Maarit Laitinen visited Sodankylä’s renowned The Midnight Sun Film Festival for the first time. She recounts four highlights which made her first-time experience so special.
Each June, thousands of cinephiles from all over the world pilgrimage to the small town of Sodankylä, located 120 km north of the Arctic Circle for The Midnight Sun Film Festival. It is said that every film enthusiast should experience this rare gem among film festivals at least once in their lifetime, and this year I finally got to check this off my bucket list. For a first-timer, The Midnight Sun Film Festival was truly magical.
It is said that every film enthusiast should experience this rare gem among film festivals at least once in their lifetime
Here’s a glimpse of what awaits you at Midnight Sun Film Festival.
The festival’s program is innovatively curated with a good mix of old classics, up-and-comers and curiosities from both international and Finnish films.
This year the main guests included renowned Spanish director Carlos Saura, New German Cinema’s leading lady and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s muse Hanna Schygulla, one of French cinema’s most internationally famous contemporary director’s in Bertrand Bonello, as well as Danish director Per Fly – famous for his film trilogy about the class structures in Danish society. Sadly, Russian director Aleksandr Mindadze cancelled his visit at the last moment.
The main guests were honoured with film retrospectives – accompanied with in-depth morning discussions and Q&A sessions on their work and influences. These talks were a definite festival highlight, providing an intimate glimpse into the artists behind the movies.
As for the Finnish program, this was the festival’s second year without its co-founder and longtime artistic director, the author/filmmaker/historian Peter von Bagh. Peter von Bagh sadly passed away in 2014, and although an immense loss to the festival, Sodankylä continues to cherish and honour von Bagh’s legacy.
Peter von Bagh’s final, unfinished film Songs from Utopia (Lauluja utopiasta) – a fascinating documentary about the Finnish left-wing song movement pioneers Agit-Prop – has been completed by director Jouko Aaltonen – and naturally, the première was held at Sodankylä. The festival also premièred Tuomas Laine’s debut feature Virality (Viraali). The screening of the Cannes winner The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies) by Juho Kuosmanen was also sold out. Among the Finnish screenings was also the newest film by Aki Kaurismäki (brothers Kaurismäki are also co-founders of the festival) The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen).
One of the highlights of the festival has traditionally been silent film screenings accompanied by live music. On Thursday there was a sold-out screening of Juho Kuosmanen’s short films Moonshiners and Romu-Mattila and a Beautiful Lady, and on Saturday night the chamber orchestra Avanti! with conductor Gabriel Thibaudeau and soprano Reetta Haavisto accompanied a screening of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). This was followed by a karaoke screening (yet another of the festival’s signature events and high points) of Neil Hardwick’s If You Love (Jos rakastat) with Olavi Uusivirta charming the audience as the pre-singer.
Alongside the screenings, morning discussions, master classes, concerts and other events – these attracted a total of 28,000 visitors this year. There were of course, additional activities, such as sauna, lavatanssit, clubs and even a midnight sun neppis grand prix (an outdoor sport played with small toy cars on sand that simulates race-driving).
One of the best things about the festival is that it literally never sleeps: films are shown 24 hours a day, and you can go to a screening basically whenever you want, binge-watch film after film (as yours truly did) and completely lose track of time with the never setting sun. This is a festival suffering from a severe case of insomnia.
films are shown 24 hours a day, and you can go to a screening basically whenever you want, binge-watch film after film (as yours truly did)
The feeling is surreal, especially when late on a Saturday night, after a cloudy evening and a suitably long film marathon, you stumble out from the dark into full sunlight.
There’s an unpretentious, laid-back feel to Sodankylä. The lack of hierarchies creates a uniquely intimate festival atmosphere: the filmmakers, actors, journalists and other attendees all mix together in perfect harmony. You might even get the chance for a quick chat with a famous actor or director.
You might even get the chance for a quick chat with a famous actor or director
Where else can you find yourself face-to-face with a renowned director, whose Q&A session and film’s screening is about to start at the Big Tent, patiently waiting for his turn behind you in the coffee queue. (Needless to say, the screening started a couple of minutes late, and we both made it on time.) This is what Sodankylä is all about!
Then there’s, of course, the town itself. Sodankylä is a small town, with a population of about 9,000, hosting a big festival. For those who have never been to Sodankylä, think of Aki Kaurismäki meets Northern Exposure (the TV series), with a dash of crooner Olavi Virta’s magic from the golden age of Finnish tango.
For those who have never been to Sodankylä, think of Aki Kaurismäki meets Northern Exposure
The romantic, even nostalgically Finnish atmosphere of the festival is further accentuated by the Lapinsuu film theatre, an absolute personal favourite of mine among the Sodankylä venues. The film theatre takes you back in time with its small-town retro décor and red velvet curtains. A perfect backdrop for screening such films as Carlos Saura’s masterpiece Cría Cuervos (Korppi sylissä).
The biggest crowd-pleasers were shown inside the festival’s largest venue, the Big Tent, which is an enormous red, blue and yellow old circus tent. You soon got accustomed to the sight of a long, snake like queue stretching across the courtyard and leading towards the tent. Inside the audience were crammed on hard, wooden bleachers, prompting the more resourceful members to bring their own pillows. Another venue was a smaller, identically coloured tent, located on the other side of the courtyard, which was dedicated to more obscure films as well as documentaries and short films.
Although drinking one’s own alcohol was prohibited during screenings, as soon as the lights were dimmed, you could hear the chorus of hisses and snaps of cans being opened, accompanied with knowing chuckles of solidarity from the audience.