What is the Midnight Sun Film Festival, held every year in the northern Lapland town of Sodankylä about? It is when you exit the Lapinsuu cinema in the morning, and you think about its very appearance in a Lappish village in 1948, one that today seems anomalous, and it reminds you of the remarkable feat accomplished by its founders Olavi Laakso and Erkki Salin. Such a thought feels right after the screening of Dawson City: Frozen Time, Bill Morrison’s film about one of the first film studios of this planet. It came to life in The Town of the City of Dawson in Canada where, in its heyday between the 19th and 20th centuries, the population amounted to a meagre 8000 people – the number of Sodankylä’s inhabitants today. You open the auditorium door and, standing in the two-storey Peter von Bagh Street, realise that you have yourself chanced into an arctic version of Dawson City and you only have to make a couple of steps to find yourself on the shore of the Kitinen river.
Sodankylä is when, having decided to check out a cramped bar, you find yourself in a Kaurismäki film, at rock musician Marko Haavisto’s impromptu concert for a couple of dozens of midnight visitors. Operating around the clock, Sodankylä is when you can only guess the time of the day going on the lethargic faces of some friends you bump into. Sodankylä is one long holiday directed by Jacques Tati, with circus tents, bicycles and cinema. To put it plainly, Sodankylä is forever. It’s truly a piece of eternity. The festival is totally outside the capricious logic of cutting edge cinema (“hurry to watch it first and/or die”). Instead of the inescapable pursuit of the latest thing that leaves you with an acute case of viewing breathlessness, Sodankylä allows you to look around. Looking around to see lots of “old” pictures that are ripe to be seen as if for the first time. Looking around to encounter not only the films but also the programmers who put them together.
The festival’s biggest event, regardless of any festival common sense, was not the press conferences with distinguished guests and not even the Finnish premiere of Aki Kaurismäki’s new film Toivon tuolla puolen (The Other Side of Hope). It was two silent cinema screenings (one being Rupert Julian’s 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera) accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau’s live music. Kaurismäki himself, being one of the festival’s founders, can only be proud of such a state of affairs. As someone thoroughly enamored of Murnau and Renoir films, he is surely aware of the magnificent potential concealed in pre-sound cinema. These unmined resources belong to the present day. In a way, no film is more modern than Die wunderbare Lüge der Nina Petrowna (The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna, Hanns Shwartz, 1929), its long and awkward flirting scene with Brigitte Helm and Franz Lederer is easier to attribute to post-ironic cinema than to the vaudeville tradition of the early 20th century.
The other side of the festival is a series of masterclasses by German film critic Olaf Möller and Finnish director Mika Taanila. It’s dedicated to the 60-year story of atomic energy in cinema and the programmers are definitely not afraid to bemuse the viewer. Over some five screenings you could encounter samples of Christian propaganda, a comic video performance by Fukushima volunteers and an animated film for children about the principles of a nuclear reactor’s functioning – all that together with analytical essays, avant-garde short films and two truly outstanding feature films. The first being The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979) – “The film had several Oscar nominations but don’t let this fool you, it’s a good film nonetheless,” clarifies Mika Taanila – the other being an almost still life film called Sayônara (Kôji Fukada, 2015) with an android as the main character.
“Africa! Africa!”, declaims a Japanese teenager, having discovered that his new acquaintance was born in the South African Republic. For a moment the black continent becomes closer than the forest nearby (perhaps the boy has never been there, anyway). Similarly pushing his voice from good-natured grumbling to animated outbursts – “Chernobyl! California! Fukushima!” – Möller announced the program. My ensuing notes hence follow a somewhat chaotic trajectory, confusing continuity, the film titles and frequently failing to differentiate between cinema, physics and electronic music. Welcome to… Sodankylä.
Notes on invisibility
Chernobyl, 1986. Amidst the boisterous Saturday celebrations a window is thrown open by the draft and the hazed people in the room clamber onto it, hurrying to shut it, leaning into it with all their weight – and the window is smashed to pieces. They laugh, wiping blood from their foreheads – it’s irradiation and it can’t be escape. This brief pantomime in V subbotu (Innocent Saturday, Alexandr Mindadze, 2011) is an unobtrusive introduction to the first and foremost challenge of all “atomic age cinema”: how do you show the invisible? The scattered grit of transparent glass is a refined image, but nonetheless too dense, too mundane and prosaic for radiation.
Irradiation comes into the landscape unexpectedly – as the silence rising above the forest or the city suddenly stands still, abandoned at midday. In an attempt to reveal the presence of contamination Fukada, in Sayônara, shows the last inhabitant, riding his bicycle through the empty streets. His perplexed cry freely flies from one house to another in a rhyme with the disease in the air. Isao Yamada in Kiouku (Reflection, 2014) is even more selfless; he discards people altogether. In the ghastly wavering and clashing around Fukushima the cinema itself almost becomes a synonym of radiation, and the machine eye of video camera seeks an opportunity to be its carrier. (A tiny but symptomatic betrayal: cinema easily subtracts humanity).
