Staying Power

Where to draw the line: Pertti Sveholm in 'The Geography of Fear'

There's a Finnish word, sisu, that means resilience and survival in difficult circumstances, usually over time. Shorthand, it's often translated as guts, and it's regarded as a characteristic Finnish trait.

No wonder, considering that the history of Finland is pretty much the story of a modest farming community trapped between two rampaging empires. By the time Finland won its independence in 1918, Sweden and Russia had spent 600 years fighting over where (through Finland) to draw the world's East-West border. Some centuries, Finland was an eastern province of Sweden, ruled by a Lutheran monarchy. Others, it was a western province of Russia, governed by the Orthodox church and the tsars. Throughout, the Finns were the peasants, the farmers, the working class, the pawns. Their language was oral, not written; their fates were decided by wars they had no part in starting. They kept their heads down, did what they were told, and waited for the winds to change, hoping those winds wouldn't burn down their barns.

There's also a dark side to sisu, an awareness that--all resiliency aside--tragic defeat is inevitable. You can hold back floodwaters heroically for only so long. When the Finnish cavalry charged Russian tanks on horseback in the Winter War of 1939, it was classic sisu. On the one hand, the outnumbered and outgunned Finns held off the Russians for nearly three months. On the other hand, they died by the thousands, and the Russians seized their favorite part of the country.

This unique blend of fatalism and drive is still evident among modern Finns. It can be glimpsed in their statistics--the nation has some of the highest rates of literacy (99 percent), cell phone use (75 percent), unemployment (25 percent in the early Nineties), and suicide in the world--and it can be seen in their movies. Finnish films are a little like Cubist paintings: You get several sides of things at once, including opposite sides that aren't supposed to exist in the same dimension, but somehow do.

This begins to explain why many of the movies featured in the FinnFest Film Festival, an event cosponsored by U Film Society and the 20th annual FinnFest extravaganza, feature scrappy outsiders who persist for at least a little while in spite of sometimes overwhelming odds. It's not just a plot device: It's the nation's indelible image of itself, the story of Finland told and retold in miniature. The best of the lot (roughly 20 films screening over 10 days) manage to present vast contradictions without taking sides, allowing two realities to occupy the same space at the same time. It's an uneasy balance, but the uneasiness, handled correctly, can provide a certain strange vitality.

Take Tango Kabaree (screening at Bell Auditorium on Wednesday, August 7 at 9:15 p.m.), Finland's otherwise unclassifiable answer to Moulin Rouge. Half carnival and half documentary, this dark, delightful movie stars the 71-year-old Finnish dancing queen Aira Samulin as herself...kind of. She plays a 100-year-old woman, Aira Samulin, a former dancer and Finnish celebrity (known--in the film, as in life--as Finland's "ambassador of joy") courted by a cabaret owner who believes that her presence in his show will save it.

But Aira needs to reconcile some painful contradictions before she can participate. She has survived terrible things: war, famine, displacement, marriage to a brutal man. In addition to being a celebrity, she's also just an old woman with a long memory who needs to find a way to put the last century to rest. How, the film wants to know, do you find room for dancing in a life with such memories? And if you do, does that invalidate the grief? Which is worse: burying your memories or using them as material?

These are weighty questions, but they're posed amid a delirium of greasepaint and musical numbers. This is fantasy, not tragedy. And the cabaret owner has his own, more practical worries: How much of Aira does he want in the show? He wants her fame, certainly, but does he want her history? His fretting could be the Finnish film industry's own. How do you acknowledge what happened and still get on with the business of entertaining people?


It's no coincidence that several other FinnFest films are biographical portraits of national heroes, nor that these heroes are writers and entertainers. (Of Finland's eight national holidays, four commemorate writers--and none commemorate generals.) The Life of Alexis Kivi (Monday and Wednesday, August 5 and 7, at 7:15 p.m.) traces the career of the man who is said to have singlehandedly created modern Finnish literature. True to type, Kivi (Marko Tiusanen) is a strapping, wild-eyed country boy who fascinates and horrifies the Swedish-speaking elites, who prefer Finns to be romanticized, illiterate peasants. The film reflects the common belief that the very process of writing poems, plays, and novels in Finnish made nationalism possible and paved the way for independence. Literature and language were Finland's chosen instruments of defiance--perhaps the only ones available, in fact, given its eventual powerlessness in the face of Russia's overwhelming military might. Kivi implies this was intentional, that Finland was playing a game of cultural catch-up. Each time Kivi completes a work, someone slaps him on the back and says, "At last, Finnish culture has an equal place among European civilizations!"  

