Not everyone can attend the Midnight Sun Film Festival, the northernmost and some claim most cinephilic of fests, which makes Midnight Sun co-founder Peter van Bagh’s nearly five-hour doc on the Finnish event’s 25-year history, “Sodankyla Forever,” as useful as it is valuable. Amounting to a declaration of principles on cinema’s greatness and featuring a massive roster of world-class directors in public conversation, pic best captures a view of the artform that’s wedged between classical and mainstream arthouse, and dominated by men. Fest tour should be epic.
Van Bagh divides the pic into four sections, with the initial ones including fest screenings through the latter part of 2010. The complete work was preemed in Rotterdam, in the form in which it was broadcast on Finland’s public YLE television channel. Thus, each section is bookended by opening and closing credits.
However, the opus itself never plays like television onscreen, with Van Bagh’s running commentary and reflections dipping in and out of the film, unlike standard voiceover narration. This adds to the feeling that the pic is a personal document as well as the work of a film historian — Van Bagh’s primary job when he isn’t preparing each edition of Midnight Sun.
The backbone of “Sodankyla Forever’ (title refers to the tiny Finnish town where the fest takes place during midsummer, when the sun never sets during a 24-hour cycle) is an assemblage of clips taken from dozens of public interviews with major filmmakers who are guests of the festival. Typically seated onstage at a table with Van Bagh in front of a packed auditorium that also serves as one of the fest’s main screening venues, the guests are asked a few key questions and allowed to launch into expansive answers.
Interspersed with the clips are cutaways to the fest experience itself. Distinguishing this festival from all others in a visual sense, of course, is that there’s never a glimpse of nightfall; and more so, that the filmmakers have such uncommon access to the festgoers.
In the first section, titled “Century of Cinema,” the filmmakers consider how history and film have interacted, and how the 20th century, particularly WWII, was documented on film. A long discussion about war and its effects, from Sam Fuller — the fest’s first honored guest — on combat experience to Francis Coppola on Vietnam, may be a strange way to start a film about cinema’s legacy, but the theme allows Von Bagh to create a gallery of the generations of Midnight Sun guests.
It’s quite likely that there will never be another film that encapsulates the living testimony of such a wide range of filmmakers from the classical Hollywood honor roll (Vincent Sherman, Stanley Donen) to ’60s East European stars (Jerzy Skolimowski, Milos Forman, Miklos Jansco, Ivan Passer, Krzysztof Zanussi and, too briefly, Krzysztof Kieslowski) to French masters (Agnes Varda, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Demy) to American independents (Coppola, Jerry Schatzberg, John Sayles, Monte Hellman).
This is a project that projects a particular view of cinema, from what might be called the establishment Euro-American arthouse perspective. Filmmakers from the ’60s to the ’80s dominate, with the current and widely international generation of cineastes virtually absent.
Vid shooting (with Arto Kaivanto credited as d.p.) across the docu’s decades displays varying image quality as video itself improved over time. Camerawork is scattershot and borderline amateur, which adds to the doc’s genuinely cinephilic passions. Clip choices from films are rich and informed, along with some wonderful photo inserts, such as several pics of Andre Bazin, identified as the most important film critic in the history of cinema. Music cues are fairly obscure, and uncredited.