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Documentary Icebreaker: Finland Is the Filmland of Scandinavia

By Carita Rizzo

From Mika Ronkainen's Screaming Men

From a barren winter wonderland came a documentary featuring noble characters clad in black and white. This critically acclaimed Finnish film depicts a group of indomitable, yet adorable creatures sauntering across layers of ice, slowly moving forward, single-file, making sure no one is left behind. Suddenly they stop. And at the command of their leader they start pulling a giant icebreaker, sweat pouring down their crimson faces.

You might be thinking, "Hang on, weren't the marching penguins captured by Frenchmen? And I don't remember any towing of nautical vessels." Well, those adorable creatures are The Screaming Men, a male choir from Finland, dressed up in tuxedoes and rubber ties. The Screaming Men, by Mika Ronkainen, is just one of many unusual Finnish documentaries featured and awarded at international festivals in the past years. In fact, three out of these year's eight nominees short-listed for the Grierson Award are from Finland. Just recently, the Prix Italia was awarded to Pirjo Honkasalo's 3 Rooms of Melancholia .

The Nordic country has been called documentary filmmaking heaven, and if your mind is off the marching penguins, you must be wondering why.

When Finland regained its independence from Russia in 1917, the nation's documentary industry was in its infancy. The first generation of documentary filmmakers were pioneers who took it upon themselves to find subjects and develop their craft. Despite a long tradition of literature and music, Finland had no history of filmmaking. Thus, the first wave of documentaries was patriotic, focusing on matters of national pride such as nature and folklore. Heikki Aho and Bjrn Soldan started this Finnish documentary tradition, and they went on to produce about 300 documentary films in the 1930s. Their films featured such famed Finns as composer Jean Sibelius, but also depicted daily life in a fresh and spontaneous way.

The era between 1936 and 1964 is particularly well documented as a result of a tax break offered to those who made short films that promoted art, science, education or economics in Finland. These shorts would be shown before a feature presentation. However, as the films began to resemble commercials more than documentaries, they were eventually discontinued.

The 1960s gave way to socially and politically aware documentaries that began to question the values on which Finland was built. Jorn Donner's Perkele (Fuck Off!!--Images of Finland ), for example, paints a critical portrait of the nation, with the poor and politically active residents living on the margins of society.

In 1969 the Finnish Film Foundation (SES; was created as a way for the government to help fund films. Though the main focus of the support was on feature films, documentaries also received financing. Lasse Naukkarinen, Kari Karmassalo and Claes Olsson made documentaries that scrutinized the political scene in Finland in the 1970s, while others, like Mikael Wahlfors and Kai Salminen, turned to political injustice around the world.

The early 1990s launched a number of female filmmakers who put new emphasis on personal expression in documentaries. Kanerva Cedestrm, Kiti Luostarinen and Kristina Schulgin were among the emerging talent that showed that the auteur's view could be a significant part of the film. Luostarinen's Gracious Curves (1997), for example, examines the ever-changing female body and its passage from infancy into adolescence, pregnancy and adulthood.

A s documentaries were given more exposure through festivals and television distribution, they found new audiences and finally became recognized as a national art form that strengthened the identity of Finland.

Today, most Finnish films, including documentaries, are made with the support of three main subsidisers: the government-owned Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE; ), SES ( and the Centre for Audiovisual Culture (AVEK; Other important financial backers are film schools that help fund their students' graduate films, the European Union's MEDIA-program and the Nordic Film and TV Fund (NFTF; ).

SES is the filmmaker's primary source for funding. The Ministry of Education and Culture allocates funds from the national budget to the foundation for the production and distribution of films and the promotion of film culture. The funds come from Veikkaus, the government-owned company that organizes the national lottery and sports gambling; support towards arts and culture came close to 190 million Euros in 2004. In addition to these funds, YLE also assigns a stipend to the foundation each year.

AVEK is part of the copyright organization that represents authors, publishers and performing artists. The organization gets most of its funds from a special tax collected from sales of blank tapes, CDs, videotapes and DVDs used for private recording. AVEK funds short films and documentaries as well as further training for media professionals and contributes to audiovisual culture in the form of festivals.

SES, AVEK and YLE all support DocPoint (, the largest Nordic film festival dedicated solely to documentaries. DocPoint attracts 19,000 visitors to Helsinki each January with its supply of fascinating domestic and international films. The festival also presents films by students and films for children, and offers the DocPoint Masterclass, a forum where acclaimed filmmakers discuss their working methods.

