Peter Wintonick / POV Magazine
Canada and the Nordic countries have something in common and its not the midnight sun or too much snow. It’s the Doculture. Now maybe there is something in the melting water. Or in the melting air. Maybe it’s the lack of light, which forces us both to turn on the electronic fireplace to watch non-fiction tele but there are more docslots per capita in Nordlandia than machines in Vegas. Longshot and strongshot documentary culture is the tie that binds us.
Of course, the lack of light half year-round can make for some kinda documentary dreariness and weariness, but somehow, and this is nothing to do with the vodka, I’m sure, the directors and producers and commissioners who inhabit that part of the world (and I am including Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and, in a stretch, Denmark in the group) have got something going for themselves. We could learn a trick or two from them.
Last September a number of Canadian documentarians were invited to immerse themselves in the cold, clear cinematic waters at a conference in Norway. This year at HotDocs!, Karen Tisch will be curating a selection of documentaries produced throughout the region. So, what’s with this self-inflicted Scando doco love? If you’re lucky you can get to ask one of the commissioning editors who regularly make it out to the Amsterdam and Toronto Documentary Forums. I find them very open and good-natured - almost like Canadians. And in fact, many Canadian producers and directors have had success with them in pre-sales and acquisitions. There’s the affable and witty Iikka Vehkalahti at YLE-TV2, the ubiquitous and charming Mette Hoffman Meyer at TV2 Denmark, the focused Flemming Grenz at DR TV and SVT Sweden’s Jan Lundberg, NRK Norway’s Tore Tomer but there are very many others.
At the recent Amsterdam Festival I met Arto Halonen, a 37 year-old filmmaker from Finland. His film, The Stars’ Caravan, a very subtle, and engaging medium length documentary, and was playing in the competition. I really thought his film was ingenious, honest and simply complex for the way it interwove history, politics, exotic culture, fiction and documentary into one. It is also a film about film, which blends fact and fiction into a sub-cerebral and satisfying union, which is the subject closest to my subjugated heart. I wanted to sit down with Arto to talk about his film, Finland, and the ties that snow-blind us.
In the late 1980’s Arto trained students in filmmaking and acted as the Regional Cinema Artist in the province of Northern Karelia. During that time, he trained teachers, screenwriters, and filmmakers using educational films and extensive production programs. The art community there handed him an award for distinguishing himself in film production with international reach. It’s an award many Nordic filmmakers could very well share. In 2000, Arto and some of the foremost documentary film-makers in Finland: Georg Grontenfelt, Visa Koiso-Kanttila, Anu Kuivalainen, John Webster, Timo Korhonen and Kiti Luostarinen established Elephant Films, Ltd. a Finnish Directors’ Group. Although it consists of seven separate prodco’s it is united by a primary aim to strengthen content by creating a synergetic environment where better docs can be made. The collective company manages to share costs and experience without jeopardizing the artistic independence of each filmmaker. As a director-driven company, it also, in a way, surpasses the need for productorial middlemen, or some would say meddle-men. This is an idea whose time could come to these shores, too.
The Star’s Caravan is a film about the dreams and manipulative power of movies as seen through the eyes of two local film projectionists in chaotic Kyrgyzstan. Dressed in the unique hats of the culture, Zarlbek Dyikanbaev, the elder, and his much younger side-kick, Murat Oljobaev, work to bring films to the people. Some of the films are old Soviet-style propaganda films; others are low-grade action films forgotten even in Hollywood. The Soviets developed the Kyrgyz Nomadic Cinema as a propaganda weapon, taking films around to inaccessible communities by horse caravans to the nomads in the country’s rugged mountain regions. Zarlbek is trying to revive the practice in a new way. Through the projectionists, we see how film has had an impact on a People who have been influenced by socialism, Islam, capitalism, and their own nomadic culture.
The projectionists’ dreams are paralleled with present day circumstances of a post-Soviet nation. Kyrgyzstan is a country with a long and rich history pre-dating Communism. It is a jumble of cultures, spiritualities and ideologies. It is in the process of a transition to parliamentarism but it is struggling with national identity and re-definition, since the country became independent in 1991. With few natural resources, Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest of the post-Soviet countries.
