If there are any Academy voters in Helsinki, they had the opportunity last week to see “Citizenfour” as well as a selection of top docs off the international circuit at DocPoint, the all-documentary festival held each year in warmly welcoming yet climatologically inhospitable Helsinki.
"Home Somewhere" (dir. Lotta Petronella)
Formally precise, emotionally profound, “Home, Somewhere” gives a poetic voice to people who have never traditionally had one – men who work on the Nordic sea, and perhaps as a consequence maintain a combative relationship with both God and the Earth. The subjects of the London-educated director Lotta Petronella’s film have a tenuous grasp on the meaning of life, but only because they’ve had the time and inclination to regard it, from a vantage point at the end of the world.
“Anything can be dramatic,” says one, with a dismissive shrug at his own significance. “But one human life is not.” Petronella evidently would beg to differ.
If there’s a storyline at the heart of “Home,” it is rooted in the cosmological; the filmmaker has made a true and honest work about madly elusive matters, including self-worth, self-reliance and the existential self. The great gray expanses she shows, and the oceanic void that seems to exist just off camera, suggest melancholy, a quality mentioned several times in the course of the film. (One of the subjects defines it as the feeling one has in the process of losing something – as opposed to sadness, which is the feeling of loss). But what’s being felt by these men also seems like nostalgia -- a yearning for something one might never have known at all, in this case a place in the world that is solid and settled and, as the title implies, home.
The sea and sky are Petronella’s indispensable confederates, but so are Lau Nau and Micke Nystrom. Nau’s music suggest the mournful cry of the drifting human soul; Nystrom’s sound design is an intoxicant. Together they elevate the entire experience of “Home, Somewhere” and provide invaluable assistance to Petronella in achieving her goal: Elevating the anonymous and unsung, and ennobling their search for meaning. Documentaries seldom attempt anything so simple, nor can they hope to achieve so much.
"Golden Age" (dir. Maija Blåfield)
“Experiencing a mystery,” says the voiceover in “Golden Age,” “helps us to perceive the world beyond the obvious.” The “obvious,” in the case of cinema, has always started with the frame: We accept what is inside it without much question, which is what we’re “supposed” to do: What the filmmaker wants us to see -- and hear, and live through, and absorb -- is tightly contained within the same kind of optical limits that have defined, and confined, works of visual art since ancient French people kept their horse drawings limited to the walls of their caves.
With her amoeba-shaped mini frames and mash-up of sources – footage shot between 1998 and 2013, left over from who-knows-what, and shot who-knows-where – the director Maija Blåfield takes a crack at expanding the frontiers of visual interpretation, while putting perception itself under a microscope. If every still photograph is a narrative, what are the tantalizingly context-free snippets of visual stimuli that Blafeld gives us? They’re disarming, for one thing, and – being, as they are, combinations of incongruous images and explanations – implicitly untrustworthy. But do any photographic images deserve our trust? Thinkers such as Susan Sontag and Errol Morris have concluded that the answer is no. Blafeld makes the question cinematic.
“Golden Age” makes everyone an artist, willingly or not, because it forces on its audience a new way of seeing, and interpreting. It’s a documentary, but one whose beauty – and story -- is in the eye of the beholder.
"The Fast of the Forest" (dir. Antti Jääskeläinen)
Operating during its more delirious moments at about 6,000 rpm, the cycle-racing documentary “The Fast of the Forest” is neither a pure adrenalin rush, nor some tawdry collection of cheap thrills collected through helmets cams and crash footage. It may not even be fairly described as a cycle-racing doc: It’s a movie about obsession, told by filmmakers with a clear affection for the obsessive.
And it’s in the film’s more tranquil moments that director Antti Jääskeläinen pops a wheelie. His observations of his subject, the racer Juha Kallio – including Kallio’s efforts to get himself into the arduous TT (Tourist Trophy) bike race on the Isle of Man, his mutely intense psychological preparations, his stoic acceptance of mechanical setbacks and financial potholes – shows a disciplined, calibrated gift for moderation, a willingness to wait and to temper the latent kinetic energy of his film as it builds and foreshadows the race itself through bits of Kallio’s POV, and the complicated track he’s going to travel. Just as Kallio rehearses for the big event, and anticipates what he’ll have to do, so does the film: Jääskeläinen never lets on just how furious the speeds will be, or how “The Fast of the Forest” will surpass any viewer’s expectations for just how quickly Kallio is going to move, or how things might simply fly apart.
Among the things a high-performance documentary needs is complete access to a subject, which Jääskeläinen has; a good subject, which Jääskeläinen has; a willingness to follow that story despite every indication that the whole vehicle might run into a muddy ditch, which Jääskeläinen has, and the flexibility to follow where the story leads, whether or not it conforms to the plan you might have had for your movie. It doesn’t hurt to have some astounding visuals, which Jääskeläinen has, or a subject with a heart, which Kallio most certainly has, along with a tenacious inability to let go of his dreams, and a rather charming gift for self-effacement. Some films lend themselves to planning, story boards and time schedules. Some are like a bike race, out to strip your gears.
Jääskeläinen is aided and abetted by great sound, which immerses the viewer in the racing experience, and by the technology he has at his disposal. “Senna,” to cite a prime example, was a great racing doc, and a great doc, but the sense of speed in “FOTF” is beyond anything in that film. And for all his reticence, Kallio is a more accessible hero.