese, bread, wheat bread, cheese bread, tomatoes, cucumber and saslik. Pretty good to begin with, but after a couple of days it starts to come out of my ears.

Dinner table

Despite the quality films and good spirits, the festival organisation sometimes appears home-spun. The screenings of the films are running late, and the projectionists have an old Soviet-style work moral and therefore aren’t exactly on top of things. We have managed to get a 35mm film copy of Shadow of the Holy Book to the festival. It’s great, but involves more of a risk for the screening to fail. Once again I run between the projection room and the cinema during the film and try to get the sound level up and the image format right. In addition, the film starts running from the first minute in, and is finished too soon. I wonder what the 35mm screenings of our film are like around the world when I’m not there. Although film is always film, DVD starts to show its benefits. At least its better suited for amateur use.

The festival’s main theatre in Batumi

On the last day of the festival, early in the morning, I head towards Lithuania through a weird route. As there are no flights to Istanbul on that day, I get a 3-hour taxi ride to Trabzon in Turkey. From there I get on a domestic flight to Istanbul and on to Helsinki, from where I continue immediately to Lithuania. When I step on the plane in Trabzon and walk through the aisle towards my seat with the Turkish passengers, I am filled with a peculiar feeling, a strange feeling of familiarity and comfort. Like I’m home again. On a plane. It sounds, and feels worrying. Have I been travelling too much?

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Cinema Verite festival's website


Shadow of the Holy Book poster at the festival cinema

After Shadow of the Holy Book was made I could never have imagined that within a year the film would be screened to an Iranian audience in Tehran. This took place, however, with the film being screened at Tehran’s Cinema Verite festival. The audience shuffles in and out of the theatre during the screening – this wandering continues from the beginning of the film until the end. Fortunately around a hundred viewers sit unflinchingly while the other half sustains this movement.

The Felestine cinema functioned as the center of Cinema Verite

In the discussion afterwards, a young director-student springs up, praises the film and points towards the image of Iran’s spiritual leader ajatollah Ali Khamenei, lodged in the front corner of the cinema: “Could you also make a film about Iran? You must make your next film about him, our leader. The same kind of film as Shadow of the Holy Book”. To my surprise the audience do not protest against this courageous comment. I refuse politely, but during the following days a couple of other people also repeat the request. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also suggested as a subject.

The spiritual leader ajatollah Ali Khamenei supervises the festival posters

The works by Western filmmakers screened at the festival raise some interesting debate between local journalists, students and filmmakers. The Iranians are clearly encouraged by some of the stories and examples in the films, and are motivated by through them, which feels great. Encouraging authors to go forward. Receiving feedback from them and their artistic expression – Iranian cinema and aesthetics are, after all, fascinating and original – and at the same time give something back and create belief.

TV-interview at the Cinema Verite festival

Cinema Verite is in its second year, and summons respect in many ways. The international program has a wide range of good quality films. It also includes a good selection of the year’s documentary pearls from different genres and perspectives. There is a comprehensive overview of Polish documentary cinema, new Finnish documentary films, and tributes to the English Cinema Verite pioneer, Robert Leacock, Canadian Peter Wintonick and the Danish Jorgen Leth. The most surprising thing, however, is that amongst the international films, many sensitive subjects are touched upon, such as in our film, which one would not expect to be screened in Iran, a country known for its constraints. The festival organisers have most likely acted as masters of balance in this matter: they dare to be courageous and open, but at the same time remember to respect their own Islamic traditions and roots. Indeed, the festival draws substantial attention to the 30th anniversary of Iran's Islamic revolution. The ceremonies are also in accord with the Islamic books, their national hymns and courtesies. The massive program has been crammed onto just 5 cinema screens over 6 days. There doesn’t appear to be any shortage of people, and the journalists are swarming around the festival guests, which is great, but for such a large amount of films there ought to be more screening days.

Peter Wintonick and one of the festival posters

Iikka Vehkalahti at the awards ceremony

Thanks to the program's Finnish series, the Finnish Documentary Guild's yearly festival trip was also in Persia. It’s a good, exotic choice. The jury for the international competition also includes a Finnish presence in the form of the Documentary Project producer Iikka Vehkalahti. I arrive in Tehran on the same flight with the Finnish group, and we are accommodated in the same hotel. The organisers take us around, according to the daily schedule, into the cinema, to the daily tourist attraction, to lunch and to dinner. We blend in with the larger group of international guests; minibuses in the wild Tehran traffic taking the group of international guests around. It’s quite nice for a while, but of course also a bit numbing. Sometimes while moving around in a big group it feels like being on a package tour in Tenerife.

The Documentary Guild tour leader Leena Kilpeläinen
testing Iranian flexibility with her scarf

The effective guides for the festival guests

Inka Achte taking a picture at the mosque

Carpet salesmen in Teheran

I was in Tehran two years earlier at the “educational” ROSHD (=development) festival as a member of the jury. The bureaucratic, “state-controlled” and closed-off nature of the festival was something wholly different to the Cinema Verite event. It's great to see that thanks to courageous people, even in problematic and reactionary places some glimmers of light and hope can exist. Communication, meeting people, and exchanging views can move things forward. Perhaps not immediately, but at least a slow crawl in the right direction. Because Western people are not living “behind the veil” in Iran’s reality, it’s likely to be difficult for many to understand the kind of brave, high-quality, cultural-societal achievement the Cinema Verite festival represents.

Camerawoman at the festival closing ceremony