The Face of the Festival By Maya McKechneay

in 12th Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

by Maya Irina McKechneay

In his review of Pirjo Honkasalo’s elegiac documentary, 3 Rooms of Melancholia (Melancholian Kolme Huonetta), which he felt had been badly overlooked in Venice, FIPRESCI-juror Jan Aghed expressed his hope that the film would be awarded by a future jury. He may now lean back and feel that it is a just world of film-criticism after all, as this film was not only rewarded with the FIPRESCI prize in the International section of Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, but also – together with a small Honkasalo-tribute, including the earlier works of the Finnish director, the so called “Trilogy on Sacred and Evil”: Mysterion (1991), Tanjuska and the 7 Devils (Tanjuska ja 7 perkeletta, 1993) and Atman (1996) – was widely regarded as the highlight of the festival programme.

Quite opposite to the vast majority of Thessaloniki’s selection, which adjusted to a fast pace, relying on TV-conventions like a voice-over or on an emotionally guided musical score (or worse, one pasted above the other), this film takes its time. It stays with the protagonists, the camera resting on their faces in a fine dramaturgy of close-ups, searching in their expressions – not for the answers, because there are no final answers to the question of how wars are possible. But for a different view on the system of war itself. As Agnes Varda once put it: “a good documentary doesn’t set out to give answers. It will try to find an new, original and concise way of posing the question.”

The Swedish colleague Jan Aghed has already described content and structure of the 3 Rooms. It is a meticulously built film in three chapters, starting out in a military-academy in Kronstad near St. Petersburg, following the path of one of the Chechnyan-born cadets, into the second chapter or “room”- the situation in Grozny that leaves many children without home or parents. And, at the end, in the third filmic room, finding a synthesis between these two separated geographic areas by war approaching Chechnian youths in the same visual manner as young Russian boys in the first chapter.

The widely static camera produces images reminiscent of portrait-photography, close-ups of faces, that in combination with the strangely despatched score of timeless sacred hymns builds up what Gilles Deleuze calls the affect-image. A potential of emotions, that reaches a level above the concrete situation. A quality, direct and abstract at the same instant. This is the visual language you know from Antonioni, Bresson, Bergman, so it may well happen, that when you enter a Honkasalo picture late, by its camera-style and montage you may at a first believe it’s a feature film.

But the beauty of that system of engaging close-ups is, again to refer to Deleuze, that the affect breaks free from the specific context. In a close-up there are no specific surroundings, at least visually it is free of context and has thereby the potential of reflective purity. In the faces of the boys, depicted in Honkasalo’s film, poverty or the fear of a loss of identity are carved out as pure qualities, constituent of conflict. Where there is depravity and loss, there is fear. Where there is fear, there is aggression. Instability triggers the wish to lean on some authority. If there are no parents, a group of radical muslims may fulfill the longing for some order and stability as well as a military institution with its strict etiquettes.

The system of war nourishes itself. That’s what it is, or the conclusion you may reach when you ponder over Honkasalo’s images. The director herself takes a clear position, when she makes herself heard as an accusing voice (»présence acousmatique«, Michel Chion), that softly calls both military cadets and Chechnyan youths by their first names, thereby returning to them their status of human beings, and in a few short and simple words hinting at a very similar background which is both rooted in and constituent of the war situation.

It comes as no surprise, that Pirjo Honkasalo works both as a director of fiction and of documentary-films, and quite obviously, does the camerawork of all of her films herself: “I need the alteration of both genres to find an inner balance”, she said at the Thessaloniki press conference. “Although technically I don’t see a big difference. A fiction film is essentially also just a documentary on the face of an actor.” Her approach in the 3 Rooms she calls “poetical political” as opposed to the political cinema of the Sixties, which in her view defined itself too much in simple oppositions of good and bad. “Protest films do not interest me anymore”, Honkasalo says. Her film nevertheless, regarded within the the context of the festival, stands as a silent protest against self-righteous and didactic approaches in the world of documentary filmmaking.