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Matthew Heineman’s dark and clever film Cartel Land leads the viewer to the grey area in the war against drugs. Picture: DocPoint

Matthew Heineman’s dark and clever film ‘Cartel Land’ leads the viewer to the grey area in the war against drugs. Picture: DocPoint

The 15th annual DocPoint festival kicks off today, bringing to Helsinki some of the best-received documentary films of the last year. Established in 2001, DocPoint is one of the largest documentary film festival in the Nordic countries, and annually screens prize-winning and more discreet productions from all over the world.

Two themes stand out this year: a highly politic collection of films that address various facets of the current immigration crises in Europe and the Middle East, and a series of Finnish films that tackle the experience and legacy of war in twentieth-century Finland. Ari Matikainen’s War and Peace of Mind (2015), opens the festival with a skilfully crafted exploration of the nation’s war-time and post-war traumas, and, through the use of letters, journals, archival footage and interviews, addresses the problematic issue of Finland’s repression of its war-torn past. Ville Sihonen’s Seamstress reconstructs the mystery surrounding the war-time execution of Martta Koskinen, the last woman to be executed in Finland, exposing the height of anti-Communist paranoia and the vicious interrogations to which suspected infiltrators were subjected. Reflecting how much this theme is occupying a younger generation of Finns, a series of student short films, Post-War Dreams, also tackles a subject that continues to affect the national psyche.


Frustratingly for those non-Finnish speakers who would like to learn more about Finland’s political past, a series of films by the radical leftist director Kari Karmasalo are screened without subtitles. However, the visual material of these archival classics from the National Audio-visual Institute promises to be very rich, and for those prepared to forgo audio comprehension, films like The Struggle for a City (1972), Black Alliance (1975), and Two Tales of Helsinki (1977) provide a strong visual evocation of Helsinki’s (apparently) by-gone age of militant class struggle. For those interested in a more tender experience of vintage Helsinki, Peter von Bagh’s Helsinki Forever (2008) is subtitled, with a single screening on January 27th at Orion cinema. Von Bagh, who died in 2014, was a veteran film-maker, film-historian, and an imposing cultural figure within Finland who brought together international directors and film-goers by establishing the legendary Midnight Sun Festival in 1986. Helsinki Forever is a documentary homage to the city and to the golden age of Finland’s silver screen, described in the festival literature as a “beautiful urban symphony” which “entwines the old with the new, the beauty with the brutality.”

The work of well-established directors peppers the programme, with films, for example, by Werner Herzog, Chris Marker, and Chantal Ackerman, as well as the experimental Canadian film-maker Philip Hoffman, whose residency in Finland in the early 1990s had a catalytic influence on Finnish students and film-makers. Annekatrin Hendel’s film Fassbinder (2015) presents a revealing portrait about the brilliant, obsessively creative and highly critical German film-maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who died in 1981 at the age of 37.

Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's 'Sonita', tells a story of an 18-year-old Sonita, who is an Afghan refugee living in Iran. She wants to be a rap artist and with words as her weapons she fights for a world, where young girls won’t be sold as wives to old men. Picture: DocPoint

Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s ‘Sonita’, tells a story of an 18-year-old Sonita, who is an Afghan refugee living in Iran. She wants to be a rap artist and with words as her weapons she fights for a world, where young girls won’t be sold as wives to old men. Picture: DocPoint

On the theme of immigration, the festival is screening the films of numerous directors who have clearly been prompted to engage in the human stories behind the often ugly mainstream coverage of recent humanitarian crises. I Am Dublin (Sweden, 2015) tells of Ahmed, a Somali refugee who has mutilated his finger-tips in an attempt to evade the miserable bureaucratic loop of the immigration system. Beyond Europe, Sonita follows the life of a young Afghani woman living as a refugee in Iran, whose family back home are relying on the financial gain of her forced marriage. Sonita, however, has other plans and wants to be a rapper. Singing in protest against forced marriage, she appears in a wedding dress with a bar-code inscribed on her forehead, defiantly rapping “I came here on foot and I shall leave by land / Tonight I’ll break the spell of my homelessness / I’m tired of going hungry, all the meals I’ve missed.”

Read also:  DocPoint showcases a total of 166 documentaries - starts today

On the awards front, Crystal Moselle’s The Wolf Pack looks like an extraordinary and barely believable modern Tarzan tale about the Angulo brothers, now teenagers whose mother has never let them leave their New York apartment. They have only communed with the outside world through re-enacting scenes from their favourite films until one of them ventures outside and encounters the director. Probably the most talked-of documentary of the year though is Cartel Land by Matthew Heineman, which is up for an award at the Oscars this year. Heineman draws us into the lives of the vigilante militia groups that boldly attempt to confront the Mexican drug cartels terrorising their communities, as well as exposing the anti-immigrant racism spewed from US militia across the border.

Personally, I’m looking forward to Russian director Vitaly Mansky’s Under the Sun (2015), which subtly reveals the propagandist construction of life in North Korea by following the everyday life of a family for a year; the family, however, turn out to be actors and everything has been staged by the authorities. Also, Unbranded (2015) a seemingly Cormac McCarthy-esque adventure by Philip Baribeau which trails a group of young modern-day cowboys accompanying a pack of wild horses 3,000 miles through tough terrain from Mexico to Canada.

More information on the films and screening can be found here.