Finnish films breaking out internationally

As EIFF's wide-ranging Focus on Finland strand gives audiences a chance to get a flavour of the nation's cinema, which is little known on these shores beyond the work of Aki Kaurismäki, we speak to some of the filmmakers breaking out beyond its borders

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 07 Jun 2016

On the first floor of Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum, home to the largest collection of classical Finnish art, hangs The Fighting Capercaillies by Ferdinand von Wright. An oil painting, painted in 1888, it depicts a hazy forest clearing where two of the eponymous birds (they look a bit like pheasants) are squaring off against each other. The bigger of the two birds is on its back foot, squawking (if that’s the noise capercaillies make?), hesitant. The smaller one’s gaze is steady, its footing solid, its head thrust forward ready to attack; the smaller bird might be winning.

Von Wright’s symbolism wasn’t lost on the Finnish people, who were at the time ruled by the iron fist of the Russian Empire and for the previous six centuries had been lorded over by the various kings and queens of Sweden. To this day, 99 years on from winning independence, it’s the nation’s most reproduced painting. 

From The Fighting Capercaillies to Angry Birds

On a recent trip to Helsinki to speak to members of its small film industry, we found this same pugnacious spirit blended with a deadpan fatalism that should be all too familiar to local readers.

“Finns are a bit – how do I say this nicely? – a bit grumpy,” says Ulla Junell, producer of the recent Finnish animation Angry Birds The Movie, as she shows us around Rovio, the video game developers who created the popular game on which the film is based. “They’re quite honest. It’s not the Finnish way to hide one’s feelings; we’re quite direct.” Not too different from Scotland, we’d say.

Angry Birds flying high at the international box-office

The headquarters, situated in Espoo, one of Helsinki’s neighbouring cities, looks like it’s been airlifted from Silicon Valley. Bearded computer nerds are playing a Raiders of the Lost Ark pinball machine in a lounge just by reception while others are curled up on brightly-coloured sofas, hunched over their MacBooks. Red, Chuck, Bomb et al loom over us on every wall.

It may look like America but the vibe is distinctly Finnish. Angry Birds’ world premiere is days away, journalists are in their presence, but the film’s producers can’t bring themselves to be too optimistic. “It would be foolish to put yourself out there and say ‘Everything’s going to be great,’” says Junell. She needn't have worried: at the time of writing, Angry Birds sits perched atop the US box-office, having toppled Captain America: Civil War.

The €63m production is the biggest ever in Finnish cinema, but despite its budget, Junell insists it hasn’t softened the games’ anarchic and, to her mind, very Finnish tone. “It was important for us to keep the mischievousness,” she says. “We really want it to have a little bit of an edgy attitude.” This is evident in Angry Birds’ best visual gag, which involves a gone-to-seed eagle peeing in his ‘lake of wisdom.’ Disney it it is not.

Playing by your own rules

Few Finnish films, much to the disappointment of the filmmakers we speak to in Helsinki, will enjoy even a fraction of Angry Birds’ impact internationally. “Finnish movies tend to be made for Finnish audiences,” says director Timo Vuorensola, a tattoo of David Lynch visible on his beefy bicep. “Anything that comes on top of that is a nice bonus, a little festival here or there, but to really get anything outside of Finland it take something very special.” Vuorensola hit upon that special something back in 2012 with Nazis-in-space movie Iron Sky. Its sequel, Iron Sky: The Coming Race, is forthcoming.

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To put the cult franchise's popularity in perspective, The Coming Race’s current teaser trailer has been viewed 23 million times on YouTube; X-Men: Apocalypse, currently the UK’s number one film at the box-office, has had just 22 million hits. Their ambitious plan – based around innovative marketing, a pioneering crowdfunding campaign, and tight control of distribution to minimise piracy ("On the first Iron Sky, the piracy numbers were fucking tremendous") – is to create a Star Wars-style cinematic universe for the series. “We’re trying to create a franchise that’s not just one film, it’s a whole world.”

The Aki Kaurismäki Trauma

Finland’s only other internationally-known asset is its greatest ever filmmaker: Aki Kaurismäki, whose singular style, part deadpan miserablist, part exuberant daydreamer, is a perfect fit for his nation's dual sensibilities. Fellow filmmaker Aleksi Salmenperä is Kaurismäki's friend and neighbour. “We play football together,” says the 43-year-old, who’s come directly from painting the outside of his house in Karkkila. “I’m always complaining to him that I’m waiting for my passion to wake up, and he said that he buried his passion for filmmaking ten years ago,” he says dryly. Salmenperä notes that Kaurismäki, despite standing apart from the Finnish film industry, looms large over his generation of filmmakers. “Maybe there’s something similar to the Bergman trauma that Sweden has,” he suggests. “Aki is probably the only one that people [outside of Finland] actually know, but then of course it’s only the world of the film industry that knows him, nobody else does.”

