Le Havre

Next Screening
Movies in the Mountains

January 18
2 pm

Immigration &
Human Decency

Aki Kourismaki

The absence of spoken language in the silent film era extended the reach of movie-making industries. Even smaller, less populous countries could sell their films beyond their borders. Studios and film distributors merely had to change the language of printed film titles and inter-titles to suit audiences in other countries where copies of a film were exhibited.

Of course that changed when sound was added to movies in the late 1920s. Major studios, such as those in the USA, dubbed their movies into Spanish, French and German (but not Czech, Portuguese or Swahili) because more populous European countries and their colonies had large film rental markets that Hollywood wanted to reach.

During the international Great Depression, overseas markets were especially important to the financial stability of the every Movie industry. Indeed, Hollywood stars such as Chaplin, Garbo and Laurel & Hardy were so popular worldwide that the income from foreign rentals of their films equaled and sometimes surpassed their films’ box office receipts in the USA.

Hollywood’s early film industry was guided and managed by people who were European immigrants or were the children of immigrants. Many who entered and ran the American film studios and distribution networks had maintained their family and business contacts throughout Europe. They established film offices and even established satellite studios in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Italy.

After the 1930s Great Depression, and insulated from overseas WWII attacks by two giant oceans, the American sound film industry became the largest in the world while Europe struggled for four decades as world wars and colonial revolts destroyed imperial-era supply lines, industries and infrastructure.

Flash forward to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Today, Hollywood’s film industry is the most profitable in the world, but no longer the most prolific. Population growth, increased investment and wealth (at the top) have elevated other movie industries. India holds the top spot in current yearly film production (2000 films), followed by Nigeria (1500), China (900/Hong Kong 55) and USA (800).

England, the USA, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Russia—and Finland—early on boldly engaged in filmmaking with varying results. The Finnish level of cinematic artistry was, on average, as high as most nation’s, but against the Finns were wartime destruction; slow economic recovery; limited shared language; available investment; government support or hostility; trade relations; the existence or development of related industries (manufacture of raw film stock, filming and projection equipment; chemical film processing); small distribution networks; theatres able to convert to film exhibition.

As filmmaking developed into a very profitable enterprise, it became less individual, more corporate and compartmentalized. Many national film industries withered, particularly during and after wars. Some recovered (like Japan, Russia, Italy and France) Others (like India, Spain and Finland) slowly revived more slowly yet stayed in the game.

Finland had entered the film industry early in the twentieth Century but prior to true independence, Finland had to negotiate economically and politically with two powerful next-door neighbors. Repeatedly, Sweden and Russia treated Finland as a vassal state. Those compromised relationships persisted through Swedish rule, Tzarist Russian rule, a Finnish revolution, a Russian revolution, takeover by Soviet Russia during WWI, and, during WWII, again by the USSR and then the Nazis.

Finland’s sovereignty, finance and trade were not truly stable until she met the requirements to join the European Union in 1995. Today it is a fully and free democracy, and it produces about 40 feature films yearly.

Because writer-director Aki Kourismaki is Finnish and, with few exceptions, makes his films in Finland with talented Finnish actors and technicians, you may not recall ever reading his name in print or watching one of his films. Yet by any measure of critical regard Aki is accepted as one of the finer filmmakers in the world. Aki (b: 1957) and his brother Mika (b: 1955) have been making films since the early 1980s. Together and individually, Aki and Mika have made 20% of all post WWII Finnish movies

Mika and Aki worked as a team when they began making movies and shared writing, directing and acting duties on each other’s films. Together the brothers established Villealfa Films a shoestring affair that grew into a powerhouse studio.

In the early 1990s, Mika remained active in the film business after he moved to Brazil. Aki keeps his own studio in Finland (but winters in Portugal). Usually Aki has written, produced, directed and edited each of his films, but he also relied upon a carefully chosen and skilled crew to help realize his vision. Not all Aki’s film are masterpieces: yet many elements are constant. His characters are ‘ordinary folks’, who may do foolish things but sometime rise to an occasion when their help is needed.

Le Havre offers a vision of a community’s capacity for kindness and resilience despite his telling an interviewer that “I never had very high hopes of humanity. I had hope 20 years ago, but not now. Greed will kill us“Some countries don’t take anyone. It is the biggest shame in Europe right now.” Brexit, he thinks, will only exacerbate the problem. “Europe going to pieces again is not a good idea, especially because of the extreme right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary. The Brexit propaganda worked very well and then the propaganda guys vanished like a fart in the Sahara.” He gives a grim smile. “Old Finnish saying.” “Some countries don’t take anyone. It is the biggest shame in Europe right now.” Brexit, he thinks, will only exacerbate the problem. “Europe going to pieces again is not a good idea, especially because of the extreme right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary. The Brexit propaganda worked very well and then the propaganda guys vanished like a fart in the Sahara.” He gives a grim smile. “Old Finnish saying.” “Some countries don’t take anyone. It is the biggest shame in Europe right now.” Brexit, he thinks, will only exacerbate the problem. “Europe going to pieces again is not a good idea, especially because of the extreme right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary. The Brexit propaganda worked very well and then the propaganda guys vanished like a fart in the Sahara.” He gives a grim smile. “Old Finnish saying.” “Some countries don’t take anyone. It is the biggest shame in Europe right now.” Brexit, he thinks, will only exacerbate the problem. “Europe going to pieces again is not a good idea, especially because of the extreme right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary. The Brexit propaganda worked very well and then the propaganda guys vanished like a fart in the Sahara.” He gives a grim smile. “Old Finnish saying.” “Some countries don’t take anyone. It is the biggest shame in Europe right now.” Brexit, he thinks, will only exacerbate the problem. “Europe going to pieces again is not a good idea, especially because of the extreme right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary. The Brexit propaganda worked very well and then the propaganda guys vanished like a fart in the Sahara.” He gives a grim smile. “Old Finnish saying.” “Some countries don’t take anyone. It is the biggest shame in Europe right now.” Brexit, he thinks, will only exacerbate the problem. “Europe going to pieces again is not a good idea, especially because of the extreme right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary. The Brexit propaganda worked very well, and then the propaganda guys vanished like a fart in the Sahara.” He gives a grim smile and adds, “Old Finnish saying.” “Some countries don’t take anyone. It is the biggest shame in Europe right now.” Brexit, he thinks, will only exacerbate the problem. “Europe going to pieces again is not a good idea, especially because of the extreme right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary. Because it all goes back to money. And maybe that’s okay. Yet he ploughs on, with his stirring Finnish mix of optimism and pessimism, humor and melancholia. What else can he do? “Cinema can’t change much,” he says. “But it can certainly reach some people and change some opinions. You can only hope.” And Le Havre offers hope in a vision of a community’s capacity for resilience and for kindness towrd a refugee. His plea for refugees is repeated in his latest film: The Other Side of Hope (2017).

His film-making technique may seem simple and direct, but it is never careless. The camera may stay in place for an entire scene, the dialogue be minimal and plainly delivered amid modest settings, but his films do not feel slack in pace or boring. Instead, they are experiences that feel familiar and real.

Among his more honored films are Ariel (1988), Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), Match Factory Girl (1990), Drifting Clouds (1996), The Man without a Past (2002), Le Havre (2011), and The Other Side of Hope (2017), which, according to Kaurismaki. may turn out to be Aki’s final film. He actively hates CG and digital filmmaking.

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