P. Stuart Robinson (1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
Now, more than ever, we need our lantern bearers, our beacons of hope. We need Sodankylä’s Midnight Sun Film Festival! But can it survive the loss of its guru?
Storm-clouds are gathering. The world got darker in the two years since I first discovered this remarkable festival. Yet here the sun still shines night and day, as do the beautiful films, lovingly assembled for a celebration of that other side of our natures, beyond the fear and xenophobia: all that is uplifting, unifying and sublime.
The elites who manage and feed upon our oppressive social system are occasionally confronted with massive crises, the natural consequences of their self-serving practices. They will take no responsibility or blame for the chaos they unleash, however. For the popular response is inclined to ignore the real culprits and rather find scapegoats in every poor soul readily labelled as foreign, any meddler or interloper who can be found guilty of otherness. The rest is history – the history of Europe between the wars – and, we may fear, history in the making, in the Europe of today.
Is the European (going-on global) crisis echoed in new travails for the Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF)? After all, there’s bound to be some regrouping after the loss of the Sodankylä film camp’s motive force, the irrepressible and irreplaceable Peter von Bagh.
As I set out for Finland’s northern forests a week or so ago, I was hoping for the best but fearing the worst. I could use some consolation; I’ve never felt more certain that the world is moving in the wrong direction. I would hate to think that even my favourite film-festival was going south, especially in light of its position virtually on top of the world, close to 68 degrees north and not far from Rovaniemi, the self-styled home of Santa Claus!
First impressions are good at any rate. Not much has changed. The school, the two venues under canvas, the charming little family-run cinema, and, best of all, the generously provisioned beer tent – they’re all still here and apparently unspoiled. Nevertheless, I have some misgivings. There are so many people! Is Midnight Sun getting too big for its boots; is it in danger of losing its intimate charm? I’m glad it’s thriving, of course, but still I fear it could become the victim of its own success.
The proof, in the end, is in the pudding. The sheer numbers may dilute the distinctive aura and style of this extraordinary institution, but its mortal soul continues to shine through where it really matters, in the celebration of film. The festival was hardly short of delights for cinephiles. The screening of a beautifully restored print of William A. Wellman’s extraordinary silent feature Beggars of Life, from 1928, was a highlight. The accomplished silent-film accompanist Neil Brand collaborated with renowned skiffle artists, the The Dodge Brothers, to create a musical backdrop eerily of its time and place, that is, the American West on the eve of the Great Depression.
The exoticism of time and place is engaging enough in itself, but the real genius of MSFF was also in evidence here. The programmers have once more recognised and presented a film, which is ultimately timeless. Its sentiments and sophistication cut through the parochial fads and tropes of either there and then – or here and now – and speak to us in the universal language of moving pictures. Beggars of Life, with its compelling, well-observed characters (not least, the female lead) and its unflinching portrayal of what comes to the fore in the face of adversity, for good or ill, is a shining example. Wellman’s irreverent take on the blind indifference of authorities to the plight of ordinary people is especially striking, not least in times that may come to be seen as an historical parallel of Wellman’s own.
Still, there were plenty more gems to be found, of later if not always the latest vintage, including MSFF’s own Aki Kaurismäki’s quirky homage to silent cinema from 1999, Juha, which features, incidentally, a fleeting but pleasing cameo from the late Peter von Bagh. We also experienced the enduring charm of the strangely and sadly neglected Bill Forsyth, who put in a personal appearance in Sodankylä. The wit and effortless visual storytelling of such understated masterpieces as Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983) remain untarnished by the intervening decades.
We might need reminding of Forsyth’s virtues but they should come as no great surprise. Surprises are nonetheless what MSFF is really all about. We are more than ready to be impressed by the work of renowned director (and festival guest) Fernando Trueba, not least the much feted Belle Époque, from 1992. It is much more surprising to discover that his accompanying son, Jonás, is an extraordinarily promising filmmaker in his own right, if the freshness and offbeat charm of Wishful Thinkers, from 2013, is anything to go by. In only his second feature, he accomplishes no mean feat in paying self-conscious homage to the French New Wave without ever seeming trite or slavishly retro.
