Sodankylä Forever: The Century Of Cinema

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Reviewed by: Robert Munro

Sodankylä Forever: The Century Of Cinema
"The weight of history lies heavy on the shoulders of these filmmakers."

Showing here is the first part of a five-hour long documentary from the Midnight Sun Festival in Sodankylä, Finland. The festival’s director Peter von Bagh has interviewed a wealth of directors over the festival’s history, and extracts from some of the interviews are included here, alongside von Bagh’s thoughtful narration.

This first part mainly focuses on the impact World War II has had on filmmakers and the films they make, with particular reverence afforded to an eastern European contingent including Czech émigrés Milos Forman and Ivan Passer; Poles Jerzy Skolimowski and Angieszka Holland; and the Russians Andrei Konchalovskiy and Andrei Smirnov.

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With the Second World War looming large in this episode, the eastern Europeans offer revealing insights into the effects the trauma has had on their careers. Whether it’s making films that attempt to deal with a generation raised without fathers, negotiating Soviet censorship, or – as in the case of Forman and Passer – fleeing before their careers would be ruined by the Soviets, the weight of history lies heavy on the shoulders of these filmmakers.

Indeed, as Holland discusses during an anecdote about trying to teach young German filmmakers whose greatest fears amounted to a trip to the dentist, it is this fear and these life experiences that drive their great art.

The question at one point is posed: “How would we know the true history of the 20th century without the best filmmakers?” And it is this search for truth through the medium of cinema which lies at the heart of von Bagh’s film and, perhaps, the festival itself. We move from the eastern Europeans to the Italian neo-realists, who also sought to come to terms with the horrors of the Second World War through a different cinematic gaze.

Interviewed here are the likes of Ettore Scola and Vittorio De Seta, who discuss the liberation they found in the toughest of economic conditions. Actors were found on the streets, and on those same streets their films were made. Rome, Open City and Bicycle Thieves didn’t need studio financing and film committee boards, these were films made by and for the people; a people who, as Scola suggests, are far more interesting for the medium of cinema than all the generalissimos and politicians who dictate the conditions of their lives.

It’s hard to fully review this without seeing the other three parts. In that regard, this section did feel a little scattered. If the focus had solely been on World War II and its effect on cinema, it may have been stronger. As it is, the film wanders briefly on to war, trauma and censorship in more vague terms. However, for a cinephile audience, this wandering – while it may be unstructured – does bring us interviews with Elia Suleiman, Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami, with their more contemporary take on the issues.

Then there are interviews with Michael Powell and Francis Ford Coppolla, Jacques Demy and John Boorman – cinephile heaven. All are loosely connected with philosophising on the effects of war, and Boorman’s particular slant - that perhaps man’s natural state is war, given the relatively small periods of peace in between wars throughout history - is fascinating, if a little depressing.

Added to this wandering are asides on crime cinema, in which we hear the Americans Robert Fleischer and Joseph H Lewis (director of the wonderful Gun Crazy). Again, it doesn’t completely tie in with this section’s topic, but they are funny and interesting nonetheless.

Speaking of funny and interesting, it’s only appropriate to wrap up this review in the same way the first part of this Century of Cinema is wrapped up: with Sam Fuller. That wild American who’d make a reading of the shipping forecast the most entertaining and down-right dangerous experience of your life. The man this little Finnish town named a street after. Smoking a cigar and gesticulating wildly, he talks about walking through a cemetery in town simply to watch the wind. The way he describes it, and the way von Bagh films it, it feels like the start of one hell of a movie.

Reviewed on: 20 Jun 2012
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The Century of Cinema is a documentary which focusses on World War II in relation to filmmaking. Screening with A Day at Karl Marx’s Grave (Peter von Bagh/Finland/1983/16 min). Parts 2 through 4 will be shown at Edinburgh's Filmhouse in July.

Festivals:

EIFF 2012

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