In the centre of the film, we witness the town of Naryn as it prepares for the 1000th anniversary celebrations of its mythic national hero, Manas – an important liberator figure. The Manas story is part of the world’s largest national epic, an ancient oral traditional. The song has over a millions verses, and in written form, thousands of pages. Fictionally recreated scenes as if taken from an old movie, are intercut with the musings and work of the itinerant projectionists. In addition, at the time of the shooting of Stars’ Caravan, television news reports begin to spread fear among the population by featuring attacks by Islamic rebels. In counterbalance, The Manas legend is the source of spiritual pride and power for the Kyrgyz people, but at the same time, one of its many messages is unification and peaceful co-existence of different tribes and peoples.
The Stars’ Caravan film forms the final part of an Arto Halonen trilogy, which focuses, outside of the Finnish borders, on specific cultures in the world and how those cultures interface or are eroded or clash with foreign western values. Arto’s Karmapa films look at a competitive story of two young boys, in separate places, both of whom are considered to have god-like status. Their existence has caused great conflict in the Buddhist world and has caused increased tension between China and Tibet. Arto’s film, A Dreamer and the Dreamtribe, describes the extraordinary dream culture of a native tribe living in the Malaysian rain forest. Halonen’s films have been widely screening on television and at festivals, within the other Nordic countries and internationally. All of his films have had great success inside Finland, where there is no need for such obvious retrograde policies as the (hopefully laid to rest) ‘Visibly Canadian Bonus Points’ brought to you by the Canadian Television Fund which made Canada into the laughing stock of the international co-production circles
2000 The Stars' Caravan (60 min. doc.)
Production: Millennium Film with Inti Films, Christiane Philippe / Carré Noir RTBF Liège avec l'aide du Centre du Cinéma et de l'Audiovisuel de la Communauté française Belgique, Czech TV, DR TV, YLE TV 2 Finland, The Promotion Centre, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland
Distribution: Fox Lorber Associates, Winstar TV & Video, NY, with the distribution support of the MEDIA programme of the European Union
Based on an original idea by Richard Mann and Carlo Cresto-Dina
Photographer: Pini Hellstedt
Camera Assistant: Kalle Penttilä
Editor: Olli Soinio
Sound: Jyrki Rahkonen, Jussi Olkinuora
Music: Edward Vesala, Iro Haarla
Producer: Kristiina Pervilä
Written and directed by Arto Halonen
Arto Halonen's filmography
2000 The Stars' Caravan (55 min. Documentary)
1998 Karmapa-Two Ways of Divinity (61min. Documentary)
1998 Karmapa - A Voyage on the Roof of The World (61 min. Documentary)
1998 A Dreamer and the Dreamtribe (52 min. Fiction Documentary)
1995 Home (65 mins. TV Drama)
1994 Something in The Blood (28 min. Documentary)
1993 The Happy Wedding Day (90 min. TV Feature Comedy)
1993 Ringside (57 min. Fiction Documentary)
1991 Light - A type of Anatomy of Video Film (60 min. Fictitious Educational Film)
1986-90 Various short animations, fictions, documentaries and childrens' series
Elephant Films Ltd.
FIN-00170 Helsinki, Finland
Tel: +358 (0) 9 68139210
Fax: +358 (0) 9 735 413
Interview with Arto Halonen by Peter Wintonick, POV editor, in Amsterdam
AH We're sitting in the Festival office in Amsterdam drinking gin and tonic with Peter Win 'n' tonick. And I offer at toast to him with this one because he said so many nice words about my film in the newspaper today, The Festival News.
PW As a documentary filmmaker and editor you must assume that everything you read in the newspapers is a lie.
AH Ah, that's true. But, sometimes you need to pay for the lies. Santé!
PW Let's talk about your film here. Explain it for us.
AH It's a very difficult film to explain because there are many stories and levels.
PW Did you know where Kyrgyzstan was before you made it?
