There is no film festival in the world like that held in the land of the midnight sun
“It’s kind of a magical thing,” Selma Vilhunen says of the Midnight Sun Film Festival. “The fact that the sun never sets, you just don’t ever sleep and you just sit in these bars with your idols and iconic people. Or you sit somewhere in the middle of the forest, roasting a sausage, and beside you is Miloš Forman.”
Deep in the heart of Lapland, 120 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, lies the Finnish town of Sodankylä. For miles around it is surrounded by forest and farmland. No more than 9,000 people call it home. In mid-June, when the sun never sets, it is home to what could claim to be the best film festival in the world: The Midnight Sun Film Festival.
It is certainly the least formal. While other film festivals, such as Cannes, Venice or Sundance, are as much about the sales as they are the films, Midnight Sun is focussed on one thing only – the movies themselves.
“It’s an adventure beyond the Arctic Circle,” Timo Malmi, the festival’s artistic director says by email. “We keep the cinephilia as the main principle in all our actions. Nobody comes ‘into the bushes’ of Lapland to negotiate about business deals.
“There’s no obstacles. The festival has a friendly atmosphere where people forget their mobiles, emails and other everyday trash which prevents us from being happy with ourselves.”
The festival began, in 1986, as an experiment that was never meant to turn into a loved institution. The Kaurismäki brothers, Mika and Aki, the celebrated Finnish directors, joined with Peter von Bagh, the film historian and director, and Sodankylä to celebrate film by screening it for 24-hours a day in a town where the sun never sets. The brothers’ reputation brought the stars and von Bagh constructed the running order.
The combination of daylight, cinema and the Finnish drinking culture is disorientating. Sinikka Usvamaa worked at the festival for eleven years. She was one of the lucky few to have a hotel room, but still only managed an hour’s sleep each night. She says that once she set her alarm for work and “I woke up to the alarm at 2.45 and realised I had no clue which 2.45 it was and where I was supposed to be headed”.
Usvamaa looked out the window to see the sun and a queue for the hotdog stand. There would be no change in what she saw at any time of day. All the clocks in her room had twelve-hour displays, so she was forced to call reception. “They said: ‘2.45,’ and I had to ask: ‘Yes, but which one?’ After a brief silence they told me it was 2.45 in the morning. Then I learned how to tell time based on where the sun is in the sky, which is the sign of a Midnight Sun Film Festival veteran.
“No one at the festival has any idea of circadian rhythms.”
Vilhunen is a director of both feature films and documentaries. Her most recent documentary, Hobbyhorse Revolution, is an incredibly touching and beautiful look at the hobbyhorse subculture that thrives in Finland. This is a community of girls who go showjumping while riding their lovingly sewn and stuffed horses heads on sticks.
Any examination of such a subculture could easily have been exploitative and played for laughs, but Vilhunen was able to gain the girls trust through years of building relationships. Through Hobbyhorse she is able to examine issues such as bullying, mental health and bereavement, as well as showing the diverse cast at their happiest and their most driven. Vilhunen is able to coax the girls into telling the world exactly what they feel.
It was at the Midnight Sun Festival that Vilhunen had some of her first experiences in producing film. She had ridden her bike to Sodankylä with her clothes in one pannier and her 8mm camera and microphone in the other. She camped with a friend in a sauna and, when not watching films, spent her time interviewing the people she met.
“I asked everybody what is important,” she says. “They had a free answer – they could say what they wanted. I asked the French director Claude Sautet and he answered something in French. I just filmed and recorded everything.”
It is the unique environment of the festival – where the influential and the brilliant mingle freely with the aspirational and the film buffs – that makes it so important. As well as sitting beside Forman and interviewing Sautet, Vilhunen tells a story of a friend’s long, existential conversation through the night with Mike Leigh. It is a space where everyone is free to be themselves.
Usvamaa says that this is a “thing that the big foreign names really appreciate”. “They can walk to a hot dog stand in peace and someone might strike up real conversation, but there’s no starstruck, paparazzi behaviour. There are real discussions and real interactions with people.”
This is what is most special about the festival, Malmi says; that there are no barriers. When the organisers won the unexpected coup of booking Francis Ford Coppola in 2002 he was very happy and relaxed. According to Malmi: “Coppola went swimming in the river and saunas, and queued among the ordinary people in the local supermarket.”
Scandinavia has a reputation for producing dark, bleak works of art, and the Finns are said to be a dour people. But this is not a line of questioning that holds up. Instead, the Midnight Sun Film Festival is a place of joyfulness and naked swimming, of dancing in the forest to waltzes and singalong screenings. As Vilhunen says: “It’s magical.”