Last year the festival was even bigger, with more than 30,000 ticket-buying filmgoers. According to the new artistic director, Timo Malmi, it increased a massive 32% from 2014. Malmi believes that 2015 was nevertheless an anomaly. It was, after all, the festival’s 30th anniversary and a kind of memorial to his predecessor, von Bagh, who had died a few months before. There was even a rumour that MSFF might not long survive the great film buff’s death, that this could be the last of its kind, the last chance to experience ‘the midnight sun.’
Rumours of the festival’s demise seem to be without foundation. Rather it’s growing. There have been fits and starts but the expansion has been steady over the years. Though my political background has taught me the dangers of imperial overreach, I’m reassured by an encounter with von Bagh’s successor. Malmi exhibits no delusions of grandeur, no incipient megalomania. He is the first to emphasise that his ‘replacement’ of Peter von Bagh cannot alter the fact that he was intrinsically irreplaceable, ‘He was such a giant that nobody thinks that it’s possible to replace him…and I hope nobody expects it.’
For all the growing numbers, Malmi does not dream of expansion but rather of fulfilling the legacy of his friend and colleague. He acknowledges the dangers to such a legacy of too much growth and commercialisation. Popularity may be hard to contain directly, but organisers do control the capacity of venues and facilities. This remains largely unchanged since the festival’s beginnings in 1986.
The exception is this year’s replacement and enlargement (though this is marginal) of the largest venue, The Big Tent. Indirectly, more repetitive programming has further enhanced capacity, effectively reducing the weight of demand at any one screening. All the same, the MSFF’s overall policy is clear enough: to consolidate what they have rather than transform it into something bigger and better.
A key area of such consolidation lies in the preservation of the medium of film itself. The march of digitalisation continues. Real film is ever harder to come by, as well as more expensive to obtain and transport. Norwegian archive policy illustrates the challenges faced by devotees of the traditional, analogue medium.
Like everyone else, the archive has invested heavily in DCPs (digital cinema packages) through careful restoration and reproduction of the original prints. They have no interest in loaning or renting out such originals, or in making further analogue copies, as the industry as a whole approaches a near complete digitalisation. In spite of such difficulties, MSFF’s use of the older format is remarkably robust. About half the screenings this year were actual films, comparable with the figures for 2014.
Concessions and compromises are inevitable. Von Bagh himself was no stranger to them, but would he have approved of direct television broadcasts of discussions? The initiative, begun last year, may be a worrying sign of commercialisation. The new hand on the tiller, Malmi, seems determined to steady the ship, however. He may not have the personal authority or charisma of a von Bagh, but his commitment to the festival’s abiding philosophy, that is, to prioritise all that is best in film, seems genuine.
What I’m really wondering, I suppose, is if that remarkable Sodankylë magic I felt two years ago could really still be there. This is only partly about the festival, however. It’s also about that mysterious process by which one individual may or may not connect with the chemistry of a community continually or, that is to say, episodically in the making. The acid test turned out to be that most strange of Finnish phenomena, the film karaoke. I doubt if anyone would really argue that ABBA: The Movie (1977) is a serious pinnacle in the history of filmmaking but it really did bring us together as a community, one rainy midsummer’s night in Sodankylë.
We queued in the rain to get inside and then, shrugging off the cold and damp, we watched and we sang and we danced. We vanquished the darkness and embraced the light.
It reminded me that there’s a double-edged genius to film. It can help us see more clearly but at certain, critical junctures, it may be even more important that it can help us forget. ABBA: The Movie – singalong, dance-along style – helped me see the community of souls we can be, and forget, for a moment, that very strange and mixed-up ‘real’ world, stretching in all its teeming indifference, far beyond the confines of Midnight Sun’s ‘Big Tent’.