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Helsinki’s foremost documentary film festival, DocPoint, came to a close on Sunday with a new record-breaking number of visitors: 32,000. During the course of seven days, select cinemas across the city were taken over by more than 100 documentaries from various countries, including many made by Finnish filmmakers.
DocPoint, which has been a staple of any Helsinki cinephile’s diet since 2012, when it was first organized, brought several prominent titles to its audience this year. Among these, let us mention Lady Time by Elina Talvensaari, which opened the festival, Feras Fayyad’s Oscar-nominated The Cave, and two other Finnish entries, Susani Mahadura’s Kelet and Erika Haavisto’s Silicon Valley, Baby.
Kelet ended up taking home the Audience Award, while Lady Time was the recipient of the Critic’s Choice Award, presented by British film journalist Nick Holdsworth.
My own selection of films was somewhat more low-key, although it still included some renowned names of documentary cinema.
First came South, a 1999 turn from a late icon of feminist cinema, Chantal Akerman, best known for her 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. South explores a racist occurrence in the small town of Jasper, Texas, where a group of white supremacists beat up a black man, chained him to their car, and drove around town.
Akerman shot the film in a very unassuming way; she interviews the residents who may have seen glimpses of the crime and who in any case shed light on deep-seated racial tensions in the town going back generations. These interviews are then interspersed with shots from a moving vehicle, showing fleeting houses and streets, presumably tracing the tracks of the assailants’ route.
The next film I saw was Kazuhiro Soda’s latest, Inland Sea (2018). The great Japanese observational documentarian is primarily based in New York, but his documentary films are all set in his native Japan and tend to focus on people who are, in one way or another, marginalized by the rest of society.
In Inland Sea, Soda turns his lens on the small fishing town of Ushimado, the population of which is rapidly aging, its culture disappearing. The filmmaker follows an amicable and often amusing cast of characters around town: an aged fisherman with impaired hearing who still takes his fishing boat out every day and an old woman who spends her day idling by the seaside, chatting aggressively to whoever is around, are certainly the protagonists. Shot in beautiful black and white photography, the film shows the characters’ sympathies and antipathies, but in the process also reveals the sadness of the setting; how lonely these elders are, stuck in a rapidly declining community, with more cats than people for company.
Finally, there was Immortal, the second documentary feature from Russian director Ksenia Okhapkina. Set in a town in north-western Russia, the film begins with a historical note, explaining that when the Gulags were unlocked, following the death of Stalin, the people living there—simply continued living there.
The small industrial town which is the set of Okhapkina’s film appears to run according to a very strict, military-like hierarchy. Young boys train with rifles, young girls learn ballet, while the freight trains transport heaps and heaps of coal on the railroad tracks. Allegiance to the Russian state is paramount.
With well-aimed and insightful close-ups, Okhapkina manages to capture the peculiar form of life on display. Some of the shots she produces are truly incredible, and one wonders at times how she managed to get so close to her subject or make the subject(s) so seemingly unaware of the camera. The young Russian director certainly showcases her talent, and it’s safe to say we haven’t heard the last of her.