AH Not really very much other than it used to belong to The Soviet Union. I didn't know where it was on the map. But I liked the idea about how film manipulates people and impresses upon your life. In the film, there are two itinerant film projectionists, Zarylbek and Murat. We watch the kinds of films they are screening. One goes around from village to village screening old 35 mm Soviet propaganda films. The other screens action films and horrible Western-made 'C' movies that no one has ever heard of, on a broken down video player. They both represent different generations and different choices, and they are also victims of their own times. Through them, we see how the Kyrgyzstan nation is looking for a new identity. In addition, the question of how you promote and provide that identity.
PW And there's a third level which intrudes, the television screen which discretely comes into play, with ongoing news of an attempted incursion on the border by militant forces. For me, your film is an important investigation of national identity in transition - and then how it connects with history.
AH Yes, it's true. It contains this whole historical subject, because Kyrgyzstan is also an Islamic country that used to have a Soviet system. Somehow they fused these systems together - they are an Islamic and communist people who also have a very strong connection with their epic hero, a myth hero who was called Manas.
PW He's like a pre-Samurai warrior or a tenth century Cossack character.
AH They believe he existed 1000 years ago. The Manas story is one of the world's largest epic stories. They are translating it now into more and more languages. It was a story-song in poetic verses and they had, and have special singers who sing these songs.
PW How long was the song?
AH In the end, there are thousands and thousands of pages. Generally, The Manas story, which I visualize in my film, represents freedom and also how a national liberator saved the country and gave the people power. I found a strong spirituality in the story even though it's a 'hero' story, but still, Manas gave people power to use in the fight against evil. I loved that part of the Manas epic so we created fiction scenes around the story to interweave with the more classic documentary parts. I wrote the story, we shot in Super 16 and then we blew it up to 35.
PW Did you use the villagers as actors?
AH Yes, and we also had seven or eight real actors, the horse actors, and stunt men.
PW In your film you sense this interesting mix of ideologies, one generated historically from within, and then, during the Soviet time where the ideology was imposed upon Kyrgyzstan from without, sometime through cinema. You seem to use the projectionist in your film as a metaphor to talk about the role of cinema.
AH In Soviet countries they used to screen films in those regions where they thought that people could handle the propaganda well. In Kyrgyzstan 80% of the films came from the Soviet Union and 20% from the other Eastern European countries. Generally, the whole propaganda system was very well built and very well controlled. The old Soviet films were done in a very skillful way as manipulated films because they were using emotions to tell the story.
PW It was in their cinematic language too. And in their Voice. It was a polemic yet poetic ways to tell stories.
AH Yes, in the style of documentaries. Very epic, very sensitive. Of course, they look very funny to us nowadays.
PW Don't forget that we are much more sophisticated now. What was the delivery system for those propaganda films? Was it nomadic itinerant projection? In community centres and schools? Or, did they use some of the earlier Soviet experiments which took cinema on trains to some areas of Kyrgyzstan's nomadic areas?
AH They were using different kinds of possibilities to bring these films to the people, to transform people. In Kyrgyzstan they established the horse caravan system. They weren't able to bring these films by car because people were living too high up in the mountains, so they used horses and brought up these heavy 35mm films, and the projectors, generators and the screens, all by horse. So all the nomadic people would see this Soviet propaganda and 'believe' that they were in 'safe' Soviet hands. Or so the propagandists believed. So, we re-shot this material in a way that re-created how they used to exhibit films. Now, in post-Soviet times, they miss this old system of bringing film to the people by the horse caravan. Nevertheless, there are two problems now. The government doesn't support them anymore because finances are too scarce for cultural activities. In addition, they do not have money to show films on the screen anymore. So, increasingly, they use videotape and VCR's.
PW There's a very telling scene with big piles of rotting film cans. And there is a very funny shot of men each carrying a big reel or projector wherever they go. Then they go visit the office of a former cultural czar looking for money from the authorities. Of course, there is none. In many ways your film is a very understated way of talking about the collapse of communism. At the same time as talking about the collapse of cinema.
AH True. Although it was the propaganda cinema of the past, it still changed the system in a very dramatic way. Now, there's a different type of propaganda - they screen these third rate action hollywooden movies there.
