Genuinely socialist: The Midnight Sun Film Festival

It’s a strange little clearing in the endless boreal forest; it’s a small-town-turned-refugee-camp for hipsters; it’s Sodankylä’s Midnight Sun Film Festival, where the spirit of film – and even socialism – live on.

A funny thing happened on my way to the theatre: I bumped into Peter von Bagh on Peter von Bagh Street! Now it’s my new favourite street, named after the cinematic visionary who founded my new favourite film festival. All corruptions apart, film has a natural affinity with the human ideals of equality and freedom, in short, with Socialism, which happens to be the title of von Bagh’s latest film. In modest Sodankylä such filmic ideals get a new breath of life.

So here you are, and ‘you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.’ Neither are you in Berlin or Cannes, and you’re certainly not in Hollywood – in spite of the trees! For this is a film festival like no other. We’ve bussed through miles of woodland from the last outpost of civilisation, known as Rovaniemi (which just happens to be the home of Santa, we are assured) and finally emerged here, in Sodankylä, where mosquitos will be our constant companions. It’s a strange little clearing in the endless boreal forest; it’s a small-town-turned-refugee-camp for hipsters; it’s ‘Midnight Sun!’

We live in a world of constant flux. Its name is capitalism. If capitalism is a kind of spiritual desert then Sodankylä in midsummer is the unexpected oasis. Established by the enigmatic grandee of Finnish cinema, Peter von Bagh, together with the famous film-making Kaurismäki brothers, in the 1980s, the festival (this year from 11th to 15th June) leaves the impression that little has changed in nearly three decades. The impression is confirmed in conversation with a few of the diehards, who claim they were here at the very start.

Von Bagh Street (Foto: Santeri Happonen).
Peter von Bagh Street (Foto: Santeri Happonen).

Von Bagh’s unique vision of a purer kind of celebration of film, free from the usual industry-media merry-go-round, seems to be largely intact, though one important battle may already be lost: the struggle to resist digitalisation. Midnight Sun remains a rare haven for the enduring charm of 35 mm but the barbarians, and their newer formats, are already well inside the gates. Indeed, this is the first year the genuine films are outnumbered, clearly a landmark many of the organisers would have hoped never to reach.

Meanwhile, here in the makeshift beer-garden in the school-grounds where many of the films will be shown – either in the building itself or one of two venues under canvass – I am picking up that alternative vibe that is somehow so 1986, the festival’s inaugural year. A quirky indy-sounding ensemble, Mood Killer, are playing like buskers right outside the school, with jugglers and other circus performers providing their colourful visual accompaniment.

The festival has scarcely begun, but the bustle of youth, so fitting to this place of constant daylight, is already in evidence. This is not the youth I know from Tromsø, however. The sons and daughters of my adopted hometown can be found in trendy sportswear or corporate-style jacket and tie. The untidy rabble now gathering on the Sodankylä school-grounds, on the other hand, were apparently transported here by movie time-machine from anno 1986. Their distinguishing marks are the little goatie beards, the dreads or pony-tails, the headscarves, bandanas and cloth caps. Their standard accoutrements are rolling-papers and hipflasks. Actually, they are a distant echo of the spirit of ’68 and beyond.

Circus. (Foto: Annina Mannila
Circus (Foto: Annina Mannila).
Public (Foto: Saana Kotila).
Public (Foto: Saana Kotila).

The film festival as a global institution has its own not-so discrete charms. On frequent visits you will feel yourself pulled inexorably into its orbit. The cosmological metaphor is apropos. The gravitational force of any festival is exercised by its stars. They – or actually their minions – more or less consciously orchestrate its social dynamic. The rest of us are arranged in concentric circles around these formidable centres of gravity: The Robert de Niros or Sophia Lorens.

For good or ill, such attributes are conspicuous by their absence in Sodankylä. Here we have exchanged the tempting but superficial pantomime of red carpets, celebrity quiffs and champagne glasses for a more modest but also more appealing parade of tents, dreads and hipflasks. What is the meaning of the contrast? What is it that really makes Midnight Sun so different from practically every other festival? I believe it is the egalitarian spirit and, in a way, the spirit of film itself as a medium. This is the potential that Walter Benjamin first recognised in such an unprecedentedly mechanised art-form as not just readily directed at the masses but capable of being harnessed by and for them.

