“Have you slept?” – That’s the question you’re most likely to hear during your time at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, held each year in the small town of Sodankylä in Finnish Lapland. Not because it’s a particularly noisy place, nor necessarily because of the 24-hour daylight that occurs in June at this latitude, but instead because it’s very likely you’ll have been watching films at the scheduled times of 1,3 or 5am each morning!
The festival is now celebrating its 28th year and was dreamt up by film director Anssi Mänttäri whilst staying in Sodankylä in November 1985, a time of year when the town is preparing to enter into a perpetual darkness that will last for several more months. The following year the festival was born with the help of co-founders Peter von Bagh and the brothers Kaurismäki; Aki and Mika.
The resulting festival would become a five-day annual occurrence in the second week of June, in a small one-street town 100km north of the Arctic Circle where the sun shines 24 hours a day and films play around the clock across four main venues.
The very first festival managed to attract some pretty special guests – Sam Fuller, Jonathan Demme, Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Gorin, with the likes of Michael Powell (and wife Thelma Schoonmaker), Jim Jarmusch and Jacques Demy (and wife Agnes Varda) attending the following year.
In just a couple of years the festival had already established itself as an idiosyncratic entry into the festival calendar, and its reputation would continue to grow in esteem, thanks in part to the impressive list of special guests it attracts each year and its eclectic programming (http://www.msfilmfestival.fi/index.php/en/history-eng)
Each morning in the school (the sports hall doubles up as a cinema), the main festival guests are interviewed by Peter von Bagh for approximately two hours, where they invariably commune in a highly relaxed and open atmosphere about their lives and careers. These are by far some of the most revealing talks I have ever encountered with film makers; the sheer distance and otherworldliness of Lapland seemingly putting otherwise reticent artists completely at ease, and willing to broach any subject without fear of repercussion. This legendary series of morning interviews would eventually be the subject of an excellent and enlightening documentary made by festival director Peter von Bagh in 2011, entitled Sodankylä, Forever, to celebrate the festival’s 25th anniversary.
Another regular feature of the festival is its Masterclasses, where a seminal critic or writer will introduce a film or series of films on a given subject. This year’s roster included a series of singular soundings from German critic Olaf Möller (Midnight Sun regular and contributor to the likes of CinemaScope, Film Comment, Sight and Sound) who provided a five-film study of British war films (They Were Not Divided, The Colditz Story, Ice Cold in Alex, HMS Defiant, The Blue Max) under the banner ‘Carve Their Names With Pride’.
Gian Luca Farinelli, head of the Cineteca di Bologna Film Archive, introduced and discussed a screening of Monicelli’s Risate di Gioia (1960) and José Manuel Costa from the Portuguese Film Archive provided cinematic sustenance with a rare screening of Paulo Rocha’s Mudar de Vida (1966), an example of the Cinema Novo movement.
As well as screening film highlights from the careers of the festival’s guest directors – Philip Kaufman, Claire Denis (including her controversial new film Bastards, still warm from the hotbed of Cannes), Jan Troell, Cristian Mungiu, Marco Bellocchio (his stunning 1965 debut film Fists in the Pocket opened the festival), Peter Strickland and Ahmet Boyacıoğlu- the festival also consistently showcases new documentaries, shorts and features from Finland as well as features that have recently played other international festivals.
New Finnish cinema highlights include Puhdistus (aka Purge, Antti Jokinen), a film that’s divided local critics, having been accused of sensationalist and glib treatment of its harrowing subject matter and graphic depiction of violence against women. Mika Kaurismäki’s new film Tie Pohjoissen (aka Road North) stars every Finn’s favourite actor, Vesa-Matti Loiri, playing an estranged father who reunites with his son after a 30–year absence to take a road trip to the north of the country. Laulu koti-ikävästä (aka Finnish Blood, Swedish Heart d. Mika Ronkainen) is also one to seek out; a documentary (it could even be interpreted as a road movie) that examines Finnish/Swedish immigration, a subject deeply felt by residents on both sides of the border.
Aside from the morning interviews, the most anticipated and welcome feature of the annual festival are its evening silent features with live musical accompaniment. This year’s line-up was to prove no exception with sold-out performances each evening in the Big Tent (capacity 700), and enjoyed by people of all ages including Finnish families bringing their young children along to experience what is likely their first taste of silent cinema. The silent features kicked off with a selection of Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy shorts with music by festival regulars ‘Cleaning Women’. The UK’s very own Neil Brand provided the scores for Laurel and Hardy favourites Liberty, Big Business and You’re Darn Tootin’ as well as invoking the audience to get involved during a very amusing trouser-ripping scene at the latter’s conclusion by ripping pieces of paper. The recent BFI restoration of Hitchcock’s Blackmail was also accompanied by a Neil Brand score, but performed instead by the Oulu Sinfonia and conducted by Timothy Brock. The final night saw Keaton’s The Cameraman bringing the house down and warming the heart, ending with the sound of both children’s and adult’s laughter uniting and ringing in your ears.
Where else in the world might you be met with the dilemma of trying to decide between Shane Meadows’ new documentary on The Stone Roses or Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery, both clashing at 03:15am?! I ended up opting for the Meadows doc in the Big Tent and experienced a screening where strong local Finnish vodka was passed around freely, each Roses song was sung along to wildly, people were up on their feet dancing and each song was met with fervent applause and cheering when it ended, from an impassioned crowd. Where else might you witness guest Marco Bellocchio in tears for almost 15 minutes at the end of the screening of Peter von Bagh’s sincere and arguably most personal film, Muisteja – pieni elokuva 50-luvun Oulusta (aka Remembrance – A Small Movie about Oulu in the 1950’s). Where else can you walk a few yards up the road and encounter wild reindeer roaming the lush countryside then wander back into town and order a reindeer pizza?
Ask anybody who’s been to the festival and you can guarantee they’ll proffer a memorable story of their experiences and run out of superlatives about the event whilst doing so. Sure it may be set in the middle of nowhere in a small town, but people travel hundreds of miles to be there each year; to make that pilgrimage and to spend time together watching movies by day and night, for just five days of the year.
It’s an event that stands in complete antithesis to glamour, glitz, pretension and presumption usually found on the red-carpets of the so-called big festivals, and if such grandstanding were attempted here it might be the only occurrence that could puncture its uniquely inculcated atmosphere and good vibes.
This is a festival with a heart; an ethos of bringing people together for the love of just one thing – cinema.
I’ll end by leaving you with the words of filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker who was a guest of the festival in 1987:
“Woodstock is fuckin’ nothing if you’ve been to the Midnight Sun Film Festival.”