Critic’s Choices are picked by Lauren Wissot, who is a film critic, a journalist forFilmmaker Magazine and a head of programme of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. She selected her three favourites from the films in New Finnish Documentary Films category. The selected films were announced at Praise ‘n’ Party on Sat 30th January.
Oskari Pastila’s (unfortunately titled) wrestling doc Spandex Sapiens is an odd – it doesn’t get much weirder than a fantasy sequence supermarket-to-wrestling ring-to-Ikea parking lot showdown set to a cover of Alphaville’s Big in Japan – cinematic portrait of an even odder man. The film follows Michael “Starbuck” Majalahti, a Canadian-Finnish wrestler/hard rock singer/sometime actor who heads up Fight Club Finland. (And yes, he is big in Japan.) He’s also the son of a preacher – whose main adversary in the ring is Jessica Love, a standout transgender woman with the killer looks and attitude (she doesn’t bat an eye at the inevitable “gay” taunts – though technically she’s a lesbian) to match her formidable skills. Jessica (who needs her own documentary) also happens to be a young rising star, while the nearly 40-year-old Starbuck is in physical decline. Enter the top card drama.
Yet what could have easily turned into WWE-style predictability becomes fascinating in its avoidance of cliché. Indeed, Starbuck, despite his conservative religious upbringing (and questionable views toward women’s subservience) seems to respect the very talented Jessica as a peer. The obvious “Starbuck is a homophobe outside the ring” storyline is tossed aside in favor of a more realistic, nuanced study that focuses almost solely on the aging wrestler – who values unconditional freedom and unconditional love, as he announces from the start – and his fight against time and himself.
In addition, Pastila’s doc is a brilliant example of sharp filmmaking fluidly matching its subject matter – as wrestling is neither real nor fake, but occupies the scripted reality space in between. Though I wish the filmmakers would have pushed the hybrid doc element even more, scenes like that grocery aisle grudge match, the comic book drawings and animation sprinkled in – even Jessica’s genderqueer identity – at least give visual acknowledgment to that thin grey line that runs through documentary truth.
An eloquent cinematic portrait of one young, female, Afghan journalist’s life told through another female (Finnish) journalist’s eyes, Kirsi Mattilah’s Marzia, My Friend takes the form of a heartfelt letter, its narration framed as correspondence (oftentimes literal in email exchanges typed out onscreen) to a long-distance mentoree. Eschewing any semblance of objectivity right from its title, Mattilah simply recounts Marzia’s tale as she’s witnessed it back to her (i.e., “you” did this or told me that). Juxtaposing these words with images filmed over three years (from 2011 to 2014 – when international forces were due to pull out of the country) Marzia’s daily life as a western-leaning, working woman in dangerously conservative Kabul is refreshingly documented with neither hyperbole nor condescension.
Yet what makes this doc stand out lies less with the subject in front of the lens than with the open nonjudgmental filmmaker behind it. Similar in spirit to Victoria Campbell’s recent foreigner-in-Haiti doc Monsieur le Président, Marzia, My Friend is helmed by a well-meaning westerner actually trying to learn the story as she films it, rather than to simply tell a (first world POV) tale. The film is rare in its searching (which keeps us guessing as well) to understand another culture through that culture’s eyes. Though Marzia makes a mental journey that takes her from wanting to be like Hillary Clinton to just wanting to live a lovely life, Mattilah is sensitive enough to show that what we westerners might view as “small” goals are actually major victories in an endlessly war torn world.
Finally, any documentary that can make a jaded film critic cringe at her own riveted response deserves to be written about. And Diving into the Unknown is that uncomfortable doc. The film follows four Finnish deep-sea cave explorers, both above water (in straightforward talking head interviews) and to its dangerous depths below as they undertake a heart-pounding mission: to retrieve the bodies of two friends who’d died during a dive to an underwater cave in Norway before production began (though footage from that fatal day survived and was subsequently used in the film).
With its emotional pull, unauthorized “secret mission” (the original retrieval process was called off by the Norwegian and British authorities after being deemed too risky) and eye-catching underwater footage, Diving into the Unknown plays like the quintessential, Hollywood suspense drama. And yet, as the filmmakers and divers join forces to document the entire delicate operation, the film’s greatest (dubious) thrill lies in the potential of the story ultimately turning into a decaying-corpse horror and/or deep-sea snuff flick. And therein lies the queasy rub. Then again, with the rise of extreme sports and GoPro cameras, Diving into the Unknown may just be part of a new “extreme cinema vérité” wave to come.