Postcard From The 36th Midnight Sun Film Festival, Sodankyla, Finland, June 14th-18th 2023

Saturday has become Sunday, it’s 1am in Sodankylä, northern Finland, and Tarmo Marjamaa clambers out of a ketchup-red, East German, visibly 1980s-vintage Wartburg 353 Tourist. Beaming as he reaches for a frosty beer, the fiftyish, portly Tarmo drips with sweat after spending several happy minutes inside this unique portable sauna. It was adapted, complete with chimney sticking through the roof, by owner Aape Lehtinen—a man who, like nearly all Finns, prizes the culture of saunaa to an almost religious degree. Indeed, he’s a true evangelist; his sauna comes to you.

Tarmo cools off further by plunging into the river Kitinen a few feet away, where the water is certainly chillier than lukewarm—but nowhere near as icy as Sodankylä’s above-the-Arctic-Circle, Lapland location might indicate. This is partly because it’s the last weekend before the summer solstice in mid-June, and the sun—hanging low in the north, upstream of the river—won’t drop below the horizon for a couple more weeks.

Tarmo shields his eyes against its rays as he emerges from from the iron-rich, vaguely brownish water after a few strenuous breaststrokes. He’s halfway through six “rounds,” with a river-dip in between each, a recharge of his energy before he heads to the cinema. At 2.20am he’s there—refreshed, dry and fully clothed—in the town’s former school, a bare half-mile downriver, at a sold-out screening of experimental short films which will conclude at 3.45am.

Many film-festivals show films through the night, and many festival show avant-garde programmes. The Midnight Sun Film Festival, which has taken place in Sodankylä since 1986, is probably unique in scheduling such material in such a slot, in the confident knowledge that the place will be filled by a mainly youthful, uniformly enthusiastic audience (indeed, next day I heard that many were turned away). Further south in Europe, darkness has long since fallen on London, Paris, Berlin, Belgrade and Rome. But Sodankylä is another country—and for five midsummer days, they do things very differently there.

People going into Lapinsuu cinema. Photo by Hilma Toivonen, Midnight Sun Film Festival

The story of cinema in Sodankylä starts 75 years earlier with another swimmer—MGM’s “aquamusicals” megastar Esther Williams—on a perishingly cold evening near the end of the kaamos, the sunless spell that takes up the second half of December. It was on Boxing Day 1948 that the Kuvakota cinema on the main street of the small town (current population 8,000) opened with Williams and Van Johnson in Richard Thorpe’s Thrill of a Romance (1945; the Finnish title Vedenneito, or “Mermaid,” could have fitted nearly every Williams picture.)

In 1961 the Kuvakota changed its name to the one it still bears, the Lapinsuu. The advent of domestic television soon afterwards was a challenge, an even bigger one the arrival of home video in the 1980s. The little cinema’s increasingly precarious financial situation was one reason why two of Finland’s best-known directors—the brothers Aki and Mika Kaurismäki—in conjunction with its most prominent film-critic and curator, Peter Von Bagh, and their friend (and fellow-director) Anssi Mänttäri—decided to locate their new film-festival in Sodankylä.

The first edition in 1986 hit the ground running, setting the tone for the event by inviting veteran auteur directors rather than movie-celebrities—the municipality is officially known as the “Municipality of Stars,” but of the astronomical variety—Jonathan Demme, Bertrand Tavernier, Jean-Pierre Gorin and B-picture maverick Sam Fuller. Nearly everything the cigar-chomping Fuller did quickly became endowed with an aura of legend, including his visit to Midnight Sun: locals recall that he didn’t sleep a wink during his entire trip, and a prominent street in Sodankylä was renamed in his honour as Samuel Fullerin katu.