It’s high time I stop and ask myself a question – where am I heading? Only a moment ago I was in a black-and-white, rock’n’roll Sodankylä, and here I am, digressing in descriptions of sinister streets of the Japanese exclusion zone. What’s wrong — is it me or the festival? The trouble is that the river view I’m looking at is hardly any different from an imagined radiation scenery. The contaminated area does not bear any signs of disaster; it presents itself as sort of an anti-ruin, as defined by photographer Chihiro Minato. It comes back to me when I’m watching the most Sodankylian film in the world, Jour de fête (The Big Day, Jacques Tati, 1949). It all fits together: every place has its own “anti-ruin”. Midnight Sun is as contaminated with the cinema of the first half of the 20th century as Fukushima with radiation.
Curiously enough, Fukushima has always been strong in pantheistic and animist beliefs; this region was supposedly blessed by the invisible presence of eternal spirits and deities. These beliefs are somewhat akin to what the viewer might intuitively feel in Yamada’s film. Although the screen’s surface is devoid of human figures, empty and lifeless, the editing rhythm communicates the movement of unknown entities, going around on their incomprehensible business. One can only guess whether they are ancient spirits or the torrents of ionising radiation. “When we talk about radiation, we involuntarily talk about God,” commented Taanila. Everything becomes religious once it touches the atomic power.
Nothing changes when we are transported to the modern, foreign pantheism of Los Angeles. In a key scene in The China Syndrome, the nuclear power station freezes, on the verge of a breakdown, and the head engineer is stunned into prayer-like awe. The human-nuclear relationship is less and less that of rational subordination. It is akin to some archaic, obscure logic, like that of our relationship to the pagan gods: we make sacrifices in the name of higher power. It is less about logic and rationality.
The Age of the Enlightenment, the magnificent siècle des Lumières, has been singing us sweet lullabies about the world’s transparence, clarity and knowability for so long that we got used to these ideas and they became bad habits. We’re prematurely convinced that science and reason will let us feel – nay, see and subdue any phenomenon to our every whim. The encounter with radiation doesn’t erase all the enlighteners’ achievements altogether but brings us to a new turn of Medieval theological discourse.
Modernity is twofold: nuclear energy threatens us with horrible death but it also holds the unseen promise of God. There’s no doubt that radiation has become one of the major symbols of death and entropy of the 21st century. A very long, time-distorting take by Fukada in Sayônara shows his heroine sleeping naked on a sofa; she dies in her sleep, little by little, all blushing in violet stains, burning in the dry air until she’s no more than a dusty skeleton. But radiation is also a symbol for a miracle, the touch of God and acquired timelessness. When this girl is reduced to bones her domestic android touches the brown skull, drives out of the house and sees dozens of flowers that simultaneously bloom on bamboo branches; a miraculous coincidence that is only possible in Heaven-like eternity of radiation.
Upon my last exit from the Lapinsuu theater after the Sayônara screening I see the road sign with Peter von Bagh’s name in a new light. Apart from being a filmmaker, he was the founder and longstanding director of Midnight Sun until his death in 2014. This year his presence was marked by his last film’s screening. In as much as I’ve always been mesmerised by the director’s archival work in KAVI, the Helsinki cinémathèque, and his knowledge of the history of cinema, I remained indifferent to his forays into other spheres. Still, the screening of Lauluja utopiasta (Songs of Utopia, completed by Jouko Aaltonen) impresses me, if not the film itself, certainly the compassionate reaction of the audience.
Notes on the machine
There’s been a split in opinions after the Chernobyl disaster – one with bias towards the human, the other towards the machine. The USSR state commission has declared the station’s managers and staff entirely guilty of what happened. The reactor’s explosion was presented as a chain reaction of accidental blunders and negligence of regulations. However, in 1991 the Gosatomnadzor (the State Nuclear Safety Inspectorate) and in 1993 the international organisation INSAG (IAEA Nuclear Safety Advisory Group International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group) spoke out about the technological faults in the very design of the reactor.
This is just like what happened in Fukushima in 2011. The Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan was blamed for the disastrous events while the Japanese commission NAIIC (Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission) has made a statement about the insufficient security measures on the part of Tokyo electric company, TEPCO. Both cases seem similarly uncertain: the hesitation of someone who isn’t quite able to decide the degree to which they are prepared to divide responsibility between themselves and their machines.
