I’d never so much as heard of Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo’s 1993 film Tanjuska and the 7 Devils before I sat down to watch it at the Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, in the US Midwest. It’s not an easy title to come across but, once you’ve seen it, it isn’t easily forgotten.
The Tanjuska of the title is a 12-year-old Belarus girl who one day, a couple of years before filming began, had stopped eating and talking, shutting herself off from her parents and the world. Failed by science and by local mystics, the girl’s mother and father put their hopes in an Estonian priest named Father Vasali. Tanjuska’s father drops everything in order to take her to Vasali and entrust her to his care. Without overtly editorializing, Honkasalo exposes the dimensions of Tanjuska and her father’s life together, in all of its ambiguity: the paternal doting which, at times, seems like saintly self-sacrifice, at others tantamount to child abuse; the serenely confident spiritual consul in whose self-presentation it is impossible to diagnose the exact percentages of conviction and flimflam. What is certain, and palpable, is the nerve-fraying discomfiture caused by Tanjuska’s silence and her experience of it: a rawness bracingly conveyed in the movie’s use of sound, which renders the threatening snap of a belt as an unbearable aural persecution, the noise of a brush passing through a child’s tangled hair as a full assault on the senses.
Digitally restored by the postproduction company Cinepro Finland – the out-and-out aggression of the soundtrack element, I’m assured, is fully faithful to the original – Tanjuska was screened in Columbia with two bookending features by Honkasalo: the similarly spiritually oriented Mysterion (1991) and Atman (1996), which altogether make up a series of films that plumb the ineffable and have been dubbed by the director her ‘Trilogy of the Sacred and the Satanic’. The screenings formed part of a mini-retrospective which, under the heading ‘Neither/Nor’, is among the annual rituals that make up the ‘True/False’ nonfiction film festival in March. Over the course of its 16 years, it has established itself as both a local institution and a destination for anyone vitally interested in the artistic possibilities of the documentary form.
A fest that epitomizes the best of the Midwest – a lack of pretence, an easy-going pace – ‘True/False’ provided a regional and spiritual homecoming to Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory (2019), which sets its scene in the vicinity of Dayton, Ohio. Bognar and Reichert’s film observes the clashes both of culture and of labour and management that occurred when, in 2014, the Chinese car-glass company Fuyao opened a new manufactory in the filmmakers’ southwest Ohio home base, in the shell of a former General Motors facility whose shuttering a decade earlier had been the subject of Bognar and Reichert’s The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant (2009). Digging into a story unfolding practically in their own backyard – the filmmakers are former instructors at nearby Wright State University, where I knew them as an undergraduate – they locate a vantage that takes in all manner of questions and concerns while never once turning its subjects into placeholders. Potently distilling the interplay between Chinese and American employees, between management and labour, between pro- and anti-union forces, they have made a penetrating film on the subject of working people caught between superpowers: a US that has abandoned its blue-collar populace, even as it manages to preserve some memory of the hard-fought-for value of leisure time, and an ascendant People’s Republic that has an official view of workers’ rights not so far from that of your average Victorian mill owner. It is by turns moving, generous in scope and bleakly funny – particularly in an extended passage that follows a delegation from Dayton to a Chinese Fuyao plant, where they witness jaw-dropping corporate pageantry and boot-camp drills on the factory floor, the latter of which one manager tries to implement back home, to a desultory response.
As American Factory was lauded at Sundance and acquired thereafter by Netflix, it seems I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. That a film of such integrity, sensitivity and intelligence should enjoy the possibility of reaching a wider audience via Netflix is heartening news for nonfiction filmmaking. Nonetheless, many other ‘True/False’ films will largely live and die on the festival circuit, which essentially functions as a distribution channel in lieu of distribution and exhibition channels equipped to deal with outside-the-box work. The commercial future of a film like Nuria Ibáñez Castañada’s A Wild Stream (2018), running a slender 72 minutes and concentrating on things unexpressed rather than any overt drama, may not be guaranteed but I, for one, am happy that it exists. The Spanish-born Ibáñez Castañada found her subjects in present-day Baja California yet, at times, her film’s story seems to be unfolding at an unnamed future date after some unspecified apocalyptic event. The only characters we meet are Chilo and Omar, two fishermen living near one another on the shores of the Sea of Cortez, and, were it not for their occasional misanthropic asides about unseen neighbours, it would be easy to believe them the last two men on earth. The film – marked by stretches of intent quietude, the gentle plash of the surf and sunsets in every shade of purple – proceeds not only as a document of how these men extract a living from the sea with the barest of means but of the unspoken undercurrents that arise in such close quarters. Even if they are not lovers (this point is ambiguous), there exists between them a domestic co-dependency and an intimacy that occasional nervous jokes ventured while washing their underwear together do little to dispel. It’s a film of liminal existence, at the meeting point between land and sea, friendship and something else.
A Wild Stream shares its interest in amphibious living with Guillaume Blanc’s Treasure Island (2018), which plays out during a single summer in the Base de Loisirs waterpark, built around a lake in the south of France at Monclar-de-Quercy. The park is constructed on what was formerly open space but is now operated for profit and policed, as witnessed in an opening scene that follows a group of unaccompanied minors on their attempt to break in, ultimately foiled by security. The bucolic setting might be reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936/46) but Treasure Island examines the leisure life of a very different middle-and-working-class France. The park’s ethnically diverse occupants are mostly young and mostly on the make. These amateur drageur seducers – including the maddeningly successful operator of a paddleboat rental station – are too absorbed in their own affairs to pay the camera much mind, so it is left to the older staffers and customers to address their stories to the lens. These include an old-timer who remembers the days before the water became a controlled commodity and immigrants, such as a political exile schoolteacher-turned-security guard and an Afghan family unwinding together. For the young, the park is a mating ground; for the middle-aged, a canvas onto which the past can be painted. The film ends with the close of the season, the coming of autumn and an unemphatic but clear reminder that life lived in the present tense – that is to say, youth – lasts a short time indeed.
Water – or, rather, its absence – is, of course, one of the most pressing issues in Flint: the setting for James Blagden and Roni Moore’s Midnight in Paris (2019). This goes unmentioned in the film, however – as does the insipid Woody Allen movie of the same title from 2011. In neither case is this an oversight: Blagden and Moore shot the footage that makes up the film, detailing the preparation of students at Flint Northern High School for their senior prom as well as the big night itself, back in 2012, before the current crisis – and, presumably, well before they could line up completion funds. The theme of the evening is ‘Midnight and Paris’ and at Flint Northern, whose student body is overwhelmingly Black and blue-collar, there is a tradition of pageantry, of showing-out in style. By appropriating Allen’s then-recent title, the filmmakers assert something essential in their movie: that cosmopolite glamour isn’t the preserve of the middle-class audiences Allen serviced throughout his career.
Like Treasure Island, Midnight in Paris implicitly addresses the evanescence of youth. Here, the eerie harbinger is a 20-something white girl who takes over a hotel afterparty and seems to work a defensive comment about her age into every other sentence. Its overall mode is less elegiac than it is affectionate, jocular and altogether celebratory; the kids are allowed to be kids, no better or worse, by turns cocksure and hugely self-conscious, world-wise and hyped to get dumb and, for the most part, incurably horny. Running through the film is the music of the Flint Northern marching band, touchingly faltering in that amateur way which turns a spectator into a well-wisher, just hoping they get through the piece intact. It’s a work that both asks for and earns affection and, as such, is perfectly suited to premiere at this most endearing of film festivals.
Main image: Pirjo Honkasalo, Tanjuska and the 7 Devils, 1993, film still. Courtesy: the artist and True/False Festival