PW Are they made for sort of third world consumption. Are they shown in celluloid or are they on video?
AH It's on video, unfortunately.
PW There's a telling scene there where they can't get their video player to work because the magnetic heads are so, so dirty and it's ruining the picture quality...
AH ....so they use dollar bills as cloth to clean the heads of the system.
PW On that third level, you take the issue of collapse of communism, mythology, and technology up a notch in subtle ways'. you introduce newsreports of a fundamentalist rebel invasion on the frontiers of Kyrgyzstan, and the government's reaction to it. It seems that television now has taken over some of the epic lie. Where's that coming from? The West?
AH No. It was the local TV news. It was going on over each channel there. We had good luck as filmmakers - just when we entered into the shooting phase, the conflict started up at the same time. In fact, it was the commissioning editor in Finland, Iikka Vehkalahti, who suggested that we get it into the film. I was also starting to realize how well it would mix with the mythical Manas story.
PW The thing I like about the film is that it is very subtle and it's always really about the projectionist -- it's not a perfect film though. Some of the camera work is a bit shaky. There's a scene when they're setting up the film projection at a village celebration one nightÉ
AH Yes, it happened that we had a lighting problems it was a real documentary scene. It was the part of the Manas celebration, an independence celebration. They had set up all the paraphernalia for this film screening but no one came to the see their film projection because everyone in town was out celebrating wildly across the square. All the young people were attracted by a live band, rather than an old film.
PW It's a very symbolic scene about the transformation of the time and relationship with history and the next generation, for this new generation, culture will probably become a totally wired and international, fundamental phenomenon.
AH Yes, it's going to be very interesting, because one very special thing that Kyrgyzstan still has is its nomadic culture, a culture which is living somewhere inside, but outside, all of these completely different cultural and ideological forces. The nomadic life still exists in a very, very old fashioned way - even though these different modern ideologies have just passed through them.
PW It's like the nomads are staying grounded and the real nomads are the ideologies that are passing through
AH Yes and that's what I like. That things that are permanent are linked with a nation and people.
PW Superimposing yourself in a community in a faraway culture, and objectifying culture and talking about very important issues to that culture can be a tricky film for Western film-makers, but all your films indicate that you do this in a very respectful way. You were working with them in a way. How did that process work?
AH I think it was only a good thing. I explained, of course, what it was all about, but I didn't want to explain too much about the theory and background, about this manipulation and things like that. I could not control their world, or their words.
PW You let reality happen?
AH That's it. I mean there is always danger, about how you use your subject, but you always have to act very responsibly. In addition, a sense of trust builds up. I trusted myself with this film. The characters trusted me. I had intuition that I could do something which might very be sensitive, where one could easily make mistakes. I hope I haven't made too many mistakes, but I know that I can face responsibility. I'm proud of the very different models of production we use.
PW Do you think, as a filmmaker doing international films that Finnish culture is international?
AH Ah, let's see. Maybe, maybe not. There are many Finnish directors; some of them are doing international films as well. In Finland, we have a high level of very good documentary film compared to feature films. We have very good directors and very good films.
PW Finnish Television seems more open to documentary, compared to Canada, Australia, Britain, on a per capita basis. Why is Finnish television so progressive and proactive? Why is there is a documentary culture in Finland?
AH This change has happened in the 10 years because new slots on the public channels have created many possibilities for stations to do something new. And that really increased the value of Finnish documentaries, which is a country like, Kyrgyzstan, of some 5 million people.
PW Quite a big country for such a small population.
AH I think so. In addition, audiences have been receiving documentaries very well. A base audience has developed which really wants to watch then, and it has become permanent, so they keep watching them. Our films are sometimes in theatres. Stars' Caravan was there for several weeks. At the moment, another Finnish documentary is running in the cinemas. There are three or five films some years. We also have two public funding systems, which are not exclusively television-dependent; both of them give money for high level creative documentaries. In addition, there are also incentives, we call it a quality award, each year for the best films. It's like a bonus prize for the producer.
PW Is there lots of bureaucracy?
