Friday, October 07, 2011

NYFF ’11: Sodankyla Forever

A film festival must be pretty secure in itself to program a four and a half hour documentary tribute to another festival. Such is the case with the 49th New York Film Festival. Though not exactly an international launching pad, like Toronto or Cannes, the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland has drawn some of the most admired names in the history of cinema. Festival director Peter von Bagh interviewed many of them on-stage, eventually editing some of their most provocative recollections and insights into the four part documentary, Sodankylä Forever, which has a special two-night screening at this year’s NYFF.

Held in June when the Midsummer sun never sets, the festival might be patrons only opportunity for a brief respite of darkness. However, each day’s line-up begins with an in-depth discussion with a prominent filmmaker. In a way, von Bagh’s Sodankylä is particularly timely and appropriate for this year’s NYFF, because it includes several excerpts of interviews with Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who obviously will not have the opportunity to participate in Q&A sessions after the screening of his latest film, This Is Not a Film.

Indeed, many world class auteurs sat down with von Bagh, including Wim Wenders and Roger Corman, who are also represented at NYFF, as filmmaker and subject, respectively. Yet, for pure movie fans, the highlight of Sodankylä will be hearing Empire Strikes Back director Irving Kershner discus his initial reaction to a sneak peak at Star Wars (or A New Hope as we are now supposed to call it).

Arguably though, the best material comes from filmmakers who labored under the yoke of Communism. Most notably, Krzysztof Zanussi pointedly criticizes the festival’s special screening of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, explaining how the ideology it sought to promote caused such profound pain for his country. By the same token, von Bagh deserves credit for putting his comments into the film.

Although an entire segment is essentially devoted to picking desert island films, most of Sodankylä proceeds in a rather idiosyncratic fashion. Von Bagh frequently uses something an interview subject said (or almost nearly said) as a transitional hook into the next auteur, like a game of free association featuring the likes of Sam Fuller, Miloš Forman, Abbas Kiarostami, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy, Andrei Konchalovsky, Jerzy Skolimoski (who probably has the best one-liner), and John Boorman (who probably offers the funniest anecdotes).

It is important audiences understand Sodankylä is not That’s Entertainment. Throughout the film, the only film clips von Bagh shows are part of wider audience shots. However, (aside from some rather superficial axe-grinding from John Sayles) the collected reminiscences and commentary are all quite perceptive and engaging. One of the more ambitious screening events at the 49th New York Film Festival, Sodankylä is respectfully recommended for earnest students of cinema. It screens in two installments this coming Tuesday (10/11) and Wednesday (10/12) at the Francesca Beale Theater.