Helsinki International Film Festival – Love & Anarchy’s return to live, in-person screenings is an occasion for national celebration, says Anna Möttölä, the executive director of the event, now marking its 34th edition.

While cinemas in Helsinki must still be limited to 50% capacity for pandemic precaution reasons, screenings of hot new titles such as opening gala film Leos Carax’s tragicomic musical “Annette” and closer Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Bergman Island” have already sold out, Möttölä says, with audience anticipation for the beloved fest feeling palpable this year following a mainly online event in 2020. Foreign guests such as Ninja Thyberg, screening her Sundance sensation “Pleasure,” are also generating buzz this year, she notes.

Meanwhile the event has managed to maintain its dedication to diversity and inclusion despite COVID challenges, with some 46% of the 131 features and 149 shorts screening by women or non-binary filmmakers.

The popular Spotlight section has seen brisk ticket sales for its program, which includes the Finnish Gala Night featuring “The Gravedigger’s Wife” by Khadar Ayderus Ahmed.

Of the many returning live events this year, what do you think audiences are most captivated by?

It’s just so great to be able to have international guests again because last year we weren’t really able to and now we have about 15. We’re really excited about Ninja Thyberg, the Swedish director, on whom we had a retrospective of her short films in 2016. Her film “Pleasure” was already sort of in the works then and now we’re really looking forward to seeing her debut feature. I just think that she is going to skyrocket after this.

And we always have a strong Nordic selection in the program and we’re happy to welcome Nordic guests like experimental documentarian Maja Borg (“Passion”) and from Iceland Kristín Jóhannesdóttir (“Alma”). The Nordic films are doing so well now.

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Courtesy of Maija Hartikainen

So while Love & Anarchy is devoted to bringing world cinema to Finland, the local heroes are also a big draw?

We’re also really proud we get to present Juho Kuosmanen and his “Compartment Number 6.” It’s wonderful to see the Finnish audience so enthusiastic about a Finnish film. Also Teemu Nikki’s “The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic,” which just won the audience prize in Venice, and Khadar Ayderus Ahmed’s “The Gravedigger’s Wife,” which was in Cannes Critics’ Week. Those are the big Finnish ones we’re really excited about.

What have been the main lessons from being forced to go online in 2020 during the COVID outbreaks in Europe?

We have learned so much, along with a lot of other festivals, about doing stuff remotely. So this year we’re partnering with the Asian Film Awards Academy for the first time because Asian film has always been a strong part of Love & Anarchy, which brought modern Asian cinema to Finland. Our section Asian Cuts has always been a favorite among our audience and we’re doing an online master class with Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan (“Rouge,” “Lan Yu”), a director who we’ve featured.

With live screenings just now returning to Finland, do you feel audiences are eager to get back to the big screen?

We’re very much about celebrating the cinema experience and we’ve so been waiting to get back to the cinema and to get our audiences back to the cinema while we are also exploring all kinds of new possibilities. We’re also collaborating with Festival Scope to have an online program so I think it’s going to be an evolving thing even as the pandemic is kind of easing we incorporate these new ways.

It’s still a challenge for most fests to fly in foreign guests so how has this gone?

I think traveling is going to be much less in the future and people won’t travel with their films as much, which is wise. So how do we maintain that special festival guest tradition? We can already see that our audiences are so happy now that we have these guests coming. We have the director of the Greek/Polish/Slovene absurdist film “Apples,” Christos Nikou, and it’s been very touching for us to witness the enthusiasm of the directors for coming.

It was just a week and a half ago that we weren’t even sure we’d be able to put on a live festival and it was always going to be a hybrid festival. The local restrictions in Finland were really, really strict. It’s been really hard on cinemas in Finland and all cultural life, all theaters have been closed. But now we can use 50% of our capacity. Last year we could do only a quarter capacity but we were still able to use cinemas and we were planning for restrictions but now they’ve eased them.

Great timing – and did that mean a significant reduction from the usual number of films scheduled?

We have more screenings per film so people can actually get to see them. We have a bit fewer feature films – only 131 but 600 screenings during the 11 days. Usually we have about 140 films and 475 screenings with 110 national premieres. Our mission and our goal is to really cover the whole globe and to look at best films out there.

Do you feel you’re better able this year to meet your goal of bringing Finnish audiences unique films they would otherwise not be able to see?

Commercial distribution in Finland is quite narrow so it’s really important that festivals like Love & Anarchy show all that’s on offer around the world. And it’s really important to us that we’re a major launching pad for arthouse cinema here. And we have a very diverse section called African Express, which is very popular. It’s very much an audience festival. The mission of Love & Anarchy is to bring in bold and groundbreaking, visually interesting films from all over the world.