Interviewed for Finnish TV during his visit, Fuller was asked if this was a good place to discuss cinema. He barked out his reply: “I think this is the most perfect place in this particular season because the friend of all movie makers is the sun—and the enemy of all movie makers is the sun, because when the sun gets tired, begins to snore, and a couple of clouds come up, and put him into bed, we have to stop shooting. So I think that this is a perfect place as far as I’m concernedit excites me, it may not excite anyone else…”

The list of eminent names who followed Fuller’s trail north to Rovaniemi airport—and then 90 minutes by road to Sodankylä—is a who’s-who of post-WW2 global cinema. Francis Ford Coppola’s presence in 2002 remains an epochal moment; among the other guests that year was the Slovenian director Jan Cvitkovič—inspired by Midnight Sun to create a similarly laid-back cinephile festival on the Adriatic coast in the fishing-village of Izola two years later. I was present for Kino Otok’s second edition, and heard first-hand from Cvitkovič his tales of sharing a hot-tub with Coppola under the bright skies early in the morning (and contending with Sodankylä’s notorious mosquitoes.)

19 years would pass before I made the pilgrimage myself—few invitations are extended to international journalists, accommodation hereabouts is scarce and pricey, and travel to Lapland also isn’t cheap. But I did finally receive the much-coveted invite, and spent five days and nights trying to objectively measure the reality against the hype—a test which Midnight Sun passed with surprising ease.

It certainly helped that 2023 was the first “proper” Midnight Sun Film Festival for four years; the COVID pandemic forced the 2020 and 2021 events to be online-only, and the 2022 event took place amid unseasonably frosty weather. Both of the Kaurismäki brothers were present with new films, Aki (who is to this place what the Pope is to the Vatican) introducing three sold-out screenings of Fallen Leaves—which had landed him the Prix du Jury at Cannes the previous month.

A late addition to the programme (6.30am screening!) was Mika’s 1989 comedy Cha Cha Cha, in honour of the same-titled track by Käärijä finishing a gallant runner-up in the Eurovision Song Contest the week before Cannes. Finland is thus making an international cultural impact just as its arts sector is bracing itself for major cuts from the country’s imminent new, right-wing government.

Photo by Axa Sorjanen, Midnight Sun Film Festival

But while there are worrying political clouds on the horizon (and closer to home in the overdue, probably-expensive renovation of the school venue) the “bubble” of Midnight Sun, a genuinely festive festival, makes it easy to temporarily put them out of mind. The whole vibe is just so agreeably timewarpy—looking at TV news-reports from the 1986 edition, only the kids’ fashions seem to have much changed.

Under the stewardship of self-effacing artistic director Timo Malmi (who took over from the much-missed Peter Von Bagh after the latter’s sudden death in 2014) the programming is eclectic and offbeat, celluloid screenings are common, audiences are large and appreciative, the venues are quirky and handily close to each other—the school, Lapinsuu, a big circus tent and a smaller marquee—and the location itself, with the Kitinen only yards away from the festival hub, is a picturesquely idyllic delight for all apart from mosquitophobes.

Indeed, it’s tempting to while away the hours on the riverside or in the river itself, as dozens of young locals and visitors did every day long after midnight. Before the experimental programme (curated by prominent Finnish avant-garde director Mika Taanila) I wandered the banks, taking in the scene—dozens of locals and visitors sitting on the grass, or out on a wooden jetty—including that eyecatching sauna-car.

Over in the big circus-tent (which can itself get somewhat sauna-like when full, as it nearly always is) a “karaoke” screening of Mika Kaurismäki’s new documentary on local rock legends Hassisen Kone—singalong led by the band’s lead vocalist Ismo Alanko—was in full raucous swing. At the Lapinsuu they were midway through a more sedate five-film run of archival films by James Ivory, Luis Buñuel and two by Arturo Ripstein—the Mexican director was scheduled to be the festival’s guest of honour, but had to withdraw at the eleventh hour on health grounds—concluding with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me from around 3.15am to 5.30am.

Tantalising alternatives, but I knew that I—and Tarmo—had made the right choice with Taanila’s experimental session as soon as it (belatedly) began. First up was a 56-second film from 1999 by the late Austrian found-footage maestro Gustav Deutsch, shown on 35mm, presenting decayed images of a burning building accompanied by an electronic score. It was the shortest and best film of the whole festival, and the one with the greatest title—especially apt given the festival’s inspiring celebrations of both its own heritage and that of cinema—Tradition is the handing on of fire and not the worship of ashes.

Main photo by Jacky Law, Midnight Sun Film Festival

Photo by Hilma Toivonen, Midnight Sun Film Festival