Finnish documentaries reach international audiences primarily through festivals, whereas television is the main distributor to the Finnish public. It is difficult to say how many documentaries are produced in Finland every year; many receive financial support from all three subsidisers, while some projects are independently financed from beginning to end. In the past years the film foundation has supported up to three feature-length documentaries and between eight and 22 short documentaries each year. AVEK supports about 25 documentaries yearly.

If you have ever wondered why Finns, who live in one of the safest countries in the world, never answer their doors, you probably didn't know that YLE is mainly financed by a compulsory television license fee that every television owner pays annually. The fee is enforced through surprise visits to those claiming not to own a television, which, among students, has resulted in elaborate plans of hiding the TV set every time the door bell rings. This revenue of 194 Euros per household ends up generating nearly 325 million Euros each year, part of which goes towards documentary production.

YLE consists of five television channels that show approximately 20 documentaries per week. It acquires almost 350 new films each year, most of which are from other countries. The broadcasting company also participates in about 130 international co-productions every year.

Erkki Astala is in charge of collaboration between production companies and YLE ( /acquisitions.shtml). According to him, the amount of documentaries shown per week is a testament to the support given by YLE. This is possible due to flexible programming times and the fact that programming choices are not based on ratings. Iikka Vehkalahti, a commissioning editor at YLE in charge of a documentary series called Dokumenttiprojekti, adds that YLE has had the opportunity to support creative filmmaking that deals with provocative subjects and personal expression.

Even films with obscure subject matters manage to get funding, like Susanna Helke and Virpi Suutari's critically acclaimed The Idle Ones, about three unemployed friends in eastern Finland who for years do nothing, or Rostislav Aalto's Cleaning Up!, which features a Finnish indie band of men who dress up as women and perform music on cleaning equipment. Although YLE finances 40 to 50 percent of a film's budget, the broadcaster is relatively hands-off. " YLE could of course influence the projects at quite an early stage, but it has no interest in steering a project in a certain direction, or deciding a filmmaker's point of view," Astala explains. " Projects are discussed and developed together from treatment to final cut, but the filmmaker and the producer are in charge and responsible for the result. YLE is simply pre-purchasing the broadcasting rights.

"Most importantly, YLE makes sure that there will always be interesting programs for the viewers," Astala continues. " We make sure that we are involved in the international documentary scene, and although our investment has not yet been quite reciprocal, we will hopefully receive more international support for our projects in the near future."

Astala thinks the rising interest in documentaries is most clearly demonstrated in the increase of DVD sales and documentary films shown in Finnish cinemas. Vehkalahti believes that international collaborations have improved Finnish filmmaking, and the greater volume of documentary production has resulted in a few masterpieces.

"In relation to the population [5.2 million] there are quite a lot of documentary filmmakers in Finland," Vehkalahti notes. "And although many may not be able to support themselves by making documentaries alone, there are some who do."

Vehkalahti is the executive producer of Steps for the Future (2002;, an internationally acclaimed documentary series co-produced by YLE and shown all over the world. The project got started when he was a correspondent in South Africa immediately following the Apartheid era. The government was denying the AIDS epidemic while millions of people were dying from the disease. Vehkalahti could not understand why no documentaries were being made about this controversy.

He partnered with several TV companies in order to gather the best professionals in the world. Together they supervised and assisted local filmmakers in making films on the subject. The result was a series of 37 documentaries that to date have been shown at 150 festivals and on television around the globe. It has won several awards, including The Golden Link Award for Documentary Co-Production from the European Broadcasting Union. The follow-up project, Democracy, is already in the works.

With screaming men and musical cleaning ladies squared away, here are some other Finnish documentaries that lately have piqued the interest of audiences:

The Future is Not What It Used to Be (2002), by Mika Taanila, tells the tale about a man's quest for immortality, and the merging of man and machine. Erkki Kurenniemi, creator of legendary DIMI synthesisers, engages in a maniacal effort to record his own life in order to create a virtual persona that he will present in 2048.

Kim Finn's Riot On! is short-listed for this year's Grierson Award. The film documents the rise and fall of Riot Entertainment Ltd. and offers great insight into the Finnish culture and mindset.

But the must-see documentary of 2005 is 3 Rooms of Melancholia, which tells the story of children who carry a burden of hatred as a result of the Chechen War. The New York Times called it "one of the saddest movies ever made" and a "magnificent documentary."

With Finnish documentaries receiving more awards and recognition than ever before, and with such strong national support for documentary filmmaking, there will surely be many more interesting films for years to come.


Carita Rizzo is a Finnish freelance journalist living in Los Angeles, where she works for the Consulate General of Finland. She can be reached at