The anthropogenic disasters entail another turn in our relationship to technology, both in science and at the everyday level. A good car is now judged in categories of reliability, that is by its warranty period, the formal guarantee that our contact won’t go further than specified. We are afraid of our devices but day after day we get used to their errors (of various scale – from the awful nuclear disasters to irregularities of cell phone connection). Moreover we no longer see some of them as breakdowns, allowing for a distinctly machine way functioning, an aberration from the linearity of human logic. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
As a person born after 1986, I first heard of (or perhaps this is only when I finally remembered it) the word “Chernobyl” no sooner than the age of ten. It was due to Chen Ing-Hau’s computer virus that destroyed the data on some millions of computers around the world on the anniversary of disaster. Since this program was activated on 26th April (the same date as the Chenobyl disaster), it was called a Chernobyl virus.
Nearly everyone in the 20th century, from Hermann Hesse to William Gibson, from Fritz Lang to the Futurama writers, had their say on the discussion of machine willfulness. Still, it may be that no one was more humble and hence closer to the truth than James Bridges in an elementary scene in The China Syndrome. We find ourselves on Californian TV and the very coordination of it somewhat resembles a nuclear power plant. There’s a multitude of screens and every single one of them shows a different picture, whether it is the studio recording, or live signal or colour test-panel. The channel’s operator juggles the images, moving them from one screen to another; it’s he who decides what goes on air and what stays off-screen.
In showing us a typical office Bridges gets to the dimly-lit heart of the modern world where the objects are granted (in)visibility. More than that, he touches the sacred ropes that bind the recording devices together, gathering the intersection of gazes into a huge decentralised system. It’s modelled with dozens of eyes wide open (the camera lenses, the bulging screens of the TV panel, the spectators’ gazes) but there’s no way to describe this in its entirety. It’s unstable, constantly expanding and that’s why it’s impossible to comprehend. Any attempt to restrict and localise it cannot prevent leaks. In other words, the TV network and later the Internet are itself an open leak. There’s no ambiguity here – technology learned a lot from radiation.
To my knowledge, Sayônara showcases the first time in the history of cinema that an android (Geminoid F) stars in a film without any human aid or face animation. Her creator, professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, started experimenting with introducing robots in a seemingly human-only field of culture as early as 2008. He then created the Robot Theatre Project at Osaka University. It was a platform where androids and human actors performed in shows based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Sayônara is concerned with a young woman and her domestic android having melancholic discussions amidst the backdrop of a sluggish nuclear disaster, unhurried evacuation and the destruction of the neighbourhood. Contrary to the clichés the robot is nothing like a talking encyclopedia. She’s doing some queer things, unbecoming to a machine, like reciting Rimbaud or Bokusui Wakayama and contemplating bamboo blossoming.
It’s likely that AI won’t be as pragmatic and logically consistent as sci-fi literature would like to paint it. The new machines might find the language of poetry or anything aleatory much more to their liking than the all-too-human notions of cost-performance. It’s not that there’s any guarantee that the poetic sea will be less poisonous for the mankind than the radioactive sea, though. Perhaps Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat carries an already dead sailor down the stream?
Notes on aesthetics
“After the screening of our program sit down and listen to the Epitaph for Aikichi Kuboyama, recorded by electronic music pioneer Herbert Eimert in 1962,” politely suggests Olaf Möller at the first screening. The 20-minute electrical nightmare of word scraps and synthesised machine sounds that you are going to hear if you heed to the good advice of the critic tells the story of the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru. The boat accidentally wandered into the vicinity of Bikini Atoll where it was exposed to nuclear fallout from the United States Castle Bravo thermonuclear weapon test on 1 March, 1954. All 23 members of the crew suffered acute radiation syndrome and Aikichi Kuboyama died half a year later.
Epitaph isn’t just a frightening reminder and addition to the list of radiation tragedies. The very technology of an electronic performance is perfectly consonant with the atomic subject that in turn inevitably leads to an idea of a distinctly atomic aesthetics. The governed chaos, the direct link to the disintegration and decay of matter, the transfer of meaning from the visible to the invisible, disruption and silence as signs of presence and emptiness filled with millions of entities. All these concepts fit radiation and 20th century music’s development equally well. From the dodecaphony of Schoenberg who dislocated the harmonic centre of his compositions, through further serialist experiments with logically enclosed chaos, through the aleatory unpredictability of American composers to more and more employment of electronics. So, all of a sudden the reference to Herbert Eimert becomes arguably more significant to the history of radiation than the fate of the unfortunate first victim of the hydrogen bomb.
As early as 1924 the fiery theorist Eimert is expelled from his composition class for his Atonal Music Theory Text. His later years were spent at Westdeutscher Rundfunk radio station where Eimert and physicist Werner Meyer-Eppler founded the legendary Studio for Electronic Music. The place was to become the second most important centre of musical attraction after Olivier Messiaen’s Paris classes. It’s at this Cologne studio that you could meet Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti and Karlheinz Stockhausen. And it’s Stockhausen who is most often believed to have developed Emert and Meyer-Eppler’s ideas to the fullest extent.