Benjamin had already recognised film’s pitfalls, of course, not least the tendency to the cult of personality. We might note in passing, and with sadness, the categorical fall of pretty much every film festival ever established into this very pit, and then turn our attention, with joy in our hearts, back to modest Sodankylä.

Foto: Santeri Happonen.
Charlie Chaplin (Foto: Santeri Happonen).

Maybe modest isn’t the right word. Peter von Bagh does not hesitate to label his festival as great and even the greatest, but true greatness comes hand in hand with humility. This is a place ruled by lovers of film, not lovers of the success that film may bring. Sodankylä’s greatness is derived from the eternal qualities of beauty and honesty, not that hollow imposter: the ‘random harvest’ of social climbing.

Thus some of the puzzles or paradoxes of Midnight Sun can be unravelled. The purism that energises the festival means filmgoers should, where possible, witness the beauty that is arguably only to be attained in the trappings of real film from real canisters, ideally in classic 35 mm format. Yet here there is refreshingly little self-purification of a self-referential film elite, cognoscenti or otherwise, cloistering itself away from the great unwashed masses in a succession of VIP events. Hence it is the most natural thing in the world to bump into and exchange pleasantries with von Bagh himself, as I did on the first day, right here on his very own street.

After all, Midnight Sun was always about taking the road less travelled: to be personal and informal and yet true to high ideals. This is a festival without competitions. It is rather the invited guests who drive the programme, especially the directors and film experts, here to engage directly with the festival-goers, not just by showing films but also by sharing their reflections. The result, on the one hand, is an eclectic collection of some of the world’s greatest or most promising films, ranging from premieres of the works of new Finnish and international directors, to reverential screenings of silent-movie classics, reinvigorated with the original live music of such film-loving bands as the Cleaning Women or the Matti Bye Ensemble. In school or tent, where the continual daylight is only partially excluded, or in the town’s solitary, family-run cinema, the marvellous films just keep rolling, literally around the clock.

Peter von Bagh & Aki Kaurismaki (Foto: Ella Karttunen).
Peter von Bagh & Aki Kaurismaki (Foto: Ella Karttunen).

The festival is much more than the screenings themselves, however. The film talks and ‘master classes’ come thick and fast every morning, full to overflowing with enthusiastic and engaged participants. Such events sustain the connection and the continual dialogue between festival and festival-goers, as they share their thoughts, ideas and, above all, their love of film. This is the unique magic of Midnight Sun.

We mustn’t get too carried away with the idealism of course. Its disappointments are legion, as referenced in the melancholy beauty of von Bagh’s own, latest documentary, Sosialismi (2014), which premiered at this year’s festival. Midnight Sun is no panacea, no more than the ‘Real Socialism’ immortalised in film but betrayed by the Soviet Union. Like any attempt to challenge the existing social order it inevitably engenders hostile reactions from outside and troubling contradictions from within.

Whatever the generally positive atmosphere of Sodankylä’s festival season, tensions and even violence have occasionally erupted between ‘festival types’ and ‘townies.’ Moreover, no egalitarian project is incorruptible, a tragic theme highlighted, not surprisingly, by von Bagh’s documentary. Compromises inevitably emerge, like ugly rifts in the social fabric. Celebrities will come – even here – and need to be looked after; staff will naturally form their own exclusive clique, one step removed from the honoured guests. Inevitably at least an element of hierarchy and discrimination will creep in.

Sosialismi (Peter von Bagh).

There is nevertheless a robust mechanism of progressive social resistance out here in the midsummer woodlands. Its paradoxical qualities are only testimony to its appealing humanity. This is no sterile utopia but rather what Hakim Bey would call a ‘temporary autonomous zone’, executing the delicate task of adding something positive – however fleeting – to the mundane weal of our everyday existence. There is much to learn here, at least for those of us who dream of a world made better, fairer and more beautiful, and among us are the greatest dreamers of all, the filmmakers themselves.

We might, for example, confront the strangest paradox of all, reflected in the touching efforts to preserve something all but lost. Midnight Sun conserves and is thus conservative. At the same time it evokes a powerful sense of possibility that is progressive, even revolutionary. In this regard, the festival echoes the tensions of other uplifting projects, including that 20th-century favourite now rendered almost a dirty word: socialism.

