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Finnish films continue to find audiences worldwide

Sketching success. Tove tells the story of Finnish artist Tove Jansson, known globally as the creator of the hugely popular Moomins.

Sami Kuokkanen

Even in the midst of the pandemic, Finnish film-makers have been making headlines for winning awards, signing distribution deals and displaying abundant creativity. With Finland’s biggest film festival, HIFF, being held on 17–27 September, there is much that has been making cinematic waves so far in 2020.

2017 was a banner year for cinemagoing in Finland. Boosted by the release of Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon sotilas), the local box office scaled heights unseen since 1983. Based on the beloved book of the same name, the film drew a chunk of Finland’s 5.5-million population to cinemas and raked in approximately 15 million US dollars in admissions.

This homegrown success was far from a one-off. Finnish films have long played a significant role in the cinemagoing experience here, with the release schedule regularly peppered with Finnish titles alongside Hollywood tent poles.

Awareness of Finland’s output continues to grow internationally, too. Aki Kaurismäki may very well have been Finnish cinema’s most recognisable face on the global stage for decades, but he is nowadays joined by a growing number of film-makers.

Aki Kaurismäki is far from the be-all and end-all for the local scene. Image: Malla Hukkanen/ Sputnik oy

Klaus Härö’s Golden Globe-nominated The Fencer (Miekkailija), Juho Kuosmanen’s Cannes winner The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki and Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland are some of the films to have attracted both accolades and an audience outside Finland in recent years.

Earlier in 2020,J-P Valkepää’s BDSM drama film Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja) looked set to follow suit and make waves in the UK, following strong reviews. Yet, the onset of the pandemic saw its distribution pivot and its cinematic roll-out scuppered in the face of the crisis.

The film’s British TV rights were acquired in March by Film 4, and it was instead released across Film 4’s network and online streaming service and other digital platforms.

Other films, such asMika Kaurismäki’s comedy Master Cheng (Mestari Cheng), were more fortunate. The film topped the German box office when it premiered in 146 cinemas across the country in July. With typically Finnish modesty, Kaurismäki said he was of course happy with the result but couldn’t but help wonder what the numbers would have been under normal circumstances.

Germany’s cinemas were open at only 20 per cent their normal capacity at the time.

The Fencer was nominated for a Golden Globe. Image: Nordisk Film

A winning cinematic experience

Aside from playing havoc with the business models of cinema houses, the pandemic forced many of the world’s film festivals to transfer to a digital format. Even with the physical restrictions caused by such a move, a number of Finnish films enjoyed significant exposure and accolades.

Directed by Teemu Nikki,the intriguingly titled A Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic (Sokea mies, joka ei halunnut nähdä Titanicia) won the Eurimages Lab Project Award in August at New Nordic Films, the special industry section of the Norwegian International Film Festival.

“The bold artistic approach that the director and producer propose takes us deep into the universe of a blind man who has to confront the world and dive into the unknown, in the name of love,” stated the jury.

Meanwhile, the screenplay for the film Gone (Poissa) was awarded at Latin America’s largest genre film festival in Brazil.

“The award is encouraging all other Finnish writers interested in genre film to trust their own crazy ideas and to push forward in the face of adversity,” commented screenwriter Avi Heikkinen.  The story of a man who starts to inexplicably teleport around the world has resonated elsewhere, winning the Critics Award at Fantasporto in Portugal earlier this year.

Fleak was co-produced by Anima Vitae, along with Poland’s Animoon, France’s Godo Films and Denmark’s Parka Pictures Image: Anima Vitae

Awards for Finnish films have recognised a variety of genres and formats. Animation studio Anima Vitae’s Fleak won the Eurimages Co-production Award at Cartoon Movie, a European pitching and co-production forum for animated feature films. The animated fantasy adventure follows a 12-year-old boy who loses his ability to walk and teams up with a friendly creature from another dimension.

Documentary film-makers also took the podium – virtually and otherwise – this year. Elina Talvensaari’s documentary Lady Time (Neiti Aika) won the Special Jury Award at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Praised as a “beautifully crafted gem of a film”, Lady Time saw the director using artefacts, letters and photos to piece together the life of the former owner of her new apartment.

Also the judges at Switzerland’s Visions du Réel Festival recognised a pair of Finnish documentaries in May. The jury applauded the directors of Anerca, Breath of Life, father-and-son duo Markku and Johannes Lehmuskallio, for their efforts in exploring the experience of indigenous cultures living in the Arctic Circle through dance and music.

Depicting anonymous telephone calls made to a helpline for teenage boys, Laura Rantanen’s On Hold was named the most innovative short film at the festival.

Creativity unlocked

The coronavirus pandemic has scuttled the best laid of plans for many this year, but this hasn’t completely stemmed the flow of creativity for Finnish film-makers. Seven Finnish directors each produced a short film on the theme of adapting to life during the pandemic for HBO Nordic under the collective title of Isolated.

Other international successes are in the pipeline. The biopic Tove is currently set for a Finnish theatrical release in October. Directed by Zaida Bergroth, the film follows the life of Tove Jansson, known globally as the creator of the hugely popular Moomins.

Class Reunion 3 was one of the first films to have been shot entirely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Solar Films

Other film-makers, such as the internationally renowned director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) and production house Solar Films, have been even more bold with ensuring their output. The production of Harlin’s first ever Finnish-language feature, Class Reunion 3(Luokkakokous 3), was completed in August in extraordinary circumstances.

“The Solar Films production wrapped a rare pandemic era shoot after employing extensive COVID-19 safety regulations, including distancing, hygiene measures and having a specially appointed virus safety supervisor on set,” wrote Deadline.

This bold approach to film-making doesn’t end there. Production on Finnish director Aino Suni’s psychological thriller A Girl’s Room is set to commence this autumn. Paris-based Kinology recently acquired the international distribution rights for the film, with the filming to take place in Cannes, Helsinki and Hamburg.

“We were really touched by the story of Elina and Sofia, the two lead characters, as well as by [Suni’s] exploration of adolescent emotional turmoil,” told producer Sébastien Aubert. “We felt the film placed itself at the perfect junction of mainstream and art-house cinema.”

Whatever lies ahead during the pandemic, one thing is for certain: Finnish stories will continue to find their place on global screens.

Director Aino Suni’s psychological thriller A Girl’s Room is set to commence filming this autumn. Image: Aino Suni
By: James O’Sullivan