If this seems a little overemphatic, it is. Both Kivi and Fairyland (Thursday, August 8 at 9:15 p.m.), a documentary about Unto Mononen, who wrote a popular Finnish tango, suffer from the attempt to lionize deeply flawed subjects. Both were heavy drinkers. Mononen wrecked his marriage, tormented his collaborators, and died after shooting himself in front of his friends. Kivi suffered a breakdown in his 30s, was institutionalized for schizophrenia, and died in poverty. (His ironic last words were: "I am alive.") Kivi's final shot--of a strapping Alexis on a mountaintop, surveying the countryside like Moses--is simply wrong. The cliché isn't just false; it's the exact opposite of Kivi's true achievement, which was to present an honest, unromantic, and sometimes contradictory portrait of the rural Finns, depicting them as lazy, ignorant, uncivilized, lustful, and unmistakably human.

A similar false romanticism permeates Gracious Curves and The One and Only (both screening Saturday and Sunday, August 10 and 11), two performance-art pieces by Kiti Loustarinen. The former is humorless dogma about the societal indignities that women suffer when they age; the latter is supposed to be a documentary about love, but it's really a thesis statement. These aren't real people's stories but cardboard portraits used to help Loustarinen "discover" exactly what she expected to find.

Still, the filmmaker's heavy hand can't entirely squelch her subjects. In spite of herself, Loustarinen manages to provide an indelible example of sisu in a Finnish couple who dated young and met again later in life, after earlier marriages had ended. With traditional deadpan humor, the two joke about their relationship: "When we were young, we had a secret love," says one. "Now [that we live across the highway from one another], we have a dangerous love. And next, we will have a deeper love--six feet deep, to be exact." The ten minutes Loustarinen devotes to these wry people are alone worth the price of admission.

This same black humor underlies The Tough Ones (Tuesday, August 6 at 7:15 p.m. and Friday, August 9 at 9:15 p.m.) and The Geography of Fear (Saturday, August 10 and Thursday, August 15 at 9:15 p.m.). In the first, two toughs return to terrorize their small hometown after serving time for a bank robbery; in a bizarre twist of fate, their accomplice, who wasn't caught, returns to town to serve as the new police chief. In the second, a forensic dentist learns that her sister has fallen in with a pack of murderous lesbians. In both cases, groups of characters are set at odds, and events play out to inevitable, violent, and gripping conclusions. In place of salvation, which never arrives, we have ongoing tribal warfare between men and women, or between order and chaos. Neither side fully wins. At best, characters have their eyes opened a little, begin to see what their opponents see. The most tragic characters remain blind and singular.

On the face of it, this isn't comedy. So what exactly is funny? One answer can be found in the oldest film on the ticket, 1923's The Village Shoemakers, adapted from a Kivi play. (In a special offsite presentation at the Heights Theater on Tuesday, August 6 at 7:00 p.m., this silent film screens to live organ accompaniment by Harvey Gustafson.) Esko, the village laughingstock, wants to get married, but misadventure follows misadventure until he finally gives up. The final shot finds him in old age, keeping company with a pig. Another way to say sisu, then, is: You try your hardest, and you wind up with a pig instead of a wife. Rather than see it as a reason to stop trying, the Finns have decided that it's a great cosmic joke.

It's possible to see Finnish film--and, by extension, a Finnish film festival--as yet another example of sisu. The government-supported film industry, struggling since the 1950s thanks to competition from Hollywood and television, produces about ten films per year, most of which are sold to Norwegian state television. Still, Finnish national identity and culture didn't exactly accumulate naturally over the centuries. Instead, they were pushed. The Finns created a written language from scratch, then built a literature. Now, against all odds, they're making movies about their writers.

If this seems like an absurd or daunting quest, it's also just life in a nation of contrasts, where survival in the meantime is the order of the day, and the best defense is sometimes just to find the truth and then laugh at it.

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