After some electronic studies in 1955-56 Stockhausen creates Gesang der Jünglinge, a work combining human voice and electronic sounds to tell the story of three Hebrew youths who were thrown into the fiery furnace by a Babylonian king but remained unscathed. “O ye angels of the Lord, praise ye the Lord,” thus the choir boy is signing the prayer of the captives in fire, and we hear the shredded phonetic hash of his phrases clashing with the electronic sounds that wash over the human voice from all directions. The first time the composer encountered a similar decomposition of words into elementary phonemes was at Meyer-Eppler’s classes on the acoustic properties of sounds.
He used those lessons as the basis and succeeded in synthesising artificial sounds that matched human speech. For example, fricative consonants ([s], [z], [ʃ] etc.) resemble filtered white noise and vowels are like sine tones. That’s why it’s hard to differentiate between the voice and electronics in the youths’ singing. It’s all mutual mimicking of the boy and the machine. As Enrico Fermi split the atom and released the potent energy, so Karlheinz Stockhausen split sounds and opened up a source for a new kind of musical expression and… spiritual meaning. The composer originally meant Gesang der Jünglinge as an electronic mass; he even planned to have it played at Cologne Cathedral. It might have been a coincidence that one of the electronic music masterpieces was based on a Christian prayer, but a demonstrative coincidence nonetheless. The contact with “atomic” aesthetics makes it hard to dismiss the quasi-religious awe and feeling of the mystery that is right behind your back.
The reference to Herbert Eimert, the two concerts of Gabriel Thibaudeau and the woman playing the sax who I ran into on the bridge… my musical storyline at Sodankylä can also boast of a mass – not electronic but an organ one – in a local church where I spent some of my last hours at the festival. My imaginary Biennale would have been just like that: the movies would be silent, and all the music and sound effects would have been transported to the streets, the church and bars.
Let’s get back to the sound of broken glass we’ve been walking on all this time. It’s with these shards that the Otolith Group research team made their film The Radiant (2012) – the shards of mythology, clichés and all sorts of popular images of radiation. Gozilla, education films for nuclear power plant workers and researchers, digital charts and rank-and-file Fukushima landscapes… First, telegraph-wires cut through the dirty haze. The wires are covered with birds or rather with their chirrup since you can’t see the birds themselves. Then the low grass is moving under a light breeze. The Geiger counter is thrillingly sputtering in this grass, and the birds’ chirrup is joining the voice of the device.
Geiger sounds don’t just declare radiation’s presence but also rhyme with the birds’ singing and so radiation finds itself at home in nature, it becomes second nature itself and is perceived to be a sign of the new birth of the divine. A cursory tour of radiation-themed films (from educational films to post-apocalyptic action films) is enough to realise that Geiger noise has long since acquired an artistic dimension. It’s not merely sound but entropy, invisibility and modified nature – all compressed in a palpable image with its distinct aesthetics – ragged, atonal, electrical. And while traditional forms are based on ideas of sublime/ugly, this new form is molded after certain locations, after spiritual geography. Chernobyl, Fukushima, California, Africa. We’ve passed through so many stirring landscapes that weren’t painted in oil or filmed with a now-blind camera but rather drawn acoustically, with Geiger signal. As in a Raúl Ruiz fantasy where for the sake of convenience every Paris street sounds with its own composer, I turned from Beethoven’s Ninth to get back to Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (alas, it’s not as rousing). Today, however, we don’t amble along the streets. It’s more like fitful surfing from one click to another.
One of the Otolith Group founders, Kodwo Eshun, has justly talked of the Geiger counter as a reading and cartography instrument. If one follows this definition to its logical conclusion we’ll sooner or later have to abandon the cartography of the past with its national borders as obsolete and idealist. It’s through electronic and atonal music, through robotic cinema, through disruptions and nuclear disasters that we’re making our first steps into expanse of total recombination, intertwining locations and different natures. The question is whether the future landscapes will be devoid of human presence like in the Chernobyl Exclusion zone or will we become attuned to the synthesised voices of the atom?
It seems natural that such a question is posed in Sodankylä, this vision of cinematographic eternity. Sodankylä is a place where geographical borders exist but don’t carry much meaning. Where film premieres screen next to rare and beautiful movies that are difficult to see elsewhere.
Sodankylä is rapidly turning invisible. The Sunday streets are empty, no one is around at the habitually crowded pier, and the bar where Marko Haavisto played so recently strangely closes before midnight. But let not this bareness read as melancholy. We understand that absence is the most real and substantial thing that can possibly be.
Translation to English: Maksim Karpitski
Midnight Sun Film Festival
14-18 June 2017
Festival website: msfilmfestival.fi/en/