Finnish Independent Film is Doing Better Than You Might Think

By Tina Poglajen | Indiewire

This year, the Love and Anarchy film festival in Helsinki dedicated one of its program sections to Finnish indie films. A closer look reveals that outside the system of state-funding, indie films that go off the beaten track with their storytelling, genre films and alternatively produced, niche fiction and documentary films have actually thrived in the last few years.

Influenced by pieces of international popular culture as diverse as film noir, poetic novellas and even sci-fi epics, Finnish indies seem to be very much alive and kicking.

A Diverse Bunch

The program offered an array of documentaries, a traditional strong point of Finnish filmmaking, dealing with topics as diverse as mountain climbing, skating and Philippino trans-activism. Besides a collection of animation gems, short films and collaborations with Swedish indie filmmakers, filmmakers like Dave Berg and Elina Reinikka presented an unusual, but very welcome combination of experimental filmmaking and comedy in “About Happiness,” analyzing the ending of a romantic relationship.

Pushing the limits of similar conventional narratives by playfully utilizing long shots and dynamic camerawork, “On Happiness” calls attention to its own medium by applying an old-movie style filter and breaking the fourth wall to tell its story in more detail and with more focus.

One of the highlights, a prime example of an alternative and innovative way of producing films, was the magic-realist love story “Night Goes Long,” a joint directorial effort of Henri Huttunen and Vesa Kuosmanen and based on “The Little Prince” by Antoine De Saint Exupery. The film was made within the Uneton48 franchise, which has been putting together competitions for short films made in 48 hours since 2008. “Night Goes Long” is their feature debut, shot and edited in just 48 days and in collaboration with the audience, who even had a say in the script and the shooting locations.

Another fiction film stood out, especially for its insistence on exploration of genre filmmaking: “Guilt,” directed Márton Jelinko, an independent filmmaker who recently won best debut feature at London’s Raindance Film Festival in 2012 with his previous film, “Indebted.” The film tells the story of Thomas, who joins a violent criminal gang in order to get to the bottom of the disappearance of his sister.

Box Office Challenges

All in all, Finnish indie films may not be very different from the films of indie film communities worldwide, or even in the U. S. thematically or in terms of genre. But though screened side by side with U.S. “indie darlings” at the Helsinki Love & Anarchy film festival this year, Finnish indies are made within a very different film industry.

In a country where the majority of film production relies on state support — namely, the Finnish Film Foundation — going independent can be especially tricky. The Finnish audience does seem to favor domestic films — in 2014, there were four Finnish productions among the top 5 films screened in Finland, the only U. S. one being “The Hobbit” — but still, audiences tend to be wary of smaller productions: out of the 20 most successful domestic films at the Finnish box office, only one has been produced independently (and most years, there is none), and its success has caused quite a sensation. It was the country’s first fully-crowdfunded film, “Dream Driven,” a documentary about three men driving from Helsinki to Nepal in a postal van, raising money for children’s education in Nepal, all the ticket sale profits (110,561 Euros) supposedly going back to help the same cause.

There’s also a distrust of films that don’t seem Finnish enough: films made through conventional production routes and funded by the Finnish Film Foundation predominantly cater to the domestic audience, and often resort to the conventions of the Finnish national cinema. Often, these films are populated by outlandish, alienated and isolated characters (as living on the outskirts of Europe might make them), who are expressing themselves in every possible way but with words, and sometimes seek refuge from urban life in the wilderness.

Starting out in cooperation with an independent, DIY, underground film production company Filmtotal himself, Aki Kaurismäki might be the best-known Finnish filmmaker internationally. However, in Finland, his movies — experimental deadpan narratives that challenge conventions and maintain an uncompromising critical stance toward the contemporary Finnish society — have often been derided for their un-Finnishness, rarely achieving commercial success outside art-house cinemas (the only exception is his last film, “Le Havre,” which was the the country’s second-highest grossing film in 2011.)

Márton Jelinkó, the director of “Guilt,” seems to have come across a similar obstacle in his work. “The movies that I wanted to do would never have been funded” in the course of established support systems, he said. “They are not meant to be crowd-pleasers, which can be an issue.”

“Guilt” is a prime example of independent filmmaking in Finland: a genre film with less conventional storytelling, funded in entirety by the director’s own production company, with a budget of only 10,000 to 12,000 Euros — yet it adheres to very high standards of production, including professional crew and equipment, proving that independent films don’t have to be amateur works as well.

With the spread and availability of digital technology in the last years, film as a medium has been democratized and liberated, and filmmaking of all persuasions has proliferated in Finland, much as it has elsewhere. Finnish indies are finding an audience in the international market, which is “a game-changer,” said Mikka J. Norvanto, Finland’s only independent distributor. For example, the success of the horror-comedy “Bunny the Killer Thing,” which Norvanto’s company produced last year, granted them much more freedom with other projects and enabled them to “make what they wanted to make.” The film has landed a worldwide distribution deal with Raven Banner Entertainment this year after being screened at festivals in Europe, North America and Australia.

Sometimes, it’s not so much a problem of making good independent films, but of “finding the right place where the people could see them,” Norvanto said. In the last few years, platforms such as Netflix and similar local providers in Finland are turning the situation around, by “showing good, quality films elsewhere than in theaters,” and thereby challenging the perception of professionally-made films only being shown through theatrical distribution, said Norvanto.

And things are looking up for international distribution in general. “When we started, we couldn’t even dream about an international release or finding an audience abroad because that required big companies and a lot of money,” he said. “But in these days, going international is made much easier by VOD platforms. You just have to find the right audience. Things definitely are changing.”

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