Any social movement, however progressive, has something in common with the dominant institutional structures against whose grain it must continually struggle. The common element is memory, and it represents the foundation-stone of all human, collective initiatives. In order to do anything together, whatever it is, we must learn and remember our part or role. Getting started usually requires even more than this, however, that we learn and remember why: what it is we actually hope to achieve. Most institutions are founded on noble aspirations. The problem is not the learned practice, including our roles, but how all this can degenerate into unquestioned habit. Then the habit is remembered but the point forgotten.

(Foto: Santeri Happonen)
VIP (Foto: Santeri Happonen)

It is only through recollection on a more conscious level that we can unlock our imagination. Hence the alternative impulse to make something better must ultimately build on something we have experienced and cherished in the past. This is perhaps the central revolutionary paradox. In fighting the drudgery imposed by unthinking adherence to traditional practices, such as the law of the market, we must invoke an alternative – or regenerated – tradition of our own. Take 35 mm film. We may well cling to it out of habit but we might also be guided by a recognition of its value, and the corollary of the kind of enduring sentiments and associations such film, at its best, may evoke. Meanwhile capitalism represents itself as the enemy of habit and the seedbed of innovation and progress. In reality, the essence of capitalism lies rather in an unthinking habit of its own, one of continual destruction and meaningless waste, as dictated by the requirements of sustained profits and permanent growth.

Institutions – and capitalism is no exception – are the seedbeds of ignorance, of the propensity to bury reflection, imagination and fellow-feeling in the repetitive, self-perpetuating drudgery of habit. This is as true of the drudgery of production as it is of the drudgery of consumption. The sobering lessons on this count are endless. Only consider the many once progressive social movements that have gradually but mercilessly been stripped of meaning. Film is a powerful medium for revealing their degradation.

One brilliant example shown at the festival will illustrate the point – Corpo Celeste– the 2011 debut feature of the young Italian auteur Alice Rohrwacher, whose second feature, The Wonders (2014), was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes. In Corpo Celeste she exposes the way the original ideals of Christianity are degraded by the everyday practices of its church.

Alice Rohrwacher.
Alice Rohrwacher.
Corpo celeste.
Corpo celeste.

The film focuses on a young girl, Marta, caught up in the preparations for confirmation. Through her eyes we see the extinction of the core of Christian philosophy – love for humanity – in the everyday kowtowing and self-serving of the instruments of the Catholic Church. The ambitious priest finds the despondent girl wandering near the highway. He sees no alternative but to take her with him on his quest to retrieve an altar-piece from his moribund home town – a victim of rural flight. With this figure of Christ on the cross he hopes to enhance his own reputation and perhaps even engineer himself an opening at a more prestigious parish. His focus on climbing the ranks of the Church leaves him blind to the troubles of others. He never learns how Marta has come to such a sorry pass, nor how the aging village priest feels the loss, not just of the life of his community, but now also a key symbol that had once bound it together.

Jaded as it may be, the symbol is used here to startling effect. The image of a church establishment indifferent to the sufferings of its ‘flock’ is juxtaposed with the image of one who identified with the sufferings and frailties of others to the point of the ultimate self-sacrifice: Jesus of Nazareth. Here Rohrwacher has given us film at its best, as a kind of ‘empathy machine,’ as Mark Cousins once put it (in The First Movie, 2009). Empathy is what the priest among others has lost. We may well view him as a rational actor in his institutional setting, but his lack of reflection reduces his conduct to little more than habit, and a bad one at that, considered in the light of that institution’s founding principles.

Like many of its own films, Midnight Sun remains true to perhaps the greatest cinematic – and human – aspiration of them all: to express an understanding of, and solidarity with, all the others washed up with us here on this strange little planet of ours. I felt this almost bodily at the ‘karaoki’ screening of John Landis’s The Blues Brothers, from 1980. Together in The Big Tent we embraced one more alternative tradition in all its delightful absurdity, as we sang and danced beneath the silver screen. This is what makes The Midnight Sun Film Festival the world’s only genuinely socialist film festival – in spirit if not in name – and easily the best.

The Blues Brothers (Foto: Santori Happonen).
The Blues Brothers (Foto: Santori Happonen).
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