A soldier runs and hits the ground in an open, grassy field. His helmet falls off in the process to reveal slick and tidy dark hair. A youthful face. An expression of concentration briefly appears as he takes aim. There is a tranquility to the archival footage shot by the Finnish military—the rifle fires, and as he draws the bolt back, the screen fades to the next scene before the second shot can be taken.
Sota ja Mielenrauha (War and Peace of Mind), directed by Ari Matikainen (who also wrote the screenplay), and produced by Liisa Juntunen, is based on letters and journal entries written during World War II, particularly focusing on the period of The Continuation War (Jatkosota).
It’s an examination of a myriad of topics: the effect of war on Finnish collective memory, generational repercussions of the event, it’s narrative in society, it’s repercussions (especially regarding mental health), and the role it continues to play in the discourse surrounding national identity. It’s all of those things, but at its core, it’s an exploration of the individual, personal, and harrowing experience of war: the emotions it elicits, and the long-lasting legacy it creates for individuals and greater society, wrapped carefully by a hard working team that spent two years on the project.
I start by interviewing Tuomas Tepora, one of the experts who worked on the film, a social historian in his day to day work. I suggest that the film is a more honest representation of the conflict through an examination of the sociocultural history and the ‘human’ element of the war. Tepora agrees, adding, “Yeah, it is. It’s more visceral. It makes the experience rather concrete. It’s not an abstract thing anymore, the war, it’s something that is inside the people who have experienced it.”
We continue on the topic, and his expertise shines through. “I think adding to the dialogue of the war’s place in society is one of the major contributions of this film, and to wider discussions about the war. I wouldn’t say that it has never been heard before, but it brings up debates that have not been prevalent in Finnish historical culture.”
I press further, and Tepora is happy to explain. “During the last ten years or so, the cultural history of war has emerged and very forcefully looked at the experiences of ordinary soldiers, the various emotions of war, and the politics of memory, cultural memory, and fiction of war in Finland.” I ask with slight naivety, “Have you met any resistance while challenging the dominant narrative?”, and he replies with ease. “There are certain people who want to see the Finnish war history to be basic, heroic story of a small nation, victimised by the totalitarian superpower, but I think is diminishing. People are more and more open to these new interpretations, to these new discussions . . . people my age, in their 30s and 40s, are looking back at the experience of their grandparents, and how their experiences have affected their own families, and it’s really interesting to observe.”
The visceral and confronting nature of personal history is emphasised by Ari Matikainen’s gargantuan effort in digging through primary source material, which is heard throughout the film. “The harder the war around us became, the closer we got to one another. This closeness is somehow divine in difficult times. It is like a tangible music of souls. It’s rueful I haven’t seen such love for the fellow man anywhere else but in the dugout.”
[alert type=white ]“The harder the war around us became, the closer we got to one another. This closeness is somehow divine in difficult times. It is like a tangible music of souls. It’s rueful I haven’t seen such love for the fellow man anywhere else but in the dugout.”[/alert]
The poignant yet mesmerising selections of source material was a labour of love, as I spoke with Matikainen to discover how and why he chose the archival footage and sources that he did. “There are about 200 hours of film from this war, I watched it all through, including around 168,000 photographs. It started to work. I slowed down the footage, to see what is happening, watched all the short ends of the reels, searching for something . . . ok, there was an expression, there is an image of someone. It’s a really joyful enquiry, in that sense.”
Amazed, I ask more about the material he dealt with, for it is one of the foundations of the film. More than happy to oblige me, he explains. “All the material has been there for seventy years, but no one has looked at it that way. Everything is here. The whole thing about censorship, that has taken everything out, more or less, is not true. Of course, they have cut out something, but if you look and try to find the expressions of human feelings, they’re still there. You can find it. That was my journey, which took around two years in total. I wasn’t watching every day, but you have to find new material, book the screenings, etc.”
After the Winter War, Finland’s leaders and citizens had the notion that a retaliation would be in order if there is an opportunity. In 1941, Finns called it Summer War, though it was later known as the Continuation War. The idea was to reclaim the lost areas of Karelia, with some extra, and return for farm work in the autumn. However, this dragged out into three years of conflict, often locked in static trench warfare, with it becoming harder to see a way out for soldiers. As it is so bluntly stated by an interviewee in the film, “They start living in surroundings where death is ever-present.”
[alert type=white ]“They start living in surroundings where death is ever-present.”[/alert]
Ari Matikainen and Liisa Juntunen work through these concepts with a simultaneously haunting and beautiful narrative that is not attributed to any singular character. Matikainen is resolute about this: “From the beginning when I started to think about it, I didn’t really want to put anyone there as the main character, so I created a whole structure where you can create the main character in your head, and place your own father or grandfather there in the war, and be in this whole world of material. I also wanted to step out from the strong convention of war documentaries: no narration, what happened here and there . . . more like a feeling based thing.”
