Rooted in realism

Print edition : September 25, 1999

The cinema of the Kaurismaki brothers is minimalist cinema at its best, but at the same time rooted in Finnish realism of the times.

"WHY should people go out and pay money to see bad films when they can stay at home and see bad television for nothing?" That remark really sums up the attitude of the Finnish film-making duo, the Kaurismaki brothers - Mika and Aki Kaurismaki - and good cinema is what they will offer come hell or high water. "I am just a medium-class director," Aki Kaurismaki once told the British film journal, Sight and Sound. "I may never make a masterpiece but if I make many good films, together they are something." The opening remark is also a dig at the state of cinema and the state of the medium of television in this electronic age.

The sample of six Kaurismaki films - five by Aki (the younger of the two) - shown as a "Retrospective of Films by the Kaurismaki Brothers" by the Embassy of Finland in New Delhi in August provided ample evidence of their oeuvre, but only a fraction of th eir prolific output of 38 films in the span of 18 years - 18 by Mika, 20 by Aki and one jointly directed. The films on view were: Calamari Union (1985), The Match Factory Girl (1989), Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), Zombie an d the Ghost Train (Mika; 1991), La Vie de Boheme (1992) and Drifting Clouds (1996). Four of these have been seen at various festivals in the country besides Ariel (1988), Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) and Tatjana (19 94).

The two started collaborating in 1981 - they invariably collaborate on the script - dividing their work according to a carefully observed schedule. To save scarce funds and optimise the use of time, equipment and crew, they alternate as directors, one st arting a project as soon as the other is through. Even though Mika began making films earlier (1981) and Aki's first independent directorial venture was in 1983, the latter's films seem to be exhibited more often. One wished that the package included a b etter representation of Mika's work. The current package has since been shown in Agartala and Calcutta and will travel to Hyderabad where it will be seen during September 23-25.

Aki Kaurismaki.-

FINNISH cinema? Never heard of it. The Kaurismakis? Who are they? These are likely to be the responses of nine out of ten people in India, or anywhere for that matter. For most Indians, Finland is a country somewhere up there and, with its total populati on being half that of Delhi, it is, in some sense, a wonder that films get made there at all - about a dozen every year - and some of them, like the Kaurismaki films, win critical acclaim. Over the years they have grown in popularity both at home and abr oad and have put Finland on the international film map. In fact, some of Aki's films have acquired a cult following in the West. The only Finnish film makers who had made a mark in international cinema were Mauritz Stiller during the silent era and Jorn Donner much later in the 1960s and 1970s. But both of them worked from Sweden. In these parts, however, the Kaurismakis are still not as well known even in the art-film, film society and film critic circuits.

Indeed, some years back Mika Kaurismaki was present at an International Film Festival of India held in New Delhi, with his film Tigrero, a remarkable film set in the Amazon which attempted to retrace Samuel Fuller's unfinished project (for a film of the same name) and was at the time a tribute to Fuller's cinema as it were. But Mika was spotted just wandering around the Siri Fort Auditorium because the media spotlight was on the big names. The Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF) - given its perce ption of cinema - had not thought it fit to give him proper publicity and prominence. The directorate had not even bothered to introduce him - a customary practice - before the screening of his film, not to speak of having a press conference arranged aft er the screening.

"This is what happens if the organisers do not have any passion for cinema," Mika had wryly remarked then. (The passion of the Kaurismakis for cinema is so great that they actually run special film theatres in Helsinki to screen quality cinema from all o ver the world.) In his characteristic irreverence to the establishment and its bureaucratised invitation to him, Mika had spent his time imbibing Delhi's atmosphere and watching Hindi films. Even this time, the DFF, co-sponsors of the event, called it a Festival of Films from Finland rather than highlight the fact they were films by the Kaurismakis.

Given the fact that Finnish cinema is almost non-existent and that the Kaurismakis are not exactly the most-sought-after directors, the quote at the beginning of this article might appear a bit audacious. Indeed, audacity is evident in all the films of t he Kaurismaki brothers - Aki's Leningrad Cowboys Go America is, in fact, audacity all the way through. Their films cock a snook at the big budget multi-starrers and the established industry. Even as their approach, particularly Aki's irreverent ci nematic style, gives the feeling that they are just having us on, you suddenly realise the realism that the films are rooted in.

Mika Kaurismaki.-

The Kaurismaki films are about ordinary Finns, ordinary stories of survival, simply and directly told but in a detached manner, understated and without frills, without pretensions and fuss. And the depiction is as cold as the Finnish climate. The near ab sence of people in the streets of Finland heightens the depression and the longing for human contact runs as an undercurrent in most films - the lack of audience for rock bands (Leningrad Cowboys) or the rock band which is never seen to be playing (Zombie Ghost Train) carry that metaphor. The cold and detached depiction (there are hardly any close-ups, for example) and the static style might seem as pitiless as the society that the films portray. But the compassion for the characters that the directors have comes through strongly - through the use of careful compositions, closed spaces, subdued lighting and colours with an emphasis on blue.