AH There is, but you know, there are film agency consultants who are in charge of decisions. But you know, many of them have also made films themselves, so it's a faster way. You get an opinion back very quickly.
PW Maybe filmmakers and broadcasters have a few things to learn from Finland. Making documentary around the world is generally a not for-profit enterprise, especially for those making POV films. I think collective strategies need to be developed in production and distribution, if only as a way of alleviating our frustrations. Tell me about one of the things you and a group of six other Finnish directors are doing, Elephant Films.
AH Yes. It's an interesting story. In the beginning, two members of our group started with the idea that a director's company could create a very creative atmosphere for the films we are doing. We could analyze them together and support each other and, at the same time, we would not be so heavily engaged with the producer's power. Because, in Finland, if you make the kind of Finnish documentary which would not be sold abroad and which doesn't need any money from abroad, then the producer's work is very easy work when you're just getting money together from Finland. It's almost as simple as this: you just need to make one telephone call to a Finnish Film Foundation, another one to television network and then send in a paper. Do you like it? Then the producer shows the name of the director and then the funders make the decision - that's about the extent of the producer's work to get the money together.
PW And they what, take a significant percentage?
AH Yes, so some of our director-members of Elephant Film were a little bit tired of the situation. Because, over the years, they had developed their own good names and they had been very well awarded abroad in different countries and at different festivals. And then they felt that you have producers using their name and profiting.
PW All the directors in Elephant have individual companies?
AH Yes. When we created Elephant Films, we decided that all of us needed to have an individual company, which is the responsible production company. But the umbrella company, Elephant Films, gives production assistance to the director/producer for the film and, in return, gets a small percentage from the producer. The Elephant Films share is like 5%.
PW Do each of the companies have their own infrastructure. Their own rent, company offices?
AH That's an interesting thing, because we really have a very great place to be together. Originally, we had different places, or some people didn't have a place, but needed to make a film and worked, very often, out of their homes. I used to have a company and I used to produce films as well as direct my own films, and my main reason to join Elephant Films was to work in that great atmosphere, to work with other people, not to work alone at home. And I like the idea that we have a very good place now - it is a big office really in the middle of Helsinki. There is common space and each director can has a separate station but it's a very good location and a good place to work. We all share the management and rent. You know, we have one rule. Although we are working through our own companies with a specific project, we are not able to produce the film ourselves. We always need an extra person who takes care of the production. And Elephant Films is going to be able have a person like that.
PW Do you discuss work collectively?
AH That's the great thing. Yes, we have meetings at least once a month. Then we discuss the projects. And we have another rule that during the editing process, everybody needs to give feedback for the director. Therefore, everybody needs to give a lot of attention to each project. Then we have a discussion once a month, give advice, and share our opinions, but we don't charge for that... One thing we are planning to do is some mutual work as well. For instance, several different stories about the same place, or theme. And then put them together.
PW Around the same idea?
AH Something like that. Let's see what happens. There are so many possibilities. A lot of us like the idea. We'll try to create one of them, probably next year.
PW ....So....how long has this been going?
AH We established the company in 1999. Last spring we got the space together and now we have done our first film under the Elephant Films brand and the second is coming very soon.
PW Are you thinking about starting a distribution wing, or trunk?
AH Yes we are. One reason to be here, in Amsterdam, is to try to find someone who might represent us abroad.
PW Packaging an Elephant...? You know it seems like it's the original Charlie Chaplin United Artist model.
AH Yes, that's true. So, let's see what happens. Of course, it's always difficult when you have seven creative people together but it also gives you a chance to give more space to each other and learn to be more human. Also it seems better not to fight only for yourself but to do something for other people. In that way, maybe I can also help my own creativity develop and that of others. I hope
PW Elephants are such big and optimistic philosophers. And this Amsterdam festival is the greatest documentary circus in the world. Thanks for the interview. Let's order another drink.
The article and the interview were published in the Canadian Point Of View magazine. Peter Wintonick is the editor of POV, as well a very established film director and producer. His latest film "Cinéma Verité" has been in 40 different film festivals around the world.
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A Caravan of Nordic Dreams
Peter Wintonick / POV Magazine