I ask about the choice of almost exclusively focusing on source material from the time. “I think that in spite of valuable interviews with veterans, which tell their story largely based on memory, which of course, in 70 years, memory is a tricky friend. This was the closest I could get. Trying to read those letters that they had written, the feeling, the expression, and the archive material, and I combined all that to get the end product,” Matikainen explains.
Yet, I ponder, “Did you feel a particular need to show this in a visual way, That it was time for this to be told, this kind of interpretation?” With obvious clarity, he breezes through this question, “I felt that this was quite obvious for me, that this was the way I was going to do the film. There are certain gaps in history, even in my personal history, where I don’t know what my family was doing during the wartime. I try to fill those gaps. I wasn’t really thinking that times are changing, that I need to do the film like this, it was very organic. Suddenly people were all over… guys like Tepora doing this research, etc.”
Matikainen continues, “I didn’t have a mission to change it (public perception), even though I wanted people to start to talk after seeing this film, to wonder what happened to their parents or grandparents after the war, in the families . . . I’m quite sure there are many issues that haven’t been discussed. People often think ‘it was just us, it was our grandfather that only had problems after the war’, and people were a bit ashamed. There is no need for that, because if the war doesn’t affect you at all, that’s the scary thing. It’s quite obvious, that if you have to go through that, it takes a bit of you or whatever.”
[alert type=white ]“I didn’t have a mission to change it (public perception), even though I wanted people to start to talk after seeing this film, to wonder what happened to their parents or grandparents after the war, in the families . . .”[/alert]
The structure of the film is perfectly matched by the thoughtful and chilling compositions of Janne Haavisto and Tarja Merivirta. Naturally, when presenting archival footage, the music is an essential component to the viewing experience. Matikainen elaborates: “I wanted to do electronic stuff, to combine, to tear it out from the conventional historical documentaries in that sense, with a new point of view too.” It’s quite difficult to emphasise just how well the music fits: at times it is incredibly dark, haunting, mechanical, like the gears of war, and at others, full of sorrow, beauty, and hope. With the selection of material, matched with the music, it’s hard to image that the movie could be sequenced in any other way, or any other footage could be included. The package feels whole, complete, and a perfect match.
In a similar vein, we discuss the quality of the archival footage, which is equally stunning. Ari chimes in, “This material . . . they were really good cinematographers. It was really true cinema. I was looking for the artistic flair, the beauty amongst the roughness . . . people’s need to find something beautiful in these times, even in wartime.” In my opinion, he found exactly what he was looking for in the stunning material generously provided by the Finnish military.
Suddenly my photographer and I realise that we have taken more of his time than we could have ever hoped. A looming question that could be on the mind of many moviegoers is brought forward as Tony puts his camera on table and asks, “How do you think the Russians will take the documentary?”
“I would definitely love to show it there. I’m quite sure they would understand. They had the same thing . . . they had letters in their pockets when they were found, they wrote to their families, and they were young men too . . . I think that these people who were there, they more or less forgot which army they fought for . . . the reality of the war was so horrible. When the peace came in 1944, September, people came out from their positions, and shook their hands, as if to say ‘Thank you for the fight’.”
Finally, we ask, “Do you think this conflicts with the Russian interpretation?”, and chuckling, Matikainen responds, “I’m quite sure! This whole Soviet thing is something they want to forget at times, but want to keep the good bits – the Second World War, we saved the whole world mentality. Finns have their place in that. In the big picture, it’s not something you would see, this kind of film.” However, this is not the main thrust of the work, as Matikainen finalises, “I tried to make a non-political documentary from the beginning – these are the things that happened, these are the feelings people had, so you can twist it in your mind wherever you want it to.”
Sota ja mielenrauha is such a complete and profound experience. It is, in my mind, one of the best films I have ever seen dealing with the, unfortunately, all-too-common perils of war. It is not only essential viewing for every Finn, but I believe it is a story that could easily resonate with many other nationalities. Such is the crew’s skill of dealing with the nostalgic and stirring place that war holds in the identity and memory of many nations, thoughtfully guiding viewers through seemingly endless subtle components of violent conflict.
Sota ja mielenrauha first screens on March 11, 2016.
This film has been produced in collaboration with the following organizations: The Finnish Defence Forces, Lotta Svärd Association, Fallen Memorial Foundation, Disabled War Veterans, the Finnish Film Foundation, YLE, AVEK
For more information, go to http://www.sotajamielenrauha.fi or https://www.facebook.com/sotajamielenrauha.