Kaurismäki has so dominated Finland’s international representation over the last few decades that his style has become synonymous with Finnish filmmaking. “I think whenever a film of somebody else's has Aki’s elements, they are respected. This is annoying. If you have something that reminds – even though it’s not intentional – the international audience of Aki's films, they are delighted.”

Aki Kaurismäki's Lights in the Dusk (2006)

Audiences at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival get the opportunity to correct this ignorance thanks to the eclectic selection of Finnish films screening in the festival’s country focus strand, Focus on Finland. Eight films screen altogether and none bear Kaurismäki’s hallmarks, from a joyous doc about morose Finnish cheerleaders (Cheer Up) to Mika Taanila's stunning avant-garde piece Tectonic Plate.

Salmenperä’s new film The Mine, a Fincher-like environmental thriller, screens and is the pick of the narrative features, but he’s not doing the best of jobs selling it. “It was very well received by the critics but audiences didn’t want to go see it,” he says bluntly, “which I understand, basically – it’s not good enough entertainment.” Finnish audiences do have a huge appetite for home-grown movies, he explains, with the box-office share for domestic cinema around 30%. France is the only nation in Europe who can boast better, with most European nations’ own movies lucky to get around 10% of their market. The problem for Salmenperä, however, is that arthouse films don’t play well here.

Aleksi Salmenperä's The Mine (2015)

“The films that get the most viewers in this country are about people partying, fucking, dancing – those are the key elements,” he says. “We’re only five million people. It would need at least ten for this type of film to make an impact.” For Finnish filmmakers like Salmenperä who are keen to work outside these narrow borders of mainstream cinema, international success becomes not just a “bonus”, as Vuorensola described it, but essential for survival.

Cannes success

One way to do that is make a splash on the international festival circuit. Many of the people we speak to have pinned their hopes on 37-year-old filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen doing just that. His debut film, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, was the only Finnish work screening at this year’s Cannes, where it played in the Un Certain Regard competition. 

His film, a graceful boxing drama chronicling the build-up to the 1962 world featherweight championship title fight, is a knockout. Shot in beautiful black and white 16mm, it has the look and feel of a British kitchen-sink film of the 1960s (it would make a beautiful double bill with The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner), and tells how country baker and amateur boxer Olli Maki has a nation’s hopes heaped on him when he’s railroaded into a fight with world champion Davey Moore.

Juho Kuosmanen's The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2016)

“This guy has this chance of a lifetime and then he fears that it’s going to turn out to be a catastrophe,” says Kuosmanen of his title character, “and at the same time he can see the newspaper headlines that are hoping for him to be the next champion and he doesn’t feel the same way.” Kuosmanen certainly knows that feeling. “I think it was easy to relate because I knew that this film would be screened in Cannes in some section – The Painting Sellers [Kuosmanen’s graduate film] won the first prize in Cinéfondation [Cannes’ short competition for emerging filmmakers] and part of the prize is an invite to Cannes, so it was a nice situation but also it was very scary.”

As we chat over lunch ahead of Cannes, he doesn’t look like a man with a nation’s hopes on his shoulders, but he’s used to these expectations. “When I was studying film, all you would hear was, ‘Swedish films and Danish films, they go abroad so what’s the matter with Finnish film?’ So they were trying to make us aim for success by trying to figure out what things you should do to gain that success, but it doesn’t work that way. The only way is to set yourself totally free from those pressures and find your own path.”

Kuosmanen has, and do you know what? He won, beating international auteurs like Hirokazu Kore-eda and David Mackenzie to the top prize.

By our reckoning that’s one international smash (Angry Birds), one viral hit (Iron Sky), and this Un Certain Regard prize makes one festival breakthrough. Like with Von Wright’s capercaillies, this small but feisty nation is winning.

EIFF runs 15-26 Jun

The Mine screens 19 Jun, Odeon & 21 Jun, Filmhouse

Cheer Up screens 20 Jun, Odeon & 22 Jun, Filmhouse

Tectonic Plate screens 22 Jun, Filmhouse

Angry Birds The Movie is on general release now