It’s Doc(umenatary)Fest(ival) time in Sheffield again! My relationship with the festival has been patchy over the years, not through any acrimony but purely through my continued ability to be out of town when it’s on. But not this year! Having harangued my way to a pass I shall attempt some madcap, whistlestop overviews of the films I do manage to catch.
This will be pretty roughshod stuff, an experiment in the regurgitated opinions that festival coverage demands. The mainstream press were forced to sit through Inglourious Basterds at 08:00 in the morning in Cannes, and most only given until lunchtime to send their copy back. In circumstances such as those it’s not too surprising that Tarantino’s brash revisioning of World War 2 failed to win the old duffers over. But what happens when you apply the same ‘fresh-out-of-the-screening’ logic to a lovingly nutured independent documentary film? There’s only one way to find out:
The Living Room of the Nation
Anything that claims to be ‘of the nation’ is bound to be setting itself up for a fall, swiped away by the broad brush strokes that any such overview might entail. Yet ‘Living Room of the Nation’ manages a wonderous thing in taking any preconceived notions of ‘Finnishness’ that the viewer may carry with them into the film, and then merrily skimming along said cliché with glad abandon.
Following six individuals over an unclear timeframe, the camera work sets up an extremely simple perspective: widescreen, with the frame generally covering the length of the room. Taking the very definition of fly-on-the-wall and going with it lends the film an uncanny observational tone. The Finns in focus just sit around speaking their brains when on their own, or interacting with friends and family on a level of borderline absurdity that would put Beckett, Pinter and Roy Anderson to shame. The breaking of big news seems to frequently come as a minor distraction to the hockey that seems to be permanently playing on the tv in the corner of the room/frame.
The hero/lynch-pin of the film is the expectant father Tarko, who is in permanent conflict with his emotions and his responsibilities. Scaling the whole range of emotions in one man’s life, we see him cavorting with his best buddy at the news that he to become a father, but also bearing his soul to his infant son about his worries about his crumbling relationship to the mother. Inbetween come agonisingly stifled conversations with the grandfather to be, as well as numerous slapstick interludes as Tarko bumbles about in life in a way that feels all too familiar.
The moments of profound reflection from other characters, sitting in the dark, looking out of their living rooms, might feel a touch contrived to those unfamiliar with Finns beyond the stereotypes. For those who have ever had the pleasure of raising a glass with a Finn, these instances of seemingly bottomless insight will feel more than a familiar.
Intimacy is a difficult thing to capture on camera, but the short doc Bob does an amazing job of making you feel like you’re practically in Bob’s armpit. Partly because for a sizeable section of the film, you are literally in Bob’s armpit.
Bob is a 90 year old communist who also happens to be nudist. We follow him as he goes through his morning routine; extensive stretching, making an elaborate fruit breakfast, and a basic scrub-up before he goes out to tend to his small garden. All completely stark naked, of course.
The nudism becomes a point in and of itself, the sharp, narrow focus camera floating over the strange curves, sags, moles and lumps you would expect to find on a 90 year old man. It’s not just a map of the life he has lived, nor is it just a motif of mortality or human fallability. It’s a strange anchor, an underscoring of quite how happy Bob is with the life he has led.
So take it from Bob: stretch, eat your five a day, don’t worry, be (politically) active), live a long life.