For example, in the film The Match Factory Girl, the only emotion reflected by the camera, which is otherwise static throughout, is when the protaganist Iris learns that she is pregnant. The camera zooms in just a little. Of course, Aki, whose fil ms seem to be more irreverent, says that he prefers static shots because "it is a nuisance when you have a hangover, and camera movements tend to be shaky". Their cinema is minimalist cinema at its best, but at the same time rooted in Finnish realism of the times, a stylisation that seems appropriate for the bleak and grey Finnish landscape.

In an interview Aki once said: "I have no esteem for films in which people are slaughtered with guns and this is called entertainment. A film is always drawn into a certain scale. If one starts to shoot about and play with explosives, then nothing will b e enough. If the film is tuned on a minimalist level, even the sound of a cough is dramatic. If the main character slips and falls into a gutter, the viewer is already worried about what is going to happen to her or him, even though in other films people are dropped from aeroplanes and they survive without a single scratch." The starkness in The Match Factory Girl is extreme, of which Aki, in characteristic vein, remarked: "I decided to make a film that would make Robert Bresson seem like a direc tor of epic motion pictures."

There are no pretty faces or carefully chosen dresses either. The decor is tacky. The person-on-the-street-looking actors, perhaps in their daily wear (Matti Pellonpaa, one of the Kaurismaki regulars, apparently usually did this), may well themselves be the characters they are acting out. Despite the distancing style, this ascetic approach enables - paradoxically, it would seem - identification with the characters. This may be particularly true in the Indian context as Finland's problems during the rece ssion seem to echo today's Indian situation. And there is this undercurrent of droll and wry humour, which is almost black, that compliments the realism.

Take Drifting Clouds for example. Lauri loses his job in the transport department after a lottery draw for retrenchment! The out-of-job chef in the same film says: "I am on my journey to the end of vodka" - his world has been reduced to the bottle he carries in his pocket. Or The Match Factory Girl, in which Iris after getting rid of her tormentors by poisoning them, casually poisons a stranger in the bar.

The above two films are clearly the pick of the current package. Both continue with a recurrent theme of Aki's films: the problems of the working class. Shadows in Paradise (1986) and Ariel (1988) had explored the theme earlier. Calamari Union (1985) is the earliest film being shown in the package. Though it may appear a bit dated today, it is a kind of moral fable (and a kind of joke as well) about a group of 17 young men in a Helsinki workers' quarter (all called Frank!) who set o ut on an odyssey towards Eira (the posh suburb of Helsinki), none of whom makes it. This was Aki's version - in the road movie mould - of the Finnish El Dorado of longing which becomes yet another central theme of Aki's films.

Both the theme and the motif - the El Dorado and the road movie - recur in a different form in Leningrad Cowboys.

Devoid of gigs and audiences, the "worst rock band in the world" from the Tundra sets out for the United States, which Aki calls "the country where everything is for sale". Leningrad works at various levels. Besides being the ultimate road movie a t its simplest, it is also, on the one hand, against authoritarianism - allusions to the totalitarian state and rebellion are there - and, on the other, an absurd spoof on the kinds of music that get produced in the name of pop and rock by some groups in the West.

A scene from The Match Factory Girl.-

Rock band itself would seem to be a recurrent motif in Kaurismaki films, so much so that reality and cinema have got mixed up after Leningrad Cowboys. The lead performers of the band in the film were part of a rock band called Sleepy Sleepers in t he 1970s who had brought out an album called Leningrad Cowboys from which the title of the film was borrowed. But with the success of the film, the rock band's name itself was changed from Sleepy Sleepers to Leningrad Cowboys.

It is not surprising that the artist-as-bohemian motif figures frequently in the films of the Kaurismaki brothers who are themselves known to be leading bohemian lives. Zombie and the Ghost Train (1991) and La Vie de Boheme (1992) are examp les. The latter was made in French (in black and white). After its success, the two have begun to work abroad more often with multinational funding and casting. The latest on the anvil is a Russian-Finnish co-production on Lenin with Karl Maria Brandauer in the lead. In most Kaurismaki films, the "bohemian" was personified by Matti Pellonpaa, who himself had apparently lived a good part of his life in that manner (sleeping on restaurant benches, for example), and Drifting Clouds pays tribute to h im (through his childhood photograph in the film) because he died in 1995 just two weeks before its shooting began.

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